Swing Guitar

Dedicated to pre-bebop jazz guitar.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Where have I been?

So, sorry for the lack of new posts. My computer ate it about 2 weeks ago, and I just started law school today. I'll get some more stuf up asap. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Classic Three Note Voicings

In my last post about variations on "All of Me", I used a series of classic 3-note rhythm guitar voicings. The voicings, using only 3 notes and mostly on the G, D, and low E strings, are the basic vocabulary for Swing rhythm guitar. While there is no "rule" against 4-note voicings or other variations, understand that these chords make up most Swing rhythm guitar for very practical reasons which we'll talk about now.
  1. More notes would be redundant - With up to 13 horns in a big band, chances are that every note in a given chord is being covered somewhere. Of course, some of the notes will be doubled, but unnecessary doubled notes coming from the rhythm guitar will sound muddy and obscure the rhythmic punch and zing of your four beat pulse.
  2. The Narrow "Window" - Again, with so many other musicians, there is a limited space in the frequency range for the rhythm guitar to poke through. There is small hole above the bass, but below the right hand of the piano, and this is exactly where those classic three note voicings come in handy. These voicings fit perfectly in that narrow range.
  3. They are easy to finger - This especially true when you get up-tempo. Unlike a modern jazz setting where you can comp sporadically, swing rhythm guitar requires you to play quarter notes the whole time. Since you have to play every beat, why use complex, hard to finger chords?
  4. You don't have to play as loud - It might seem unrealistic for a rhythm guitar to be heard amongst so many other instruments. But, if you stay within that frequency band I mentioned above, you don't have competition from other instruments in that range. Since you're not competing directly in that range, you can get by without having to play as loud. If you were to play higher, you'd be competing with the right hand of the piano - and you'd have to play over the piano to be heard. Lesson: Don't work so hard!
  5. Lower Interval Clashes - Although a close cluster like E, G, B, C (Cmaj7) might sound good on the top strings of a guitar, or in the right hand of the piano. But small, dissonant intervals do not sound good in the lower registers. This is why the classic voicings are voiced on the low E, D and G strings. The space large space between the note on the low E and the D strings helps avoid the muddiness of the low register.
These are the reasons why the classic three note voicings work so well, and are therefore so prevalent. But of course, rules were meant to be broken, or at least bent. There are sometimes when the 3 note voicing is not practical, or just doesn't sound right. Here are some examples of bending the rules.
  • Notes on the A string instead of the low E string: Take the example of the Am6->D7 change in "All of Me". The normal voicing for both chords would be A, F#, C on the E, D and G strings - yes, the same voicing with no change for both chords. Realize that the bass player has got the root covered, so the change will be heard. But, to me, it sounds so weird to hear the guitar not change - at least when I'm the one playing it. So, I often play a root on the A string instead.
  • Awkward fingerings higher up the neck: Often times a Dm6 or Em6 chord at the 10th or 12th fret is a little awkward to finger on an acoustic. I'll often substitute the same chord (D, B, F) on the A, G, and B strings. Since it's the same exact notes as the lower string voicing, I don't worry about the range issue. Honestly, any of the minor chords between Dm and F#m are easiest to play with this voicing, and I'll rarely go out of my way to play the standard voicing.
Hope this helps to make some sense of the traditional 3-note rhythm guitar voicings.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Expanding Basic Chords - All of Me example

In my previous article about swing-era harmony, I demonstrated the ways to simplify the chords to the song "All of Me". But remember that simple doesn't have to be boring.

So today we're going to cover a technique I learned from Charleton Johnston's rhythm guitar book, something he calls "expansion." Here's the thing - although the song may have simple chords, we need not simply chunk a root-position chord for 2 bars at a time. Using inversions, basic substitutions, and some passing chords you can fill out the song. What's important about each of these techniques is that they do not change the fundamental harmony of the tune.

Again we'll use the tune "All of Me"

1. The Basic Rhythm Chords - Click here for a pdf.
Here the chords are chunked each for 2 bars, very simple. Bear in mind there is nothing wrong about these - and at fast tempos this may be challenge enough. But chunking the same chord for two whole bars can be a bit plain.

