Chops: Advanced Theory: Intermediate Lesson Overview: • Develop basic polyrhythmic techniques. • Learn how to superimpose different rhythms to make a “4-against-3” feel. • Understand how accents can imply

Chops: Advanced
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Develop basic polyrhythmic techniques.
• Learn how to superimpose different rhythms to make a “4-against-3” feel.
• Understand how accents can imply different time feels.

Click here to download the sound clips from this lesson.

For years, I have been fascinated by how my favorite players—Jim Hall, Bill Evans, Ben Webster, Doc Watson, and so many more—were able to play solos that propelled forward so effortlessly. Of course, what makes a great solo or composition is the convergence of harmony, melody, and rhythm into a unified narrative. However, there is something special about the way these players use rhythmic diversity to shed light on the inner workings of any given piece of music and give it an extra jolt of excitement. In the case of rhythm, I feel this can be traced to the quarter-note. In this lesson, I’d like to explore the world of rhythmic development, syncopation, and introduce the foundation of polyrhythms.

One of my favorite things about the way time works in the musical realm is that any given pulse has two sides. There is the attack and the absence of the attack—or the space between. One way to practice experiencing the full attack/negative space of every pulse is to set the metronome to roughly 30 bpm—or lower, if possible— and start playing a pitch or scale (for this lesson, let’s say C major) with one note allocated to each click. In Fig. 1 you can see an example of this.

At first, this may feel like you are playing musical darts, trying to pin down each beat as it passes by. However, with daily practice you’ll start to feel like you can predict when the next click will come. The goal with this is to eventually transition from following the metronome to playing alongside it. Do this for several minutes or until you feel settled into the pulse.

The next step is to add the eighth-note subdivision, so that for every click, you play two notes, as you can see in Fig. 2. This is often easier because there is less time between notes. One thing you can do to help insure your notes are filling their full spectrum is to use your voice to make a sound between each note. By verbalizing a “click” or some kind of sound on the offbeats, the notes you are playing will start to lock in even stronger with the metronome pulse.

Now let’s add some eighth-note triplets. After practicing this for a few minutes or until it feels steady, switch back to the eighth-note subdivision for a few bars, then back to triplets, and continue alternating for a few minutes (Fig. 3). You may find this forces you to envision the other subdivision prior to playing it, simply so you don’t lose the pulse during the transition. This can feel like a tedious practice, but if you can spend 10 minutes a day on it for a week or a month, it will help greatly to lay a strong rhythmic foundation that grooves no matter how complex the rhythmic development may become.

Next let’s look at syncopation. Start by playing sixteenth-notes—that’s four notes for every click. Then begin accenting every fifth note, so after accenting the first note of the exercise, you will accent the sixth note, then the 11th, and so on. Check out Fig. 4 for an example. This can sometimes be easier if practiced at a faster tempo, but I encourage you to stay with the slower tempos until you can speed up without losing a good feel. No matter how intricate the phrasing, the groove should always be an integral part of your awareness, and should you need a reminder, you can reset the feel by playing quarter-notes.

Once you feel comfortable syncopating every five beats, try breaking the five into two. In Fig. 5, you can see this concept using eighth-notes and sixteenth-note rests. It sounds a lot more confusing than it actually is, but this can provide a cool way to abstract the concept of groupings of five even further. Smaller subdivisions tend to make things feel quicker, where as larger subdivisions will give your lines a sense of a larger development over time.

At this point, I’d like to shed some light on the concept of polyrhythms and how to go about decoding them. I was always mystified by how players could superimpose other time signatures over 4/4 or 3/4. It was even more mystifying how they could switch between the time signatures with ease and fluidity. So given the techniques we’ve been practicing thus far, let’s examine how to play 4 against 3.

The simplest way to start is by playing sixteenth-notes with the metronome on or around 60 bpm. We can start Fig. 6 by syncopating every third note. Once this feels comfortable, leave out the in-between notes and only play the syncopated beats (beats 1, 4, 7, 10) After four syncopations, your note should line up with the metronome. You are now playing 4 against 3!

Things get really interesting in Fig. 7, where we play the quarter-note in the bass on a low C. Try moving the left-hand structure through the C major scale while maintaining the polyrhythm. This basic formula should help you to find other polyrhythms. To summarize: Start with sixteenth-notes, syncopate the number of beats you want to superimpose, then leave out the in-between notes and the two tempos should eventually meet up at regular intervals.

Going forward, I encourage you to practice “filling” the bigger quarter-note with other subdivisions including 5, 6, and 7, as well as figuring out other polyrhythms via the syncopation study. Between these two practices, you will develop a stronger sense of rhythm from a grounded perspective, and also be able to see that at any given moment, multiple dimensions of rhythmic activity exist and are waiting for you to explore.

