Guitarists can learn a lot by dissecting the art of articulation.
• Develop a more fluid jazz time-feel by using hammer-ons and pull-offs.
• Create flowing, legato-based lines.
• Understand how to navigate tricky harmonic passages.
John Coltrane was a titan of jazz saxophone and an improvisor of unparalleled genius. Every jazz musician since has had to confront his instrumental prowess and musical legacy. In this lesson, we'll relate elements of his improvisational material to the guitar. His note choices are frequently addressed and much of his music is available in transcriptions, but authentic phrasing is not often attempted by guitarists. After all, jazz isn't just about what you say, it's how you say it.
Before we dig into the nuts and bolts of this lesson, let's listen to few essential Coltrane tracks to get our ears right. First, we have his classic tour-de-force, "Giant Steps." For decades this has been the pinnacle of how to play over fast-moving changes.
John Coltrane - Giant Steps (2020 Remaster) [Official Audio]
On the complete opposite side of the harmonic spectrum is "Impressions," which is a contrafact based on Miles Davis' "So What." Here's a live performance of the two-chord tune with his classic quartet.
John Coltrane Quartet - Impressions.
One of the most crucial aspects of Coltrane's articulation is the slurring of upbeat notes to downbeat notes. For guitarists, this means that we pick notes on the "ands" and hammer on, pull-off, or slide to notes on the downbeats. Pro: This gives the music an undeniable jazz feel and convincing phrasing. Con: Fingerings can be challenging and unorthodox.
Let's begin with Ex. 1, a I-VIm–IIm–V7 line in Bb, like we'd hear in "Rhythm" changes. This particular lick has typical bebop-type chromatic approach tones. As luck would have it, this lick fits well on the guitar, so it's a good introduction to Coltrane's articulation technique.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 1
Here's another line in Bb (Ex. 2), this one necessitates moving around the neck a bit more to make the articulations work. Again, we hear bebop language, but the superimposed Gb triad (Gb–Bb–Db) on top of the F7 chord is a Coltrane-esque development.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 2
Diminished licks are often discussed in Coltrane studies, so it's good to have a few patterns under your fingers. The obvious place to use such lines is over 13b9 chords. The fingering in Ex. 3 isn't the easiest way to play these notes, but it allows for the most authentic phrasing.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 3
You can't enter Coltrane's world without mastery of all sorts of chordal and scalar fundamentals. He practiced obsessively and had tremendous technique. Ex. 4 is in G minor takes a motive and moves it diatonically down the G Dorian mode (G–A–Bb–C–D–E–F). This implies the harmony of a series of diatonic chords. Try hybrid picking here. The fingering stays on the top three strings for a consistent approach and highlights that pattern-based thinking.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 4
One of Coltrane's notable developments was his harmonically adventurous series of substitutions that have become known as "Coltrane" changes. You hear this harmonic gauntlet on tunes such as "Countdown," "Giant Steps," and a few other standards that Coltrane would reharmonize. The tempos are fast, and the changes are relentless. Ex. 5 covers three somewhat distant key centers: B, Eb, and G in a matter of a few measures.
Coltrane used a combination of bebop language and purely diatonic patterns to navigate these progressions. We hear use of the infamous 1–2–3–5 patterns on many chords as well as simple triadic lines. This is the first example where it's impractical to adapt Coltrane's articulation to the guitar consistently.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 5
Ex. 6 is another lick you can use in a "Giant Steps" setting. Again, we do the best we can at capturing the Coltrane spirit without going totally crazy trying get every slur.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 6
Coltrane's modal playing is legendarily epic. He went on extended explorations the likes of which were never heard before in jazz or Western music. Ex. 7 has a Dorian flavor, but Coltrane is not one to be strictly limited to the mode, so notice the use of b7 and natural 7 (C and C#) in this lick.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 7
Ex. 8 is representative of Coltrane's development of gestural ideas—in this case a rising arpeggio-like idea that begins on an upbeat. Listen to his early '60s live work, where his solos could last ten minutes or more.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 8
Here's a particularly stretchy idea (Ex. 9), but if you keep your fretting-hand thumb low on the neck, it will allow your hand to "open-up" to the extended reach that's required. The ending is interesting because it has a hint of bebop approach tones in an otherwise modal setting.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 9
If you listen carefully to Coltrane's improvisations on a C minor blues, you'll hear that he doesn't treat the tonic chord modally, i.e., as a minor 7 chord—at least not exclusively. Instead, he thinks of it as a more tonal sound: Cm, Cm6, or Cm6/9. That accounts for his many melodic minor-based ideas in "Mr. P.C." for example. (As is typical in jazz, melodic minor is used in its ascending form, often called the "jazz minor.") To achieve a consistent articulation and match his phrasing, we can employ a rather guitaristic move down the neck here (Ex. 10).
