jazz guitar hardball

The evolution of the concept of melodic soloing

You will sometimes hear one player say of another, “Her solos are really melodic.” We intuitively value improvising in a melodic fashion. I want to talk in the next two columns about how this concept is evolving in jazz education.

If you have ever asked yourself any of the following questions, you may find this topic very interesting: What should I play in my solo? How do I keep coming up with new ideas? How long can I stay with one idea? How do I develop it? When is it time to move to a completely new idea? What makes a solo compelling for a listener? How do I make my solo interesting through the whole thing?

Keep these questions in mind, and let’s begin by looking at a little history of jazz education, and then we’ll look at how the focus is shifting with a larger spotlight on melodic improvisation.

Formal college-level jazz education has been around a relatively short time, with interest beginning to take shape in the late seventies. This interest was often slow in growing, as many academic programs showed resistance to both jazz and guitar as serious artistic pursuits. Conservative academics tended to look on jazz, and especially jazz guitar, as less desirable stepchildren that did not deserve to be even close to the esteemed place of classical music. That old order is rapidly changing, and jazz and other degree programs in guitar are finding acceptance as legitimate courses of study in the arts. The teaching methods and emphases within these programs are rapidly evolving as well. The early days of jazz education taught a rather pedantic approach to playing the music: “Outline the changes.” “Play this scale over that chord.” “Use this technique to play outside.” “Practice scales.” This intellectual approach to a form of music that was meant to be emotionally evocative is thankfully starting to run out of gas.

In the recent past, books with scale studies and rote patterns have been almost infinite in number. This represents the prior focus on the analytical approach to the music, which tends to be mechanical in playing the right notes against whatever chord. In contrast to that approach, I found a recently written book that I think represents a new trend and a new focus in jazz improvisation, and gives new direction to teachers. The focus is on melodic improvisation and the actual ways one can develop this ability, as well as on improvising meaningful melodies—as opposed to simply outlining the harmony with scales and arpeggios.

Brian Kane’s text, Constructing Melodic Jazz Improvisation, is a breakthrough in this area, getting young players focused on melodic intent rather than playing scales and licks. Kane discusses all the aspects of improvisation that can help move a player’s solos to a new level of meaning: how to develop a solo from start to finish; to be intentional about phrase length; to have melodic intent in a solo; use of techniques that can develop an idea; expanding one’s melodic memory so that previous ideas can be replayed; use of repetition and development of motifs; effective use of rest space; use of inflections to help develop a personal style; and many more innovative, intuition-building ideas. Emphasizing these techniques results in a totally different feeling in the solo—one that focuses on a communicative style. After all, isn’t that our goal, to communicate something meaningful in the music that can move people through listening?

Kane focuses on the 12-bar blues form to practice these techniques (with a CD play-a-long). And while the text is aimed primarily at players who are early in their career, I found the ideas so coherent and meaningful that I believe even experienced players who want to refocus on the craft of creating melodies—would also find this to be a highly valuable resource. Kane’s approach can help players from many skill levels craft more meaningful solos.

When you want to change something about your life (in this case, learning to play more meaningful melodic solos), put your energy in that direction. While you’re waiting for Kane’s book to arrive, conduct a web search for discussions as to what other players are doing to advance this skill. Use search words like melodic development, melodic improvisation, etc. Listen with intent to classic jazz recordings with regard to development of melodies—specifically, where the masters repeat ideas, develop them, make sequences out of them, invert them, and when they move on to a new idea. You can chart an entire solo to study the ways it developed—pay attention to how the contour of the solo unfolds and creates greater excitement by the end. Talk to other players you know about how they advance this skill. Focus more on memorizing melodies rather than playing scales (some advanced players believe scales should not be practiced at all). Above all, maintain persistence in advancing your melodic craft—it will pay off.

Exciting stuff! Come back next time for more in-depth work on melodic improvising and a review of a second text that tackles this topic.