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Learn how to relieve tension in both your picking and fretting hands.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to relieve tension in both your picking and fretting hands.
• Develop exercises to make your picking motion more effective.
• Understand how correctly moving your forearm leads to better technique.

I’d like to explore an approach to picking and fretting the guitar that I’ve been working on for a while. It all began about three years ago, when I started to notice that I was picking a lot harder than I needed, especially when playing single lines. The result I was hearing was kind of a snappy sound, and the more I tried to control it by resisting the tendency to play with a lot of force, the more I started to lose control. It was as though I was trying to pick the string while simultaneously pulling away just enough so as not to overplay. It was a classic tug-of-war with myself.

Like David Gorman—one of my favorite writers and teachers—says, “Never pick a fight with yourself, because someone’s gonna lose and it’s gonna be you.” So I decided to start from scratch and study how the pick actually produces a sound. I began by setting the pick on an open string—let’s use the open 3rd string for our example— to see if I could sense any excessive tension as I anticipated picking the string. To my surprise and delight, I absolutely did. It was as though just by making contact with the string, I felt the pressure to make the string sound and where that anxiety manifested most was in holding my breath and locking the right shoulder.

From my studies of the Alexander Technique, I was aware of the difference between stimulus and reaction. The stimulus in this case was the registered desire to pluck the string, and the reaction was tightening my muscles to make that happen. So after taking note of how I was organizing the act of plucking, I decided to see what would happen if I set the pick on the string, noticed the tensing, and then imagined how I would behave differently if the pick had to stay there for 20 minutes.

Once I considered this, I quickly noticed the tension started to subside. It was as though I had given up my expectation and was able to rest. In the absence of the anxiety, I started to realize I’d been under the impression I had to make a big effort to pluck the string. Since I started playing when I was a boy and the guitar was much bigger, I probably had to work harder to produce a sound. But at this point, I have changed in stature from those days and my relationship to the guitar needed to change as well.

Essentially, I was meeting the string with equal force and finding a point of balance rather than overriding the string. So I’d practice resting the pick on the string, allowing the excessive tension to subside. I’d then take my hand off and let it rest, and repeat the process—all as a means of breaking my habitual trajectory from stimulus to reaction.

The next step involved sounding the string. Once I felt I had sufficiently eased my commitment to my habits, I wanted to find a new way to pluck the string without reverting to my old, overpowering ways. At this point, I had a vivid image of an Olympic diver bouncing on a diving board in preparation for a dive. It reminded me of the pick on the string. If I could “bounce” on the string—effectively sensing the equal force between the string and my hand—all I’d need to do to make the string sound would be to give up my resistance. Like the diver on the diving board, I could let the springiness of the string do more of the work. Rather than being propelled away from the string, I would cease meeting the string with equal force, and instead, give up. Let the string win. By imagining the string almost cutting up through the pick (on a downstroke), it felt as though the string played itself and I was there to create just enough friction to get things started.

After doing this a few times, I noticed that for the first time, I didn’t feel tension in picking the string. The sound wasn’t very loud at first, but it sounded fuller and like a more complete gesture. After practicing downstrokes for a while, I tried upstrokes and was pleased to find the same mechanism applied. As I would place the pick on the bottom side of the string in preparation for an upstroke, I felt my habitual tensing and urge to “lift” up. However, from this new perspective I was able to meet the resistance of the string and imagine the string falling through the pick. Like the downstroke, the sound seemed to release out of the instrument rather than being forced.

This experience soon became the foundation for how I approach picking. Starting with open strings, I eventually transitioned to playing scales and arpeggios, using both alternate picking, as well as sweeping. There are times when I’ll choose to override the string with a big downstroke or upstroke. However, I regularly come back to this practice as a means of resetting my concept of how much pressure I think I need to put into picking. Inevitably, it is a lot less than I think.

The next step to explore was the lefthand technique. For me, the role of the right hand had shifted from one of being highly controlled to meeting the guitar and letting the sound come out as a consequence of more efficient movement. So with the left hand, I was interested in examining what I had perceived its role to be. What I discovered had to do with a struggle between viewing the left hand as a tool for holding the guitar in place and also being able to move freely across the fretboard. I was essentially trying to stabilize the guitar with my left hand while trying to remain free and agile. As I told my friend, it was like having a butterfly on a leash. And again, I saw that this related to learning guitar as a boy and doing everything in my power not to drop it while still playing what I wanted. Realizing this, I started to notice that I was trying to equalize both desires by squeezing the neck and then trying to move my hand around the neck—a conflict of directions.