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 10
Sometimes Coltrane will use grand, sweeping gestures that are all legato (Ex. 11). On guitar, we do what we can—hammer-ons and three-note-per string ideas work well to emulate his licks, as in this excerpt from a C minor blues.
Coltrane for Guitar Ex. 11
Of course, this is hardly a complete overview of Coltrane's contributions to the language of jazz improvisation. Above all, deep listening is a required step in the process. Once you get the sound of Coltrane's articulations in your ear it will be much easier to get that sound out of your hands.
Pioneering player and technical innovator Les Paul is a pivotal figure in music history for a lot more than his namesake Gibson. Here’s a look at a few of his most well-known licks.
• Develop an understand of basic harmony guitar parts.
• Learn how Les used blistering legato runs.
• Understand how to outline changes with arpeggios.
It's impossible to imagine modern music without Les Paul's monumental contributions. It's not hyperbole to say that he's the father of multitrack recording. His pioneering work on the electric guitar itself is legendary. After all, is there a more famous signature model guitar than the Les Paul itself? In addition, we have his considerable influence as a virtuosic electric guitar hero in the 1950s, when he was heard all over the pop charts in his duets with Mary Ford. In this lesson, we'll look at the elements of his style that made him a perennial favorite for countless guitarists that would become guitar heroes themselves.
Let's begin with a famous, intro figure like Paul used on his hit “How High the Moon." This part is comprised of voicings that are fairly straightforward—though here they're being played up in the stratosphere. The blues-inflected double-stops are also hallmarks of Les Paul's style and crop up in many of his solos, so you'll want to have those under your belt as well. The key of G used in Ex. 1 is the more common choice for Les Paul (and others) in his post-Les Pal and Mary Ford years, but the original was two frets higher, in the key of A.
Les Paul loved sequences. He could take a simple motivic idea and effortlessly move it through a scale. In Ex. 2, a three-note pattern is shifted down the G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#). This is the kind of thing he might have picked up from early jazz guitarists, such as his heroes Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt.
You need to know your arpeggios to get a handle on Les Paul's style. In this jazzy lick (Ex. 3), the notes of a G major chord are approached by half-step. It doesn't take long to notice that Paul had a strong command of two- and three-octave arpeggios all over the guitar.
Les Paul used sweeping gestures like Ex. 4 quite often, and when he did, he was particularly fond of minor and minor 7 shapes. Notice that there's an Em arpeggio (E–G–B) in the middle of this lick. However, it sounds like a G6 idea because he superimposes the Em triad over the G major triad (G–B–D), yielding the G6 sound (G–B–D–E).
Les Paul is a hard player to classify because, while he was playing popular music of his day, his licks run the gamut from Django-style jazz to hillbilly country to barroom blues, as shown in this unison sliding lick (Ex. 5) that everyone just has to know.
Ex. 6 is classic Les Paul: virtuosic and flashy. You need a host of repetitive hammer-on/pull-off figures like this in your arsenal. These licks were heard in every '50s household—it's no wonder this kind of lead work appears in the very best classic rock playing of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Play it as fast as you can!
Paul was expert at blending the flamboyant with the clever. This bluesy progression in Bb wouldn't strike most of us as being an ideal vehicle for using open strings—at all. Key of A? Well, sure. G? Bring it on! But Les Paul devises an ingenious usage of the open strings that allows for virtuosic playing that still make the changes (Ex. 7).
Here's a short solo (Ex. 8) that demonstrates Paul's tender ballad playing. He excelled at delicate tremolo bar work for both pitch change and subtle vibrato. We have another example of his wide-ranging arpeggio playing in measure 3. And you can't fully grasp his style without double-stop fourths (the F# and B sliding to A and D). He used these often—in both lead work and accompaniments.
Overdubs, overdubs, and more overdubs. We can't discuss Les Paul without confronting his unique multi-tracking work. The complexity of his arrangements, from “Lover" to “Mandolino," particularly in the light of brand-new technology he pioneered, were as remarkable as they were groundbreaking. In 2021, anyone with a laptop and even the most modest audio recording programs can attempt Les Paul's overdubbing style, but imagine trying to do it by syncing up bunch of acetate disk recording machines or a host of reel-to-reel tape recorders!
In this example (Ex. 9), there's a simple A–E–E–A chord progression with a basic melody. This tune is harmonized by a second guitar playing a harmony note along with melody itself in double-stops. OK, that's straightforward enough, but now it gets a little trickier: How did Les Paul get all those super-high virtuoso parts?
If you take your basic track and play it back at half speed, and then record new guitar parts over it, you'll enter Les Paul's dreamland. Double the speed (and thus pitch) of your new overdubs and put them on top of the regular speedbasic tracks and … magic! The newly added guitar parts sound blazing fast and an octave higher.
