Digging Deeper: Bill Frisell
Improvised music can take many forms. From weird downtown punk-influenced riffs to unimaginably beautiful solo pieces, Bill Frisell has put his stamp on nearly every musical genre.
• Spice up your solos with dissonant intervals.
• Create rhythmically compelling lines at blazing tempos.
• Learn how to imply altered sounds with chord clusters.
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Bill Frisell is a masterful guitarist because, as he says, “I just try to get as deep into the music as I can.” It’s this outlook that best explains his superb musicality. Whether he’s playing free jazz, Americana, standards, or country, or doing soundtrack work, Frisell has an approach that is at once vulnerable and strong. In this lesson, we’ll look at how Frisell might play in a variety of settings and unlock some of his secrets.
Ex. 1 is reminiscent of his early work as a leader, and this example shows how Frisell might employ single-string playing and harmonics. While mostly in the key of D major (D–E–F#–G–A–B–C#), the melodic work focuses on chord tones with a little spice from chromatic approach tones (in the first measure) and chromatic lower neighbors (in measure 3).
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You can’t conjure up a Frisell vibe without being fluent with double-stops. A IIm–V–I progression in C, Ex. 2 highlights sixths, which Frisell would likely play with hybrid picking. This example proves that approaching a jazz progression doesn’t necessarily require a bebop vocabulary. Take the time to analyze which dyads get used over each chord: There’s a melodic and harmonic reason behind each move.
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The chords in Ex. 3 float from place to place without any sense of tonal center. Frisell has mastered ways of effortlessly weaving from one chord to another. He often ups the ante by using double-stops—that doesn’t make this weaving approach any easier. Here, thirds rule the day and the example illustrates how to take a motivic approach through the progression.
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We’ve covered sixths and thirds, but now we’re getting into even smaller intervals—seconds. It doesn’t take too many listens to Frisell’s music to notice his fondness for these tight intervals and the dissonance they produce. So, how to decide which seconds work? Chord tones always figure in, usually as the upper note, so pick one and match it with a note a half- or whole-step below it.
In Ex. 4, in the first measure there’s a high root note paired with the 7 of the chord right below it (a major second). In measure 2, a b9 and root are paired up (a minor second). The angular nature of this approach is a major part of Frisell’s style. It’s also clearly reminiscent of the quirky bebop-era pianist, Thelonious Monk.
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Frisell’s approach often shifts on a dime, so we’ll hear a mix of single-note lines, dyads, chords—anything goes! The progression in Ex. 5 is borrowed from a classic jazz standard and highlights Frisell’s trademark G7#9 voicing. You’ll want to be familiar with this shape and make it moveable, because Frisell will often use it in a variety of ways. Like a diminished chord, it can be shifted in three-fret increments for related, yet unique harmonic effects that yield a different set of altered notes over the dominant harmony. If you shift up the neck and play it in 3rd position, you’ll have an implied G7#9#11, up another three frets, G13#5, and finally at the 9th fret, a G13b9.
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Frisell is no stranger to bebop, so we’ll often find the same type of content we’d find in any jazz musician’s playing. Ex. 6 begins with note choices that are quite chromatic, but focus on chord tones on strong beats, such as the F# on the downbeat of the second measure, which is the 3 of the D7 chord. To look at it, the opening phrase could just as easily be Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery. While it’s a bit fast, try playing with all downstrokes. Frisell uses upstrokes, but the bulk of the time you’ll find him playing even fairly quick lines with consecutive downstrokes. We’ve seen quarter-note triplet rhythms a few times already, and they’re back again here. Not since pianist Bill Evans has a jazz player based so much of his work on these rhythms. The second half of the example shows more clever ideas working double-stops and broken chord stabs.
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Frisell isn’t going to get confused with George Benson in this lifetime, but that doesn’t mean he’ll shy away from fast tempos. He just has his own way of dealing with the challenges. In Ex. 7, we have a two-part counterpoint that loosely implies the basic harmony, then evolves into a brief chord-tone line, and finally into some almost comping-like playing of three-note chords.
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Ex. 8 is reminiscent of the outside playing you might have heard Frisell explore in Naked City or with Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires. The distortion pedal is on! If you’ve got a compressor and volume pedal, even better—those were an important part of his late ’80s and early ’90s sound. The bass is walking free, while the lead has the obligatory seconds sliding in parallel motion. Even though there’s no harmonic function to the bass line, there’s hints of tonal thinking in the guitar part that leads us to the key of F, but it’s nothing more than a way of limiting an otherwise boundless palate. Of course, in the final measures it’s all tossed away with the wacked-out harmonics.
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Every so often, we hear some of Frisell’s early rock influences. Ex. 9 isn’t too far from something we’d hear Clapton play in Cream. Just some sweet bluesy riffing in 12th position, key of E. Home sweet home.
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Frisell can present beautiful solo renditions of standards and pop tunes. In many ways, he approaches unaccompanied playing in the same way he does everything else, so expect to hear similar devices. The notable addition is more low register work and slightly fuller chords, but it’s never overdone. Less is more, as evidenced by this bluesy intro (Ex. 10), which artfully combines harmonics, dyads, small melodic flourishes, and carefully placed bass notes. What more could you want?