I went back to the beginning: How do you press down on a string? Is it my job to overpower like my old right-hand approach or was there more information I could learn from the guitar if I ceased squeezing? I was delighted to find that what I had discovered in the right hand applied wonderfully to the left hand as well. I began by placing my first finger on the 3rd string, 5th fret (sounding a C). I’d depress the string slightly and allow the string’s resistance to push my finger off. It was as though I was pushing the string and letting myself be pushed. I would practice pushing down too hard and then letting the string/diving-board effect push me off.

The more I did this, the more I started to respect the tension of the guitar and become aware that no matter how much I could override a string while fretting, the string inevitably found equilibrium as an open string. I began to practice meeting the string, letting my eagerness to fret it calm down slightly, at which point I would let my left hand fall into the string, depress it momentarily, and then give up, and let the string push my finger off.

In essence, I was becoming aware that how you come off of a string is as important as is landing on it. In both the right and left hands, it seemed to really be about doing less and refining my gestures to be as appropriate to the design of the guitar as possible, rather than trying to impose “my technique” on the instrument.

The last piece of this exploratory period was researching how the hand gets from one position to another with minimal effort. For years, I had played as though the fingers were entirely responsible for getting me up and down the neck, and the rest of my body just followed. However, after more research, I started to realize that the hand gets where it needs to go when the arm moves. And the arm moves when your breathing is free. And your breathing is freer when you are listening to the music being created. So it’s all connected.

If I was playing a phrase in the first three frets and then wanted to jump to the 12th fret, I started to realize that I didn’t have to reach up to the 12th fret, but rather if I moved my forearm in that direction, my fingers would follow suit and conveniently be positioned exactly where I needed them. So in addition to understanding the mechanics of picking and fretting from this new perspective, I could see that both hands could be moved easily if I didn’t try to move at the source of playing. With scales, I would practice moving my arm along the trajectory needed to play a scale from the 1st fret to the 12th fret without actually fretting the notes, just allowing the fingers to glide across the strings. Once this movement started to feel comfortable at a slow tempo, I would gradually start “tucking” in the notes, by letting my fingers fall momentarily into place on the desired pitch. This was a huge discovery for me.

Eventually, I was able to move way more freely and without as much tension. Much like my discoveries about the left and right hands, I was now able to see arm movement not as an advanced skill set, but rather a mechanical process. Once I’d clarified the process of what it takes to move my hand, I could then apply the mechanics to the guitar.

Most importantly, the thing that will help you to achieve the best technique possible is to regularly make time to assess how you do what you do, and to let the sound be your guiding light. And whether my discoveries help you or you find alternative strategies, I believe the most effective approach to guitar technique is to be respectful of the guitar’s design while also being aware and appreciative of your own design. These twin perspectives will help you create music that most honestly represents you.

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Chops: Intermediate Theory: Intermediate Lesson Overview: • Learn to generate new voicings. • Experience harmony''s gravitational force. • Explore octave displacement. Click here to download the accompanying mp3 audio

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn to generate new voicings.
• Experience harmony's gravitational force.
• Explore octave displacement.

Click here to download the accompanying mp3 audio examples.

This month I’d like to explore several approaches to generating new voicings on the guitar. Harmony is often a mysterious and clouded subject for guitarists. We know the importance of playing interesting and supportive voicings, but the way to go about finding these isn’t always obvious. When I first started getting seriously into jazz and learning how to comp, I was really committed to learning as many voicings as possible. Often I would refer to Ted Greene’s seminal book, Chord Chemistry, as the all-encompassing source of cool chords and unusual shapes. As I worked through the book I ran into a conundrum. I would learn interesting chords, but I wasn’t sure how to apply them in a playing situation. It was as though I was always looking for the right place to try them out. More times then not, the result sounded like I was forcing the chords onto the music—whether it needed them or not—rather than allowing my ear to lead me into the appropriate harmonic territory.

On my newly initiated journey to discover the inner workings of harmony, I came across a few key concepts that really helped me to understand harmony as a living breathing organism rather than a fixed theoretical concept. It started to seem that voicings were no longer something I had to learn and then apply, but rather the consequence of a deeper understanding of the tug of war that exists within harmony’s gravitational force. This realization came largely from a lesson I learned from vibraphonist Gary Burton.

