Understand the basics of the New Orleans piano tradition.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Understand the basics of the New Orleans piano tradition.
• Develop bass lines using the rumba rhythm.
• Create phrases inspired by both the left- and right-hand techniques of Professor Longhair.

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As a guitar player, I’m always interested in finding ways to apply techniques to my instrument that come from places other than the guitar. Anyone who gets into playing jazz listens to—and hopefully transcribes— the solos of great horn players like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Louis Armstrong. And sometimes guitarists will learn the right-hand lines of great pianists like Bud Powell or Wynton Kelly.

This is all great stuff. Learning to play single lines is a useful skill, and lots of fun too. But equally as fun is trying to assimilate piano techniques that emulate the left hand as well as the right. In my previous Premier Guitar lesson [“Exploring Stride Guitar,” May 2011], I talked about the stride piano tradition and how to apply that sound to the guitar. This time I want to stay with the piano, but turn our focus to the great players from New Orleans, particularly Professor Longhair.

In performing situations where there isn’t a piano player, especially in duos with singers or horn players, it’s fun to pull out a technique like this to spice things up and escape the tried-and-true methods of being an accompanist or solo guitarist. But even if you’re playing with a bassist, drummer, and piano player, try out some of this stuff on the next gig—you might like the results.

Now, back to the Professor. “Fess”, as he was known, was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1918 and became a major influence on everyone from James Booker to Fats Domino to Dr. John. He played with a raucous blues feel that often used a rumba groove for the bass line, shown in Fig. 1. Often, the bass would double it for extra kick.

I’ve taken some ideas from Longhair’s style of playing and put it into a 12-bar blues in C. This isn’t an exact transcription of his work, but it does give the flavor of it by using a reverse-rolling fingerpicking pattern to get the Big Easy vibe. (Note: While it’s possible to use sweep picking to execute these examples, I highly recommend that you at least try it fingerstyle.) Fig. 2 starts with the bass line from Fig. 1 and adds some C7 chord tones, just to get the feel. To get the proper sound, it’s important to lay in heavily on the bass line while keeping the chords lighter. Once you feel comfortable with that, we can add the fancy breaks.

We’re going to use the same finger pattern each time, changing the chord that leads into each section of the blues form. You can see the three chords in Fig. 3. First up is a G7#5. This chord will lead us into the C7—the I chord. The second one is a C7#9 to take us into the F7 (the IV). And finally we’ll use a D7%9 to lead us into the G7 (the V). For a little extra flair, try sliding into each chord from a fret below.

Now, let’s try and put them all together in Fig. 4. Once you get the feel for that, don’t be afraid to throw in some fills. Maybe something like you see in Fig. 5.

As with any music, just reading it off the page or hearing some examples is only the beginning. You have to immerse yourself in a style, using your ears to get it inside you the right way. And that, of course, takes time. But the rewards are many for those who choose to reap them! The music of New Orleans is really a world unto itself.

Down there you had the true blending of cultures, races, foods, styles, classes, and ideas. The rhythms of the Caribbean swam on up and met with the rustic integrity of the blues, with a bit of Westernized brass band music, ragtime, and piano classics mixed in for variety. New Orleans musicians took a piece of this tradition and molded themselves into it as best they could. I strongly encourage you to explore the New Orleans tradition from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, to Professor Longhair and James Booker, on up to the Meters, Henry Butler, and the Neville Brothers.

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I enjoy using this style when accompanying a singer or horn player in a duo setting. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual roles of walking bass lines and comping à la Joe Pass, or playing a chord on every beat to mimic Freddie Green’s big-band rhythm sound.

When I first got into studying the jazz tradition, as a guitarist I was immediately drawn to Charlie Christian, John Scofield, Wes Montgomery, and Bill Frisell. As I expanded my listening scope, I’d go back further into history to the early jazz of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, who employed the remarkable and under-appreciated guitarists Bernard Addison and Lawrence Lucie.

This inevitably led to the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Son House, and the great ragtime guitarists Blind Blake and Rev. Gary Davis, who played in the “Piedmont” style. The more I listened, the more I saw a connection between those men and the stride piano tradition of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson. Using Piedmont-style guitar as a jumping off point, I tried to stretch that sound and style into something that more closely approximated the techniques of a stride pianist. In the course of doing so, obviously, it becomes something in and of itself. But that’s part of what makes music so much fun. Trying to do things that are unconventional ultimately leads to something new and different. That doesn’t always mean it sounds good, but it’s important to try, right?

