A “Shortcut” to being to be a better player. (Just Jazz Guitar)
I like to talk about something that very few students that I’ve had over my many years of teaching seem to totally grasp. I know that they are eager to learn and practice for hours on end. It’s not just the time of practice, but the focus that will in fact bring a student to their greatest rewards. Seldom does a student think of the tune that they are playing. They will make a righteous effort to learn the changes and in many cases, learn all the ‘altered” changes as well. This is admirable but not always necessary. A tune is a tune! No more, no less. You may like its harmonic structure as in “Stella by Starlight” where so many want to play this beautiful Victor Young, Ned Washington classic. Possibly one may like its altered melodies as the very first note of the tune begins with an “A” with an E half diminished chord. There is no “A” in an E half diminished. So the tune has a built in alteration. All well and good. This particular song has many of that going for it. I’ve had students that can play every single scale invented, and then some! Quite a feat. Not only do many know how to play them but they can give robust and wondrous names. The unfortunate part of this is when it comes to playing a melody with feeling and the “right” changes in a tempo, they seem to get bewildered. Another tune that all students want to play is “All the Things you are”. Another classic standard by Kern and Hammerstein. Written in 1939, it’s a milestone in popular American music. Its structure is very conventional until the ending which has a 4 bar extension. It’s an A A B A tune with the first A repeating in a different key. 8 bars of A and 8 bars of A up a 5th tone. The B section is also 8 bars as most “Tin Pan Alley “songs were. The B section has 4 bars repeated also in a different key. It goes down to a minor third. How is it that students who have never analyzed any of this know it’s a great song? Many have an innate sense of what is great and timeless. I know this to be sure. The issues I have are that they were never taught the simplest forms that make up a tune. If a learning student can understand that, they will make incredible strides toward becoming a master musician. Notice I didn’t say guitarist. To be a master guitarist, you have to be an accomplished musician. What are the forms of a tune? It’s rather easy. Most of the Great American Songbook is made up of simple A A B A structures. The harmony is essentially a 18.104.22.168. This is not hard to learn. Any good teacher or musician will explain this. How many times have you heard someone mention a 2.5.1.cadence? There may be two hundred books on what patterns to play on a 2.5.1. Personally I don’t see the reason to try to remember all these patterns. There are too many. One very necessary thing I think, and this is from the years I have been teaching, and it is so simple that people may find it amusing. Sing the song! Learn the lyrics so you can phrase the song in a way that it was written. Playing the song in tempo stressing the melody. Sing it as you play it. Change keys for fun. Find out how easy and difficult all at the same time the guitar can be. These songs were written with the music and the lyrics as one. One cannot live without the other. The truth is most of the American Songbook was written with the music first. There have been many examples of the opposite but that shouldn’t concern a learning student. Here’s my challenge to the student who wants to improve and is stuck on some Lydian # 4 scale. Forget about that for the time being. Learn a tune and play it with feeling, the correct chords, (That’s an ongoing process), in tempo and several keys. You’ll find that different keys produce different problems on our instrument. Sing the lyrics and find some recordings of say, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and so on.
Let me go back to what I said about the “altered” changes not being necessary to remember. If a tune has an Eb on a G7 chord, it’s of course, a G7 #5. This happens in “Stella by Starlight”. It’s not necessary to remember that it’s a #5. It’s built in to the tune. How long will it take to say,”I’m going to play a G7#5 scale here”. How will you possibly know it will fit the rhythm of the song or the rhythm of the rhythm section? You must be in the moment and the moment is the structure of the tune whether it’s “Stella by Starlight” or “Mary had a little lamb”. So what does one play on G7#5? No one can tell you that. You must find out for yourself. It’s a glorious endeavor to play “you” and not someone else’s idea of what you should play.
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Article "Shortcut to Being a Better Player"