• Learn to decode Bach’s masterful melodies.
• Up your improv game.
• Understand the relationship between melody and harmony on a deeper level. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
It’s inevitable. You’re around the family for Thanksgiving and you get that most-annoying question. “Oh! That’s right, you play the guitar. Do you play rhythm or lead?”
Rhythm or lead? That’s a terrible question, Aunt Karen. But it’s okay. It’s not you, it’s us guitar players. We do seem to be either in lead mode or rhythm mode, but ever since Jim Hall showed us the way and bridged the gap between the Freddie Green-inspired compers and Charlie Christian-inspired single-line shredders, we all should be aware that we can solo chordally and comp linearly. At the same time.
“So, Aunt Karen … both.”
Solo with chords and comp with lines? How do we get good at this? Well, I’m glad you asked, Aunt Karen. As a way for students to grasp this concept, jazz guitarist Jim Hall used to make his students play Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas. Not merely imitating a violin as a single-line instrument—I should mention, these pieces still sound great this way, and there are countless shredders who have done so effectively—but arranged as if they were written for jazz guitar in a chord-melody style, where the chord shapes are arpeggiated. Guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield have magnified this aspect of Hall’s legacy. Incidentally, in interviews they’ve said they “stole everything from Jim Hall.”
How do I know which chords to sustain? Should I analyze the chords that Bach intended and play those chords, or do something extra? Choosing which notes to sustain is the question. Grab what you can for musical reasons not merely I-know-the-notes-on-this-part-of-the-neck reasons. Grab what your ears and fingers will allow. If you love the sonic crunch of the 4 and 3 together, do it! If you can grab those four stepwise scale tones together without your hand cramping up, do it. If it sounds beautiful, do it.
The more notes you sustain, the more colorful the chords will be. Jazz chords have a lot of color, so let’s just say this method is called “Jazzing up Bach. Jim Hall style”
This method turns out to be quite challenging on the guitar as there are, as Mick Goodrick calculated, an average of 9.2 different fingerings for every note on the guitar. This is one of the reasons we guitar players are terrible at sight-reading—we have a lot of options. Therefore, gird your loins for a struggle. This stuff is hard, but it’s worth it. You may not see it now, but after you’ve put in the work, you’ll notice a change in your approach to the instrument. It will affect everything. You’ll see more shapes, melodies will have a chordal context, and your chords will have layers of voices. You’ll break out of your boxes. Instead of seeing the guitar as an inferior piano and inferior horn bastardized into one instrument, you’ll experience the guitar as something greater than the sum of those two parts. You’ll love the guitar more.
If you’re down for the struggle, get a copy of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for the Violin, a sharpened No. 2 pencil and several erasers. Be prepared to write in shapes and/or fingerings and be prepared to alter your choices because context may render your initial choices unworkable.
My choices may not be your choices, and that’s the beautiful thing. Jim Hall made his students come up with their own personal arrangements. Just make sure you are making musical choices rather than those from laziness or convenience.
Let’s get started.
Here’s the method:
- Even though you’ll be striking one note at a time, think of those notes as belonging to a chord shape. Arpeggiate those chord shapes instead of merely thinking one note at a time. “Glue” your fingers to the fretboard with those shapes and make those notes ring out as much as you can. This will give your left hand a workout, so be careful not to hurt yourself.
- While you can go for the harmony Bach intended, it’s okay to expand on that. Extended chord voicings sound great, too, and will give it a more modern (jazz?) sound. Grab groups of notes together that sound good to you.
- While open strings sound great, I personally tend to avoid them so that the resulting chord shapes are adaptable to any key and will be ready-at-hand in any situation (not just for one specific piece).
- Be prepared to struggle with multiple fingering options to come up with the best one in context. Ultimately, you’ll have to settle on one option so that you can get to mastering the piece.
About fingering options: Depending on how you look at it, they can be a challenge or an opportunity when we work out musical passages. Let's take one idea and look at a few ways it can be worked out. The following few examples have the same notes but are arranged differently—from simple to complex.
Ex. 1 is a B harmonic minor scale sequence adapted from measure 24 of Bach’s B minor Sarabande Double. It’s not uncommon to arrive at this fingering when you’re sight-reading. We have one note at a time in a single position with no sustained notes or open strings.