Even with this cursory look at Les' licks you can hear how these have developed into clichés over the last 50 or so years. Although we lost Les in 2009, his fiery playing and personality were on display until the very end. After working through this lesson, I'd recommend digging more into his albums, especially Chester and Lester and Guitar Monsters—both with the great Chet Atkins.
Explore how a rogue player combined punk, rock, and avant-garde in a truly original voice.
• Develop an appreciation for Quine’s fearless style.
• Learn how to rip through fiery solos.
• Understand how to combine elements of soul, punk, and rock into a single solo. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Robert Quine was the kind of guitarist whose playing has never been mistaken for that of anyone else. By the time he made his recording debut with Richard Hell and the Voidoids on the iconic punk masterwork Blank Generation, Quine was already in his mid-30s and had developed an unmistakable sound. In a 1997 interview with Jason Gross for Perfect Sound Forever, the guitarist explained, “By many peoples’ standards, my playing is very primitive but by punk standards, I’m a virtuoso.”
It’s hard to overstate just how unpredictable Quine’s playing was. As a soloist, he could easily reference Chuck Berry or biting Chicago blues licks while channeling the sound of Albert Ayler’s overblown tenor sax or heading into Derek Bailey-style territory in just a few measures, while as an accompanist, he used raw harmonic and rhythmic materials in a totally supportive but personal way.
Quine, who died in 2004 at the age of 61, led a career that PG writer Tzvi Gluckin called a “paradox” in his September 2019 profile of the guitarist, Forgotten Heroes: Robert Quine. Gluckin summed up Quine’s career and playing as such:
“Quine was a niche player, yet somehow fit in multiple contexts—whether commercial pop or confrontational art—and was at home on projects by artists as diverse as Matthew Sweet, John Zorn, Lloyd Cole, and Lydia Lunch. He played for the song, didn’t overplay, but stood out anyway. You can always identify Quine on a track, even though his playing is tasteful and song appropriate. It’s also high-mid focused and unpredictable.”
Blank Generation is one of the ultimate documents of punk-rock lead guitar playing. Quine’s treble-heavy tone and aggressive attack is totally punk, but many of the licks he plays are rooted in the blues and early rock and roll. On the album’s title track, Quine’s first lead break begins with a conventional bluesy lick that goes off the rails as the guitarist slashes across his Stratocaster’s open strings, similar to Ex. 1.
On paper, Quine’s second lead break on the song is straight out of the rock and roll handbook—as we see in Ex. 2—but his fierce bends and heavy picking make it sound like he’s strangling the notes out of the neck.
As a rhythmic player, Quine drew from the same wellspring of influences. Blank Generation’s “Love Comes in Spurts” shows how he complemented a song’s rhythm with his accompaniment, from the use of an Aadd9 chord over guitarist Ivan Julian’s A major strums to his Keith Richards-style use of a second inversion D and first inversion G major shapes to imply a shuffle. As the song’s chorus closes, he uses a spiky and repetitive tritone pattern to contrast the band’s ascending power chords (Ex. 3).
When he takes a solo later in the song, Quine uses a series of deconstructed rock and roll licks, each of which would have sounded natural coming from the hands of James Burton, but he assembled his ideas in a much more angular fashion as seen in Ex. 4.
Quine was a masterful interpreter and could capture a song’s emotion like few other players could. He explained to Gross, “One thing that's crucial is that I listen to the lyrics. Like with Lou Reed’s 'Waves of Fear,’ if it had been about making an egg cream, my solo would be different than a guy having a nervous breakdown. It’s really obvious to do this but it’s important.” Ex. 5 is just one example of how Quine sculpted this anxiety-ridden solo using dissonant notes and bending and shaking them as if literally pulling the song’s emotion from the strings. While the studio recording is excellent, it’s worth seeking out live recordings to see how his playing on this song stretched out in performance and to watch Quine’s unique craftsmanship in action.
While Quine never released a proper solo album, he did a number of duo records, some of which were recorded at his apartment. Basic, his duo record with drummer Fred Maher, shows a different side of Quine’s playing where, with his guitar in the foreground, he could spend time exploring chords more extensively than when he was in a supportive role. Quine told Gross that the album’s opening track, “’65” was, “One of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.” The song sets the tone for this multi-layered album and finds Quine stretching out on a series of woozy, delay-soaked chords as seen in Ex. 6.
Quine fit in equally with the most abstract collaborators and the most mainstream songwriters, and his work with Matthew Sweet is evidence of how his playing could bolster a well-crafted pop song. On “Girlfriend,” Quine was given plenty of room to really rip. As seen in Ex. 7, he alternates from melodic bends to a series of wiry half-step slurs before coming to a tight conclusion.
As you can see, it’s difficult to pin down Quine’s playing into a few succinct examples, but the greater point is that there was a fearlessness in his music. Hopefully this lesson will open your ears and hands to the contributions of the one of guitar’s true iconoclasts.