2. Exapanded Rhythm Chords - Click here for a pdf.
Okay - there's a lot of stuff going on here. We'll take it in two measure chunks:
Measure 1, 2 - Starting with a C6 is pretty standard. To create some motion, jump up to a C/E chord (E, C, G), and then back down.
Measure 3, 4 - Here's a standard E7/B voicing (which also works as a Bdim chord). Jumping up to Ddim (D, B, F), back to Bdim (B, G#, D), and then to G#dim (G#, F, B). Since Bdim, Ddim, Fdim, and G#dim are all the same chord and are interchangeable, we can jump from one to the other.
Measure 5, 6 - This A7 walk-up is a classic rhythm guitar trick that I learned from John Reynolds at my first Swing guitar lesson. Starting with the A7, walking up to A/C#, using diminished passing chords. A7, Bdim, Cdim, C#dim (which is A/C# with the Bb replacing the A on the D string). That C#dim leads right into the Dm in the next measure.
Measure 7, 8, 9, 10 - Here this is just a Dm6 that walks down to the E7. The other alteration is the E7 to Bb78 move is a classic tritone substitution (E, G#, B, D vs. Bb, D, F, Ab(G#)).
Measure 11, 12 - Here is an Am6 with a jump up and back to Am/C (notice it's the same voicing as C6).
Measure 13, 14 - When moving from Am6 to D7 (which would often be the exact same voicing), you can't really hear a difference, so I've added a little bit of bas movement just to clearly hear the change from measure 12 into 13. Using that kind of root-fifth bass motion is standard for the era.
Measure 15, 16 - Here's a Dm7->G7 change with an added tritone sub (Ab7 into G7). Also, here is the same walk up trick from measures 5 and 6, this time with one chord per beat. Again, this is a classic trick.

And that was just the first half of the song! Each of these tricks - Diminished passing chords, the 7th chord walkup, the tritone subs, the inversion movements - are all standard rhythm guitar tricks and moreover, are classic orchestration techniques used in swing era arrangements. In fact, you'll see them all of time written out on rhythm guitar parts on old stocks.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Recommended Books

Here are a few books I can personally recommend for learning to play swing guitar:

Swing Guitar Essentials - Published by Acoustic Guitar magazine, this book is a series of articles on various styles and subjects of traditional swing guitar playing, from Eddie Lang to Django to Freddie Green. The beginning section on how to solo are very basic - in a good way, and progesses all the way to a full length Django Reinhardt transcription. A good resource that you can come back to as you progress.

Swing and Big Band Rhythm Guitar - Written by Charleton Johnston (who took over Freddie Green's chair in the Basie band), this book is a must-have for learning to play swing rhythm guitar. Be advised, however, that it is written from a distinctly modern perspective, and many of the examples feature more modern harmony (see my explanation here). Oh, and the play-a-long CD is absolutely dreadful modern crap - not even close to Swing. Those flaw aside, it is the resource for learning to play rhythm guitar - it has the best lay out for learning the basic voicings and learning their inversions.

The "Straight Ahead" Problem

When given a jazz standard, 99% of professional jazz musicians will automatically play the song in a "Straight Ahead" style. If you're not familiar with the term "straight-ahead", it basically refers to the general style of jazz in the post-bebop era upto, but not including, fusion. When you listen to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, or almost any other major jazz figure of the last 50 years, outside of fusion and smooth jazz. Although the artists mentioned are varied in style, they all fit into the "straight-ahead" umbrella - laid back, swung eighths feel, walking bass, ride cymbal led drums, sporatic comped piano. Each of these stylistic hallmarks are modern developments from the bebop era.

So, what does that have to do with Swing?

Well, when playing swing simply playing old songs does not make Swing music.
Consider that swing (and much other traditional, pre-bop jazz) is very much dance music. Accordingly, the beat is central to Swing, and playing the proper Swing feel is crucial.

Listen to these two excerpts:
Benny Goodman Sextet (w/Charlie Christian) 1941 - A Smo-o-oth One - mp3
Herb Ellis (w/Freddie Green) 1955 - A Smooth One - mp3
(The second one has been slowed slightly so the tempos are the same ~130bpm)

Notice how Herb Ellis' phrasing is much more laid-back, and behind the beat. The feel is almost like a shuffle, rather than 4-beat swing. The Goodman version is very much on the beat. Although both versions are slow (~130bpm), hear how the Goodman version pushes evenly, not lagging or laying back. Benny Goodman and company are playing Swing. Herb Ellis is not. Herb and company are playing Straight-Ahead Jazz.

99% of today's professionaljazz musicians would consider the 2nd version as the "correct" way to play the song "A Smo-o-oth One". Those same musicians would consider the first version "corny" or "hackneyed" or "lame". Most Swing bands are full of those 99% is spoke of, and consequently, most Swing bands don't play Swing music.

The first step in overcoming the problem is identifying it. Learn to recognize when other musicians are playing in the swing style and when they are not. If you can understand what not to do, it helps to figure out what to do.