In response to asking him about comping and voicings, he told me that he learned the most about how to construct voicings from guitarist Jim Hall. I was amazed that another instrument looked to the guitar for harmonic direction—we always seem to be the last to know how this stuff works! I was fascinated by what it was he took from Jim’s approach. Because Gary plays with four mallets, he found that the structure of his voicings had more in common with what guitarists play than the larger-structure approach used by pianists. Both vibes and guitar have similar restrictions and therefore note choices become increasingly important. Gary proceeded to show me an exercise he’d developed after checking out Jim Hall, which quickly became an invaluable tool in teaching me how to build stronger voicings.

The first step is to pick a tonality—let’s say A major. With this key in mind, you set the metronome to a comfortable tempo for quarter-notes, maybe something like 100 bpm. With these parameters in place, you practice alternating between closed and open voicings within the chosen key.

Just as a reminder, we think of closed voicings as being built with intervals of a third or smaller and open voicings using a fourth or larger. You are essentially improvising chord shapes the same way you improvise melodies. The key to this exercise is that any note in the A major scale is fair game. It isn’t necessary to always play the root, 3rd, or 5th of the chord, and in reality, if you are playing with a bass player or other accompanist, you usually don’t need to double these fundamental pitches. The only guideline to keep in mind is that whenever you double a pitch an octave above or below, it usually has the effect of canceling out the fundamental overtones and results in a weaker overall voicing.

In Fig. 1 you can see an example of something I might improvise using this idea. I began with a closed voicing (B–C#–E) and then move to an open voicing (A–E–B–G) and then alternate between the two all while staying within the key of A. When I first began to practice this, I started to see the given tonality light up across the entire fretboard. It was like all the notes of the scale were bright red and were equal candidates for expressing the given tonality. From this perspective, any combination of notes you play within those seven pitches becomes available to you and keeps your chords sounding fresh and agile. If you improvise voicings like this for 10 minutes a day for a week, two weeks, or a month, you will start to have a completely different sense of how flexible harmony can be, as well as an appreciation for just how many harmonic possibilities exist on the guitar.

Another exercise that helped me to perceive harmony as a flowing and moving phenomenon rather than a static event, involves looking at things from a purely mechanical point of view. Not only is it important to hear the way harmony works, but it can be helpful to train your hands to feel comfortable with adjusting to constantly changing harmonic terrain.

In Fig. 2 we begin with a chord shape, in this case Cmaj7. Again, we set the metronome to a comfortable tempo and practice moving one note either up or down every four beats. Like a spider crawling up the neck, the goal with this is to work your hand all the way up the neck and then back down in a fluid manner. Move all the way to the top fret of your guitar and then back down to the 1st fret. Play around with moving your fourth finger up one fret, then moving your third finger down a fret. Then you can move your first up, your second up, and then your fourth down. It is kind of the fretboard equivalent of taking two steps forward, one step back, however, with this you are encouraged to try different combinations so as to not ever get stuck playing a pattern.

The bonus is that along the way, you might find some cool shapes that you haven’t played before. And when this happens, one thing you can do to maximize the results of your discovery is to isolate the newly discovered chord, find out what tonal center it belongs to—often there are many—and move it diatonically through the appropriate scale.

For example, in Fig. 3 we start with a D–G–B–F voicing, which can be seen as the 9th, 5th, 7th, and 4th degrees, respectively, in the key of C. You can then move each note up one step in the scale and continue this sequence up and down the scale to find as many new voicings as there are notes in the scale.

One final idea to play around with when working on new voicings: Apply octave displacement, as shown in Fig. 4. I learned this from the great guitarist Steve Kimock, who in our lessons used to have me practice voicings in all the possible octaves of the guitar. This contributed to my understanding the fretboard and allowed me to see that every voicing can be totally transformed by simply relocating to a new register. Additionally, you can play around with moving only one or two notes up or down an octave to alter the sound. Variation is the heartbeat of creative chord construction and this lends itself beautifully to the guitar.

For an example of how all of these concepts can be applied to a tune, in Fig. 5 I’ve illustrated how I might comp over the form of Elizabeth Cotten’s masterful classic, “Freight Train.”

The key that unlocks all these methods of exploring harmony on the guitar is understanding that chords don’t ever have to be final. Every chord can be viewed as arrested motion—or melodies in transit. A four-note voicing is really four melodies that are coming from somewhere and on their way somewhere, and if you let the melodic development of each internal voice suggest what chord to play next, your harmonies will always be relevant to what came before. This approach will help your comping sound like an integrative musical statement in and of itself, independent yet supportive of everything else that is going on.

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Today I want to explore ways to approach improvising long, fluid, rhythmically dynamic lines.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Create flowing lines that include intervallic ideas.
• Incorporate different rhythmic devices into your improvisations.
• Outline chord changes clearly with a series of eighth-notes.

