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“Wanna play some tunes?” “Sure, what do you wanna play?” “Uh, I don’t know, what tunes do you know?” “Oh, I don’t know, I know a lot of tunes, really. What do you like to play?” “Well, do you know Stella?” “Uh, let’s see… (noodle noodle)…Um, how ‘bout a blues? Do you know any blues heads?” And on and on it goes.
It turns out that knowing a song and being able to play it are two entirely different things. As a jazz guitarist, it’s important to know the following four aspects of a song: 1.) Melody (playing “the head”); 2.) Chords (comping); 3.) Melody and Chords Together (playing a chord-melody solo); and 4.) Improvising (taking a solo over the chord changes or harmony of the tune).
These four aspects of a tune are all related and helpful to each other. While not all tunes will fall neatly on the neck as a chord-melody solo, learning to express at least some of the chord quality behind a melody will give you the best understanding of the song. The more fully you understand a song, the better you will be able to improvise on it. The better you have the melody down, the better you can interpret it freely and refer to it in a solo. The better you know the chord progression, the more confident you can be while soloing and playing a chord-melody solo.
Write it down
There’s nothing like seeing something in writing to make it seem so much more official. To illuminate exactly which songs you “know” and enjoy playing in different ways and in different ensemble contexts, let’s get a few lists going. It might start with one song in one category, or you might find that you have several songs already at your disposal, but the important thing is to begin. I recommend one piece of paper with three column headings across the top: HEADS, CHORDS, CHORD SOLOS.
Take an honest inventory of your playing. We’re talking about memorized melodies and chords here. Songs you can play if you have a chart in front of you can go on a separate list—that’s worthy, too, but not quite in your repertoire. It will be a good feeling to discover that you actually can play the head to “Stella,” for example, and you just didn’t realize it. You might surprise yourself to know that in fact you do have the chords to “Donna Lee” memorized quite easily, you just need to work on the melody some more. Write it all down in the proper place. Watch your list grow.
Go through fake books and try playing songs you’ve heard for many years, but you’re just not sure if you know the changes. Try not to look unless you really get stuck. Then try it again. Write it down. Just learned a new song last night on the bandstand by someone calling out the chords to you? You’ll probably never forget it. Write it down in your comping category. So you worked out a comfortable fingering for the head to “Billie’s Bounce?” Write it down. Then go over it a few times every day to be sure. (That’s likely one you can add to the chord category, as well, if you know the modified 12-bar blues form).
It seems that if we learn a song without having read it from a written part, we will never need a chart for it. If, however, you have always used a chart for a song that you’ve played again and again, you’ll need to wean yourself from it. Try going chart-free during a practice session. More often than not, you’ll impress yourself by knowing at least one part of the song: the chord changes or the melody. You’ll be able to visualize the phrases and the form as you play. You’ll gain freedom and a deeper understanding of the tune by playing it intuitively rather than relying on exactly what’s on the page.
I used to watch and listen to jazz guitarists play tunes all by themselves as if they had just decided to pick up the guitar that moment and see how it goes. I couldn’t imagine how those gorgeous voicings and reharmonization ideas were just flowing out so effortlessly. Then, dawn broke. There, as if written on the sky, I saw so clearly what had been going on: they had practiced! Be creative and reach for the unexpected harmony when making choices in a chord-melody solo. Take your time and craft it and let it build in a way that you like. Listeners will appreciate that, too, when the time comes to perform the piece.
Make notes to yourself as much as you need to. Many players and arrangers for solo guitar performance write out their chord-melody arrangements in notation for other players to use and perform. Again, the power of visual representation is considerable. Write your ideas down for future reference, either your own or someone else’s. Then play it, play it, play it. Add it to your chord solo list. The longer that part of the list gets, the more comfortable you will be at playing solo gigs, duo gigs and even trio gigs. Whatever role you are called upon to play as a guitarist, you will be prepared. It will say so right there on your list.
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.