What do you want to sound like? 

It's a good question. Paul Desmond, who I’m quickly figuring out I’m going to quote (or misquote) in this blog a lot, said (half-jokingly) he wanted his saxophone to sound like a dry martini. To use a less metaphorical example, a lot of guitar players say they want to sound like a horn. I've come through a few phases in my life, and right now, I'm really happy with my guitar sounding like a guitar--which isn't to say I'm not learning from other instruments.

There are only a few truly polyphonic instruments out there, of which the most common in jazz have to be the piano and the guitar. So yes, while I’m an advocate of appreciating the guitar for what it is and enjoying playing the guitar like a guitar, I do think we can learn something from our ivory tickling peers.

When it comes to self-accompaniment, let’s face it—pianists have us licked…two hands, the logical layout of the keyboard…we can’t really compete. But we can learn from the idea of piano…and part of that can hopefully help us embrace the guitar’s capabilities a bit more as well.

See, piano players get using both hands very early on in their learning…self -accompaniment becomes natural, expected. No matter how simple, there are six year olds all over the world with a few months of lessons who are gleefully backing themselves up while playing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” or what have you.

Meanwhile, in the little cubicle down the hall, the young guitar players of the world are being introduced to two of my least favorite terms in the world: Lead guitar and Rhythm guitar.

These terms irritate me for a bunch of reasons, the greatest of which is how it seems to “elevate” Lead guitar and “downplay” Rhythm. Dangerous territory—the kind of stuff that leads people to say “I’m just a good rhythm player,” when in fact they aren’t—they’re just somebody who can strum to a beat. That’s adequate at best, a C- in class, if you will.

I’m a bit tired of the designations. You either play the guitar or you don’t. Your role is a shifting one.

But I’m essentially having a semantics argument here, which rarely leads anywhere—but it does get me to my point. When we separate rhythm and lead we view them as different, somewhat unrelated entities, which is a big mistake in my opinion—particularly for jazz players.

Harmony and melody are connected, if not dependent on each other. When we play the guitar, we have the ability to access melody and harmony simultaneously—something few other instruments get to do. We have to embrace that!

Joe Pass said something to the effect of “A guitar player should be able to sit down and play some music, unaccompanied, for an hour.” Easy for Joe Pass to say, who had literally hundreds of songs up his sleeve that he could pull an arrangement out for in seconds that sounded like he spent the whole week working on it. I’m not suggesting all jazz guitar players need to be able to sit down and play unaccompanied solo guitar—but I am suggesting that spending some time with a song as something that could be played “self-contained,” self-accompanied, if you will—can be very beneficial. And you can play tunes for your special someone without ruining the mood with your singing voice.

I imagine this approach can’t work for everyone…I don’t know of many approaches that do. From my experience I can say that nothing taught me more about jazz than when I sat down and started to play through tunes in this manner. And the truth is, while it panned out for me that I liked it enough to be able to play solo gigs—even if you never did that—you could gain a lot from the process.

The process is perhaps the most important part…arranging a shell of a solo arrangement forces you to look at melody and harmony together. Eventually it carries past the arrangement, and into the area of improvisation.

I was asked recently (yesterday) how I view the fretboard. It’s a tough question for me to answer, as it’s not just one thing…I see the notes…but I see the chords too. I see the notes within the chords as having a sort of “color.” Without getting too “out there” and writing about stuff that sits on a more “meta” plane—think of it as this: It’s kind of like one of those goofy “fretlight” guitars. But here, I can see notes as part of the chord, and other notes as colors outside the chord. It’s the connection of those two categories of notes that melody resides in.

But because I can see the other tones as well, I can “see” the harmony as well.

It’s a long process. I’m not completely there yet…there’s times when this inner mechanism breaks down, and I’m left with my old guitarist attitude of melody OVER harmony. But I feel like it’s something worth pursuing, and something worth sharing with other guitar players in the mean time.

There’s some contradiction in writing “embrace the guitar” and “think like a piano” in the same sentence. But the link is important. A lot of guitar players want to sound like a horn…why not sound like a horn and a guitar together?

So if anyone asks me "How do you want to sound," I'm going to start saying I’d like my guitar to sound like Paul and I got together for a couple of martinis. But make mine extra dirty, with a blue cheese stuffed olive.



ken lasaine
03/16/2012 16:58

Ted Greene said, literally, "we all follow piano players".

Telling someone how a guitar player views the fingerboard is tough. I'd say that we all, regardless of ability or style, 'view' it differently in different situations. And as long as we're dispensing with myths here ... ALL GUITARISTS (except the blind ones) VISUALIZE to some extent. It's a VISUAL instrument (as is a piano) set up in a grid. Humans are really good at seeing and interpreting patterns - it's what we do. So having said that, when I look down, at this point, I see notes (C D E etc.) chord shapes, scale shapes, symmetrical shapes sometimes as well as an overall 'key center' shape (also I hear it at this point too - took a long time though). Depending on what I'm doing and/or how harmonically complex what I'm doing is, those shapes overlay in differing orders of importance.

ken lasaine
03/16/2012 22:14

When I was in high school I would carry my Tele to school in the normal rectangular black Fender tolex case. One day a kid looks at me and says, "lead or bass" ;)

03/19/2012 17:58

Nothing else irritates me more in the guitar world than the phrase "lead guitar". Glad to hear someone else say it. :)

AndrewS (Spook410 on Jazzguitar.be)
03/21/2012 20:41

OK. You're the only guitar player I've heard quote Desmond. There is also Mulligan in that world of floating symmetry. There is a fairly rare CD, 'Gandharva' by Beaver and Krause, that you may find interesting. One side has Howard Roberts. It's good. However, the other side was recorded in a cathedral with a huge natural reverb. Early synth, Bud Shank on alto/flute and Gerry Mulligan doing some truly creative things that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand out. Look forward to reading your blog as I learn guitar. Thanks.


Leave a Reply