I enjoy using this style when accompanying a singer or horn player in a duo setting. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual roles of walking bass lines and comping à la Joe Pass, or playing a chord on every beat to mimic Freddie Green’s big-band rhythm sound.

As with any new style, it’s vitally important to listen to the music you’re trying to emulate. The original concept of stride piano was to emulate the bands of New Orleans in the early 20th century. Stride pianists covered the tuba and banjo parts with the left hand while playing melodies with the right hand. Combining all of this on a standard 6-string guitar is a bit tricky, but I learned a lot from listening to Tuck Andress and Charlie Hunter. It’s what you imply in your playing that makes what you actually do play stand out so much. The basic idea is to establish the root or 5th of each chord on the lowest two strings, while hitting other chord tones on the upper strings.

While it may be possible to play some of these exercises using a pick or hybrid pickand- fingers technique, I prefer using a pure fingerstyle method in order to better imitate the sound of stride piano. One of the main benefits is that you can hit the strings in different places to get distinctive timbres out of the bass notes and chords. For instance, if you hit the bass notes closer to the fretboard, they will be boomier and more resonant. If you pluck the chords closer to the bridge, they will be sharper and punchier. I learned how to do this by trying to cop Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk’s use of the pedal positions on the piano. They could get a wide array of colors out of the piano, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate that into my guitar playing. Check out Duke’s Piano Reflections and Monk’s Solo Monk for the best examples of this concept.

To begin, let’s look at some standard rhythm changes in the key of Bb as shown in Fig. 1. When learning any new technique, it’s essential to play along with a metronome clicking on beats 2 and 4, but be sure to start slowly. Developing this technique requires your brain to do some serious multitasking, and you always have to be thinking a few beats ahead to know where you are going. Working slowly allows the muscles in your hand (and skull) to learn what they need to do properly so that later on, when you bump up that tempo, they are well accustomed to all the moves.

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In Fig. 2, things get a little trickier by adding the 3rd tone of the chord on beats 1 and 3. By raising the 3rd up an octave, you create the interval of a tenth, which pianists have been abusing for years in all styles of music. The previous two examples require some big leaps across the fretboard, so let’s look at a way to do less leaping and more stretching. Fig. 3 is a real finger- and mind-bender, but sounds pretty impressive when you get it down. Using some chromatically descending standard chord changes, we can really get a lot going on at once. This one is in the key of Eb. I’m purposely avoiding traditional “guitar” keys, so that you can work without the benefit of open strings. But you can apply these techniques to other key signatures and give your hands more freedom by playing in the keys of E, A, or D.

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Taking those changes as a guideline, we can get a little bit fancier in between the basic bass/chord pattern. Check out Fig. 4. By jumping between full chord shapes, we can add some fills to flesh out the sound a bit. In measures 3, 5, and 7, make sure to keep the high note ringing as long as possible. This adds to the illusion of having two parts occurring simultaneously.

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One of the most exciting things in stride happens when the pianist inserts a swinging, propulsive solo break into the bass/chord pattern. So let’s look at the Bb blues changes in Fig. 5 and put all these things together. There is a lot to absorb in this example, so let’s look at a few areas to watch out for. Try to play all the quarter-notes throughout the example as staccato as possible. Remember, the sound of stride piano has a real swinging, old-time feel. Keep everything relaxed and locked in with the metronome.

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In the 6th measure, we use some diminished 7th chords as a series of passing chords in order to head back to the I chord in measure 7. Since the shape of these chords is identical, they are pretty easy to move up and down the neck. In measure 11, we are combining some augmented triads to create a rolling lick that leads into the chromatically descending chords in the turnaround.

Finding new ways to approach playing your instrument is always a good thing. Breaking out of the well-worn guitar clichés can inject some fresh perspectives into your playing. It will also give you musical depth. Whether you are performing solo or as an accompanist, playing stride guitar will set you apart and turn some heads at the gig once you get it down. I encourage you to listen to all the players I mentioned above and find a way to get more of their sounds into the music you already know. Every instrument has a rich history and tradition, but they are all open to be folded into what we do as guitar players. The more you know, the better you sound!

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