I’ll never forget first hearing Pat Metheny’s solo break on “Third Wind.” After about a minute and a half of developing an actively growing harmonic progression with incredible rhythmic intensity, the whole band comes to a complete stop and Pat plays an eight-measure break filled with big intervallic leaps, slurs, dynamic changes, and colorful harmonic implications—all in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, the band is back in and his solo is officially under way. Pat’s ability to take an eight-measure phrase of 16th-notes and bend them like a rope around a curving path blew my mind.

And the deeper I got into the master improvisers—like John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and John McLaughlin—the more I heard this approach being repeated, each time with unique and stunning variations. So today I want to explore ways to approach improvising long, fluid, rhythmically dynamic lines.

A great way to begin this process of discovery is to start within a given scale or tonal center. For this exercise, we’ll use the key of A major. Often when we practice scales, we’ll start from the lowest note and move in sequence up to the top and then back down. The drawback to this approach is that we unconsciously condition ourselves to improvise in the same way. This is why your soloing can start to sound like you are running a series of scales rather than creating musical phrases with a clear narrative.

To counteract this tendency, let’s try a different approach. First, set the metronome to a comfortable tempo for eighth-notes—perhaps a quarter-note at about 66 bpm. Next, designate a time frame (five minutes, for example), and then begin improvising within the A major scale, but using random sequences of notes.

In addition to the tempo and tonal parameters that are in place, include in your awareness the physical parameters of the guitar. By making all seven notes of the A major scale fair game, you begin to break down preconceived ideas of positions. You can see an example of this in Fig. 1. Although I think positions can be of great benefit to a guitarist, I have found tremendous freedom in viewing all As or C#s or F#s as equal. The fingerings presented in these examples are merely a suggestion. I encourage you to explore and find and explore your own fingerings while not becoming locked into one shape. Your hand should be free to move to anyone of them in the spirit of honoring the musical statement you’re making at any given moment.

Once you begin to feel an increased sense of agility and free movement in both hands, shift your focus to playing lines that move entirely in a given direction. One of the attributes that all my favorite improvisers seem to share is the ability to play long fluid lines that move entirely up or down the neck. It seems they are unobstructed by any physical barriers set by the instrument, or at least they’re able to deal with them in a way that is not obvious to the listener.

So let’s practice alternating two measures of a line in A major that goes entirely up—meaning every pitch is at least one step higher than the last—followed by a twomeasure line that moves entirely downward (Fig. 2). This exercise is especially tricky on the guitar, because so often we’ll reach the high string and still have another measure’s worth of notes to play. In this case, the biggest challenge is pacing your line so you move as much horizontally on a given string as you do vertically. This strategy helps you avoid getting stuck on the 1st string in the home stretch.

So far, we’ve kept the rhythmic parameters constant by playing only eighth-notes. Now, it is time to add the eighth-note triplet to the mix. One of the ironies of playing long, impressive-sounding lines is that even if the content is interesting, if the rhythmic delivery is constant (da-da-da-da-da-da) it can be easy for the listener to tune out. So rhythmic variety is essential. Let’s continue alternating lines that go up with lines that go down, but this time we’ll add at least one eighth-note triplet per line. In Fig. 3, you can see an example of an improvisation using this idea.

In addition to keeping your line sounding active and dynamic, this can prove to be a wonderful study for your picking hand. When I first started incorporating triplets into my lines, it got me to start combining alternate picking and sweep picking, to accommodate the shift back and forth between eighth-notes and triplets. As this becomes more comfortable, try creating your own rhythmic patterns. For instance, try accenting every fifth eighth-note or playing four triplets in a row. As you do this, keep moving up the neck and try to incorporate slower subdivisions. Soon, you’ll be able to switch between slower and faster subdivisions with tremendous ease—all while maintaining the melodic integrity of your line.

Finally, let’s apply these lines to a chord progression. When improvising lines over a series of chords that change every measure or two, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the harmonic variety and result in your lines sounding choppy. In Fig. 4. we will use the following chord progression: Dm–G7–Bbm–Emaj7–Ebmaj7(#11).

Here’s the most important thing to remember when encountering a harmonic progression like this: The integrity of your line shines above all. If the line has a clear direction, rhythmic variation, and great execution, it will be a knockout.

Let’s try it. With a recording of this chord progression in place, practice playing a line of constant eighth-notes (occasional triplets are allowed) that ascends for the first two chords, followed by a line that descends for the next two chords. Finally, play a line that moves in any or all directions for the last chord. Of course, in performance you might not want to always solo in this style, but it can be a great way to get your hands moving in a new and free way. This approach can make a useful starting point for practicing new scales, new chords, or new harmonic progressions.

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