In Ex. 2 we play the same sequence but use a more “chordal” fingering. I’m phrasing three notes at a time, but two of them are sustained. This yields thirds and seconds popping up throughout (more on that later). Visualizing embedded chord shapes instead of mere single notes will add another element of texture to your playing—a hybrid of comping and soloing. This can be applied to other keys, so committing this to muscle memory will help your improv/comping the most.
Ex. 3 shows the same B Harmonic minor scale sequence, but with irregular phrasing and use of sustained open strings that create a “waterfall” or “cascade” effect. It has even more sustained notes than Ex. 2, thus yielding more complex chords. If you allow the notes to ring out, you'll have the open 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st strings ringing out by the end of the passage. While it sounds very pretty, this technique can’t easily be applied to other keys. This is (I think) the Bill Frisell interpretation of Jim Hall’s concept.
We’re doing the same pattern as Ex. 2 here, but Ex. 4 is written chordally. Imagine your fingers are “glued” to the fretboard and let the notes ring as long as possible. I would say this is Scofield’s interpretation of Jim Hall’s concept.
Many of Bach’s lines have built-in chords, like the “self-accompaniment” of a good bebop player outlining the changes. Most of these chords are recognizable triads organized in a progression that is very clear and logical. Ex. 5 has some lines that are actually playable as familiar chord shapes on the guitar. It’s taken from the last three measures of the Allegro from Sonata No. 2 in A minor (BWV 1003). Instead of playing them as single lines, as a violin would, try to think in chordal terms and sustain the notes as the chord shapes shown. This is to help with visualizing the lines as chord shapes, and the “planning ahead” aspect of this type of playing. There is a passage near the end (over an E7) that uses notes from a scale. Try to barre at the 7th fret while sustaining as many notes as you can.
Taken from the Presto in Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001), Ex. 6 shows more opportunities to sustain arpeggios as chords. In an attempt to sustain more stepwise notes, you’ll notice the chords become something “extra.” The crunch of the 3 and 4 together, for example, create chords that Bach didn’t intend, but these sounds are totally at home in a jazz guitar mindset. This will help you visualize lines as more modern chord shapes on the guitar. The chord symbols are not always easy to define this way, but I’ve offered some as an example.
Ex. 7 is the first eight measures of the Sarabande Double from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 1 in B Minor (BWV 1002), followed by the same eight measures written in a chord-melody style. You don’t necessarily have to practice it this way, but I just want you to visualize the shapes. Notice how when you work out an arrangement like this, you won’t be stuck in your default sight-reading position, but instead be moving around the neck to find shapes to grab.
Finally, we have Ex. 8, which gives the last four measures of the Sarabande Double the same treatment. This is another example to show how you can play in the hybrid chordal/solo way with arpeggiated chord shapes. Like the previous example, notice how some shapes are easily definable chord shapes, while some are clusters that defy a simple chord symbol. I particularly like that what Bach intended as half-step approach tones to a Bm triad can be turned into (almost) a minMaj9(#11) chord with the sustained-note mindset.
Feel free to explore. You could throw a dart at almost any measure of Bach’s music and get stuck exploring its depths. If you find a passage that is particularly interesting, you can work it out in any number of ways: inverting the chords, transposing it to different tonalities, finding sequences up or down the scale (like Ex. 1-4), and also experimenting with the phrasing to find new, unintended chord sounds. Like Ex. 9, again from the B minor Sarabande Double. Here I’m sustaining four-note phrases, and this results in a totally different time feel. Again, the chord symbols are open to interpretation, but I offer some as a suggestion. In this example I’m playing the exact same notes in the same order, but it sounds like a completely different idea, right?
The way to incorporate this style of playing into your improvising is to keep doing this and arrange it yourself. Don’t just sight-read them, but arrange and master them. Bach’s music is so beautiful and mesmerizing in its perfection that it’s a great vehicle for this discovery. Struggle with these pieces to find the best, most musical fingering options. It’s not enough just to intellectually grasp this concept—your hands have to “learn” to do it, too. Your default fingering choices will be rendered obsolete as the “planning ahead” aspect of this kind of playing will soon start to dictate your fingering choices. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get faster at it. Pretty soon it will click, and you’ll find yourself not only reading music in a more musical way, but also comping and soloing in this new, more modern style.