• Understand the basics of the
New Orleans piano tradition.
• Develop bass lines using the
• Create phrases inspired by both
the left- and right-hand techniques
of Professor Longhair.
Click here to download the audio files for this lesson.
As a guitar player, I’m always interested
in finding ways to apply techniques
to my instrument that come from places
other than the guitar. Anyone who gets into
playing jazz listens to—and hopefully transcribes—
the solos of great horn players like
Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Louis
Armstrong. And sometimes guitarists will
learn the right-hand lines of great pianists
like Bud Powell or Wynton Kelly.
This is all great stuff. Learning to play
single lines is a useful skill, and lots of fun
too. But equally as fun is trying to assimilate
piano techniques that emulate the left
hand as well as the right. In my previous
Premier Guitar lesson [“Exploring Stride
Guitar,” May 2011], I talked about the
stride piano tradition and how to apply
that sound to the guitar. This time I want
to stay with the piano, but turn our focus
to the great players from New Orleans, particularly
In performing situations where there
isn’t a piano player, especially in duos with
singers or horn players, it’s fun to pull out
a technique like this to spice things up and
escape the tried-and-true methods of being
an accompanist or solo guitarist. But even if
you’re playing with a bassist, drummer, and
piano player, try out some of this stuff on
the next gig—you might like the results.
Now, back to the Professor. “Fess”, as he
was known, was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana,
in 1918 and became a major influence on
everyone from James Booker to Fats Domino
to Dr. John. He played with a raucous blues
feel that often used a rumba groove for the
bass line, shown in Fig. 1. Often, the bass
would double it for extra kick.
I’ve taken some ideas from Longhair’s
style of playing and put it into a 12-bar
blues in C. This isn’t an exact transcription
of his work, but it does give the flavor of it
by using a reverse-rolling fingerpicking pattern
to get the Big Easy vibe. (Note: While
it’s possible to use sweep picking to execute
these examples, I highly recommend that
you at least try it fingerstyle.) Fig. 2 starts
with the bass line from Fig. 1 and adds
some C7 chord tones, just to get the feel.
To get the proper sound, it’s important to
lay in heavily on the bass line while keeping
the chords lighter. Once you feel comfortable
with that, we can add the fancy breaks.
We’re going to use the same finger pattern
each time, changing the chord that
leads into each section of the blues form.
You can see the three chords in Fig. 3. First
up is a G7#5. This chord will lead us into
the C7—the I chord. The second one is a
C7#9 to take us into the F7 (the IV). And
finally we’ll use a D7%9 to lead us into the
G7 (the V). For a little extra flair, try sliding
into each chord from a fret below.
Now, let’s try and put them all together
in Fig. 4. Once you get the feel for that,
don’t be afraid to throw in some fills.
Maybe something like you see in Fig. 5.
As with any music, just reading it off the
page or hearing some examples is only the
beginning. You have to immerse yourself in
a style, using your ears to get it inside you
the right way. And that, of course, takes
time. But the rewards are many for those
who choose to reap them! The music of
New Orleans is really a world unto itself.
Down there you had the true blending
of cultures, races, foods, styles,
classes, and ideas. The rhythms of the
Caribbean swam on up and met with the
rustic integrity of the blues, with a bit of
Westernized brass band music, ragtime,
and piano classics mixed in for variety.
New Orleans musicians took a piece of
this tradition and molded themselves into
it as best they could. I strongly encourage
you to explore the New Orleans
tradition from Jelly Roll Morton and
Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, to
Professor Longhair and James Booker, on
up to the Meters, Henry Butler, and the
has performed and recorded with Wynton
Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Branford Marsalis,
Bill Frisell, and Charlie Hunter. He has composed
and performed original works for the Lincoln
Center Jazz Orchestra and Chamber Music
America, and created film soundtracks for
acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns. His new
album is due later this year. For more information,