How to wrangle the rhythm in the style of one of today’s greatest improvisers.
• Develop a better internal clock.
• Learn how to subdivide to a sixteenth-note pulse.
• Create angular and quirky lines in the style of Wayne Krantz.
I am thrilled to bring you a lesson on one of my absolute favorite guitarists: Wayne Krantz. Wayne came into my life at the perfect moment, and I am forever grateful to my drummer for exposing me to his playing. Years of touring in a jam band made me realize I had to figure out a new sound in order to minimize the Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Chuck Garvey (moe.) comparisons. I was looking for something to inspire me when my bandmate exposed me to the documentary footage of Wayne, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Keith Carlock playing the Marciac Jazz Festival from 1999.
The immediate thing that struck me about Wayne is that he has a thing that is entirely his own. He sounds like no other player I had ever heard, but the main thing is how heavily influenced he is by rhythm and groove. Most of the time, as guitarists, we think only in terms of melody and harmony. We all want to be able to burn and play as many notes as possible. I myself have wandered in those glorious fields as well—but consider this for one second: What if we were to improvise both melodically and harmonically creating motifs with rhythm?
Crafting a solo and improvising is like having a conversation with your compadres on stage. We need to listen to and feed off one another to help an improvised section go somewhere. Using melody and harmony can be a great way to create tension and release, but rhythmic dissonance and heavily syncopated rhythms can create the same effect. My favorite things about Wayne's playing are his internal clock and his fearlessness to explore rhythms. There are so many players that I look up to and study on a regular basis, and they all have that boldness in common. In an improvisational setting we sometimes worry that we're not getting to the point quick enough, but it's an illusion, and we have to learn to let go of that mindset when exploring unknown territory. Learn to be patient and take your time to discover new musical pathways. One of the easiest ways to do this is through developing rhythmic motifs.
Let's consider for a second that we are just concentrating on melody. If we're improvising, a motif might be a repeating melody and variations around that melody to create a memorable “theme." We can do the same thing with rhythmic ideas. Think about some of the most memorable rhythms from the past 50 years of music. What do you gravitate towards when lost in a groove? What are the things that make you nod your head involuntarily? If you're like me and you love funk, soul, and R&B music, you might find that all of those genres have one specific thing in common: They all live on a 16th-note grid. That doesn't mean it's metronomic, but rather that a 16th-note is the smallest unit of rhythm used in these genres.
One of the greatest things I have taken away from studying Krantz through the years is his ability to lock into a 16th-note feel and fantastically exploit rhythmic motifs exploring different accents and using space to his advantage. I know this is cliché, but space is just as important as the notes you play; sometimes it's more important! Let's explore the this together and talk about some exercises that can enable you to feel those grooves more naturally.
Okay, what the heck does this cat mean by a grid? To put it simply, it's just dividing each measure into 16 notes. That means each quarter-note is divided into four 16th-notes. We count these rhythms like“1– e – and – uh, 2 – e – and – uh," and so on. Funk is heavily syncopated and relies on this idea to imply and create the grooves we all have come to love. Listen to the beginning of Vulfpeck's “Dean Town" … Joe Dart on the 16ths y'all!
Krantz uses this masterfully in the way he approaches improvisation and also in the way he composes music too. I got to hang out with him years ago when I was interviewing him for Berklee Online, and we discussed how he writes and how he thinks about approaching improvisation. Even in his examples, I could see him mouthing/implying a 16th-note parameter. His feel for turning four-measure phrases is uncanny and a great place to start when it comes to working on feeling the cycle of a complete four-measure idea. How do we work on this and what can we do with it? Good question, let's get to work with some exercises to stretch those muscles.
The following examples are ways to get rhythm into your hands and help you “Krantz" up your chops (don't forget to put that Strat pickup selector in the second position—that's the sound).
Ex. 1 is turning a short phrase and only playing the “e" of every downbeat. You'll immediately feel the displacement from where you'd normally square things off on an upbeat for instance.
The second example (Ex. 2) changes the accent to the “uh" of every downbeat. This tends to be harder for folks to catch onto immediately but once you get the groove you'll cruise!
Ex. 3 is combines two measures on the “e" and two measures on the “uh." Really try to lock in and feel the end of the four-measure phrase.
Lastly, Ex. 4 makes use of these ideas while improvising in a C major tonal center. Don't be afraid to really limit yourself in the beginning with the amount of notes available, just concentrate on creating an interesting groove/feel, something angular, or something left of center … but most importantly something fun!
These exercises and examples are merely a way towards a more solid rhythmic feel, even if you don't go full “Krantz." I heartily recommend checking out his albums and books to get a deeper insight on what makes WK tick.