Bird Eye View on Jazz Guitar

Guitar as a Jazz instrument

In the history of popular music, an Electric Guitar is an instrument that is still very much in infancy comparing to piano or brass and horn instruments. During Jazz’s early days, banjo was much more popular not only because it’s more easily obtainable but its sound was loud enough to cut through the brass section of an early New Orleans Jazz bands. So that’s one of the reasons why we don’t find a guitar playing with a marching band in New Orleans.

Only at the beginning of the swing era craze in the 1930s, the guitar expands its endeavor to popularity as a part of the main rhythm section. Used primarily to thicken up the sound of a rhythm section on orchestras and Jazz big band, its main function was a comping instrument that commonly accentuates the quarter notes along with the double bass’ walking bass line. Hence we came upon the boom-chick rhythm term. That’s when you get a bass player to play notes (“boom”) on beats 1 and 3 and (“chick”) is the sound of the rhythm guitarist emphasizing on beats 2 and 4.

When Swing era reaches its pinnacle in the 30’s, bigger venues were needed to accommodate those lindy hoppers and teenyboppers. So when the band format got larger, the guitarist needs extra volume to match the rest of the band. An electric guitar with amplification is an indispensable solution. When Les Paul created the first electric guitar in 1931 that appears literally like a frying pan, the world wasn’t ready for a soloing guitarist. But the next advancement which came in science of amplification and microphones came to change the function of an electric guitar forever. That is the guitar players can do single note improvisation in a jazz band, just like a horn instruments would do without worrying if the sound will be drowned out by other instruments.

Guitarist Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson had contributed immensely during the electric guitar’s transformation from a rhythm section instruments into a soloing instrument. But a young man called Charlie Christian who was the foremost essential figure in the history of Jazz guitar. His style was indistinguishable since the maestro would include a flowing legato notes in his improvisation just like a sax or a trumpet player would play1. And from cutting edge guitarists like Christians, Grant Green, Danny Barker and Django Reinhardt who incorporate language dictionary of Bebop improvisation, the guitar began to be seen as a Jazz instrument. Until finally their contemporaries Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrel had laid the groundwork of what we know now as a Jazz Guitar Style2.

Accompaniment in Jazz Guitar

In popular music such as Pop and Rock, guitarists tend to play in a more rhythmical fashion and play sharp riffs that strongly characterize a song, especially in rock music. Occasionally guitar playing were divided into two roles. One rhythm guitarist plays the song’s harmonic progressions and a lead guitarist who play all the riffs and solos. But these two roles do not apply in a Jazz Guitar style.

In the early days of electric guitar, Jazz guitarists like Danny Barker or Freddie Green from Count Basie band frequently plays a constant quarter notes strumming. Creating a drive for the horn and brass section. This is a solid team work with the other rhythm section member especially bass player and the drummer to create an intense and tight swinging rhythm.

In modern Jazz guitar style, chords are being played more sparsely and at times resemble a horn section of a Big band. Chord voicing or inversions are frequently more complex, since it should be able to accommodate more complex melodic structure in modern Jazz tunes. On top of that, to properly accompany a soloist on a Jazz tune require some hearing expertise. Because in order to compliment a solo which “tell a story” we can say that the accompanist improvise along with him.

Melody and improvisation essentials

When playing a melody in a jazz guitar style, guitarist often adopts a legato style of playing with natural breathing like horn players. Horn players need to take a short breath between musical phrases, and these pauses are identically with human singing traits. This singing quality is typical on traditional Jazz phrases. Needless to say, guitarists also must be able to play various rhythmic group variations and appropriate dynamics.

Facilities and tools use in Jazz guitar improvisation like passing notes, guide tones of chord progressions and various scales, and their relation with harmonic structures are crucial. Some Jazz guitarists would take pride in making chord solos, which done by adding melody on top note of a chord voicing3.

So to improvise you need to be able to integrate the basic building blocks of harmonic structures, understanding and the outmost important, is to hear their relations with the song melody and forms, so that you can create some new melodic ideas based on what you hear and intuitively choose which notes to play. Then you fit those into a well balanced contour, both melodically and rhythmically musical phrases, while keeping the tempo and swinging with the band. Oh, and do not forget the other important rule in playing together which is listening to your band mates doing those things too.

Sounds difficult? Well then the bad news is that there are no shortcuts in learning improvisation. In the world, very few people perhaps only less than 5% of jazz musicians that able to improvise well on bebop and modern jazz harmonies with an elaborate harmonic structure, without sufficient knowledge of music theories. But the good news is that most of us are the 95% remaining. Which may include your jazz guitar idol that spend thousands of hours of practice, to finally able to play on a professional level.

In short, Jazz improvisation is almost like talking to somebody. To communicate with someone you need to be able to express your thoughts (song) at a person (the listener). For one can understand (enjoy), you must express your words clearly (articulation and phrases), with the right tone of your voice (tempo and dynamics). Not too slow, too loud or too fast and stay within the context of your subject. You need to be able to choose your words properly (proper selections of notes) and know exactly what you are talking about (harmony and their connections with the melody). Sentences that are length efficient will sound much better (not playing too many notes that are inaccurate). Complete each of your phrases clearly and don’t forget to listen, so that you can react appropriately.

Playing with the band

Rhythm, melody and solos can be interpreted more freely in Jazz music. Each musician can give some musical ideas and others can react appropriately to those ideas. Both melody and improvisation solo contain musical information, and rhythm sections might usually follow that subject. (Although sometimes can be interesting if we can change a bit the course of the subject). Trust between players is important, because you need to feel comfortable with the groove and the overall mood of the song that you play, to reach your goal which is to communicate your art to your audience4.

Listening to each other is the first rule in playing together with the band. So don’t just listen to your own playing, but for example try to listen and notice how the bass player is building solid harmonic structure in his walking bass to support the melody or solo you are playing. And try to listen what type of inversion the piano player have on his left hand and what kind of musical idea that he might have which could influence you in choosing the next phrase. Also pay attention to your drummer. He might play some inspiring rhythmical ideas. Listening is also a way to identify musical problems so you can quickly find a solution to them.

If you are not aware of these things around you when playing jazz, you will miss important moments in the music. There are maybe four to five people in a jazz ensemble so ideas are already there for you to grab. It is often better to play music that is actually “there” than the music that’s somewhat fixated “in your head”. And leave your ego at home because ensemble playing is a collective activity, when musicians with various instruments have merged into a single unit of what we call music.


A few tips on playing a jazz combo performance:

Ensure that,

  1. You can hear yourself clearly.

Clear doesn’t mean loud.

  1. You can hear every band members in your band clearly, and vice versa.

Note the position and the volume of your band mates. On a big stage, if only necessary, slightly adjust your monitor speakers (never adjust your monitors to loud because it will cause discomfort and feedback, especially if you play on a hollow body guitar).

  1. Ensure that the overall sound is well balanced.

Adjust the volume balance and instrument’s equalizer to blend the overall sound. (It is often a task of a sound engineer but you should have some concern for this).

  1. You are in a place where all band members can see you.

It is important to be able to communicate and have eye contacts within the band while playing. Consider the position where you will be playing, and search for an ideal position where your ears can hear the overall sound adequately.(DJ)


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