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They’re crazy! They’re exotic! They’re out of control, and they’re showing off for the camera! It’s Pentatonics Gone Wild! Gone are the days when pentatonic scales had to stay

Jazz Guitar Hardball
They’re crazy! They’re exotic! They’re out of control, and they’re showing off for the camera! It’s Pentatonics Gone Wild! Gone are the days when pentatonic scales had to stay in their home key – now, they’re being used everywhere to create dissonant, exotic and colorful sounds. When you start out on the guitar, the first thing you usually learn is the minor pentatonic scale or the blues scale, which is the same thing but with the flatted 5th “blue” note added. Typically, the goal was matching the key of a chord to the key of a pentatonic scale. For example, G minor pentatonic is played over a G7, giving that classic, bluesy rock sound. It’s a well-used sound that has its place, but it tends to be too traditional and predictable for advancing jazz and rock guitarists who want to experiment with more modern harmonies.

Let’s look at the minor pentatonic in five positions, which will allow you to easily cover the neck. Most of us learn position 1 when we start taking lessons – this is a good start, but now, using the scale diagrams, add four more positions. If you follow the fret numbers on the diagram you can play the G minor pentatonic in five positions, over the entire fretboard. Once that is learned, you can begin transposing it into other keys.

Now the fun begins. Instead of simply matching a scale key to a chord key, such as D minor pentatonic to Dm7, we can begin to think in terms of borrowing pentatonics from other keys in order to create more color in our solos or for composing and songwriting. There are many types of pentatonic scales that this can be applied to, but today we are just going to apply it to minor pentatonics.

Technique 1
A classic Wes Montgomery technique is to play the D minor pentatonic over a G7 chord; think of it as II over the V. This adds the chord extensions of the G7 – the 9th, 11th and 13th – providing more color than simply playing a G7 arpeggio. If you apply this technique to all the dominant 7 chords of a standard 12-bar blues form, your solo immediately becomes more colorful, adding a chill factor that only those chord extensions can give.

Technique 2
Playing F# minor pentatonic over a Gmaj7 chord gives a very modern sound to a chord that can sound too tonicized or resolved. The effect of this application is less of a resolved feel, adding a darker color than by simply playing all the diatonic notes of G major or the Gmaj7 arpeggio.

Technique 3
To take an altered dominant chord more outside and emphasize the dissonant nature of the chord, try playing a minor pentatonic scale that is a minor third away from the root of your chord. For example, play a Bb minor pentatonic over a G7 chord. This will emphasize the altered notes – b9, #9, #5, and b5 – creating greater dissonance. This application will definitely want to resolve to some type of tonic C chord.

Technique 4
Play a minor pentatonic scale one whole step up from a tonic minor chord. For example, play the A minor pentatonic scale against a Gm7 chord. Once again, this emphasizes the color tones of the tonic chord – the 9th, 11th, and 13th. This creates a much more interesting and modern harmony compared to simply playing the G natural minor scale.

Technique 5
Play a minor pentatonic scale that is a major third away from a tonic maj7 chord. For example, play E minor pentatonic over a Cmaj7 chord. By emphasizing the 9, major 7, 13 and 5, this gives a more interesting modern sound over a traditional maj7 chord.

Lay down your own rhythm tracks for some play-along practice. Really hearing how the different scales sound over the chords will help in internalizing this new application of the scales.

Finally, these are all good applications that can add a modern twist to your soloing. The most important element, however, is always the melodic nature of the improvised line. Rather than simply playing scales over chords, a solo really works when it has a melodic or compositional quality to it, rather than just being a string of scales. The ultimate aim is to use the scale material to craft melodic ideas, resulting in a more mature and moving improvised solo. After all, our goal is to improvise in a way that is inspiring, exciting and tells a melodic story.

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.

An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar.com (dealer: IslandFunhouse).

