Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Art of Playing Jazz Guitar - A True Preparation Primer

By: John Belthoff

I'm not going to kid you; playing Jazz Guitar is extremely
difficult at best and almost downright impossible at worst.
However there are things you can do to improve your
improvisation skills and feeling and we'll discuss them
throughout this multi part series so look for additional parts
in the near future.


What can I say about practice? Just do it and do it often! Do it
everyday. When you think you have done enough do it again.

I am not just talking about picking up the guitar and playing a
few songs I am talking about real practicing for the environment
that you will eventually be playing in which is, of course, in
an ensemble with other musicians who we hope will always be
better than you.

Here are the basics...

When practicing always use a metronome!

If I didn't make that part clear perhaps this may help:

If you feel that you don't need a metronome stop reading this
article, stop practicing and go get some ice cream because you
will get the same or even better results and you certainly will
enjoy yourself a whole lot more in the process if you do. If you
are committed read on.

Still with me?

When using your metronome try to feel your timing on different
clicks. For instance for a swing feel have your metronome click
on beats 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3. This will give you an
instant swing feel and also take away that nasty crutch so you
are forced to know where beat 1 really is.

We never, ever, want to rely on our drummer, who may be in the
middle of a complex experimental improvisation just when you
need him/her the most, to tell us where beat 1 is. How many
times have you been in that situation?

Sound simple? It is!

Sound easy? Try it for a month and you let me know how it

Let's delve into this a little. When practicing using this
technique of displacing metronome clicks for beats try these:
practice a 3/4 tune using the metronome clicking once per
measure and only on beat 2. Then switch to only on beats 3. See
how the feeling changes. Practice it, learn it, feel it and then
you can start to own it.

If you want to get fancy place the metronome to click every
fifth beat while you play a tune in 3. This will shift the
accents and feeling from bar to bar and will also allow your
brain to break free from it's learned behavior which is designed
to make you not want to think.

What did you say?

That's right! More times than not the human brain is your
biggest enemy. It always seeks comfort and practicing in the
fashion described above is not at all comfortable for your
brain. In these cases I recommend telling your brain what my son
often likes to say, "To bad..., so sad!"

We as musicians need to experience and comprehend the natural
tendencies of the brain's normal behavior so we can learn to
truly challenge ourselves to open up our minds to the gargantuan
creative possibilities that await us when we do. This doesn't
happen by accident nor does it happen by itself nor will it come
easy. It takes an extreme effort on our parts.

Whether you have your instrument with you or not you can
practice your timing. If you get a small battery operated
metronome, which I recommend, you can bring it with you when you
are driving back and forth to work. Practice the above examples
in your car while singing. Don't worry if you can't sing you are
trying to own these feelings and if you can't articulate these
feelings with your voice you will never truly own them.

I have outlined several examples for displacement of beats. The
idea is simple enough so that you can come up with more
deviations on your own and you should keep changing them when
you practice.

The point here is that true understanding and your eventual
ownership of various beats and feelings associated with them do
not reside strictly inside those beats and feelings. By
looking only inside the beats you are shutting off all
creative thinking that is necessary to truly exploit their full

Real understanding resides outside and you must find out
what that means. To truly find it you must force yourself and be
willing to look everywhere else but the beats themselves. This
simple metronome technique will get you started and point you on
your journey to achieving that goal. Don't limit yourself to
applying this technique only to timing but that statement is for
another part of this series.

Have fun, practice and always play your heart out!

About the author:

John Belthoff is a Professional Audio Engineer and an Avid Web
Developer who plays and also teaches Jazz Guitar in his spare
time. His latest projects include the Internet Production
and he owns a small Asp Hosting Company. You
can contact him at his personal web site Studio JB.

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