Jim Bastian weighs the importance of original cases in vintage value

Jazz Guitar Hardball This month I thought we might have some fun and do some rambling about our vintage collecting fetishes and the concept of “originality.” We all have different parameters in deciding what is collectible: whether an item or model fits in with our personal collection, the degree to which we will actually play the instrument, what level of restoration, if any, is acceptable, and so forth. One of my criteria is that if I won’t play it – if it is just too minty and unplayed, belonging more in a museum than on the bandstand – I then treat it more as an investment and eventually resell it. To search out and find the archtops that I am not afraid to take on the bandstand, that are close to original and have a straight neck, are some of the peak moments of life!

In an era when gigs are increasingly hard to find, many modern musicians have developed multifaceted careers, engaging in a number of music-related activities as a way of piecing together an independent career. My own career is no different and has many sides, including teaching, performing, writing, selling and publishing. Most musicians today who want to stay in music full-time find themselves in similar situations.

One such enterprise that is related to our topic – and has become a small part of my larger business – is restoring vintage cases. These cases walk into my shop with tops and backs loose (or off), wood missing, handles gone and/or non-working hardware. This artistic restoration work grew out of my own interest in vintage collecting and my desire to be able to use an original, if worn, case. It is also related to growing up around my father’s wood shop. Now I see a decrepit Cali-girl case or early sixties Lifton black/yellow case as a work of art, in need of restoration and an important piece of a vintage guitar’s value.

To increase collectible value, a piece has to be functional and have some degree of originality. In restoring an old case, I keep everything I can, but I’m also not afraid to do any restoration work that will make the case strong and functional. The picture shows a 1962 Gibson ES-345 case that a customer brought to me in pieces. The case went through many clamping and drying stages to reattach both top and back, and I applied fiberglass to strengthen a few worn areas, especially where wood was missing. With the application of a little color in spots and some clear coat to strengthen the edges, the case was once again a functional, original partner to the PAF ES-345 with which it left the factory.

Last year I bought a ‘63 Barney Kessel archtop – wood only – and a month later I bought the same exact model with all original parts, although there was neck damage on the second one. Using all those original parts, I restored the first shell I bought and have since enjoyed playing it. Does this “blended” guitar qualify as “all-original?” Well, yes and no. Certainly, after I pass on and my wife puts all the guitars in the front yard with a “for sale” sign, any serious collector would think this BK was all original.

My minty 1959 ES-175 came to me with a brown-interior case. Succumbing to collector fetish urges, I traded for a near-mint, pink-lined Gibson-logo case to go with the guitar. Both case and guitar are correct for 1959; does this qualify as “original?” Clearly, many decades from now it will be sold by some dealer as original.

In some ways, collecting is a risky activity to be in and the buyer better know the correct plating, numbers, dimensions and tooling marks on every part when buying under the claim of “all original.” Most professional dealers will have several areas of expertise, but even they cannot possibly know every vintage part and screw on every model from every manufacturer. This leaves it up to the buyers to educate themselves as to what is truly original on the models they are seeking.

Most of us start drooling when we see our favorite model in mint, unplayed condition. With vintage guitars, the Blue Book goes out the window in these cases. There is just something about these guitars that brings a high level of enjoyment when purchased. What a joy it is to receive a 1961 Gibson in the mail, and, before fully knowing what we bought, turning a pickup over and seeing a genuine “Patent Applied For” sticker on the back. I am revealing one of my own collector fetishes here, but to play the bop and post-bop jazz I am interested in, I have only been able to find the tone I am looking for (as well as the perfect neck profile) in early sixties Gibson archtops with untouched, original PAFs.

For many of us who are actually playing these old guitars, seeking a certain tone helps shape the goals of collecting. For those who collect more as an investment, tone becomes less important than market value. The search for original vintage gear is fun and can be an important part of our search for the tone we are seeking, but ultimately practicing, performing and advancing our skills in our style of choice are the top priority and have the greatest lasting value.

Correction: Last month we incorrectly identified the Peterson Guitar Special Amp as factory-equipped with a 10” EV speaker. It should have been 12”.

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.

An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jim’s store at premierguitar.com (dealer: IslandFunhouse).