Jazz in your blues

By mic on 3/16/2013

Long ago I had picked up "All Blues for Jazz Guitar – comping styles, chors, and grooves" by Jim Ferguson. This book is about putting some jazz in your blues (or some blues in your jazz?). When I considered myself an "intermediate" guitar player and had the opportunity to play in jam sessions with musicians, who were well ahead of me, this book gave me plenty of good pointers. It allowed me to understand how music can become less rigid and without boundaries, how rhythm and melody can play off of each other, and how music theory can become practice.

The purpose of this post is not to re-explain the ideas of the book. I cannot do it as well. Rather, the purpose of this post is to provide a brief overview. I am hoping to simply direct "intermediate" guitarists, those who are usually stuck between a number of guitar handbooks that are too simple and guitar books that are too complex, to a few interesting ideas. I will likely not give the book justice, but, either way:

  • Simplistic voice leading means using chord progressions in which chords are voiced such that the notes of the bass in the chords or the top of the chords (or both, together or in contrary motion) follow a natural smooth melody. Voice leading can be used when, rather than just following the basic blues progression, the chords on the basic blues progression transition from one to the other through intermediaries. In blues – something I picked up immediately when playing guitar with others – the simplest way to transition is in the last half of the last beat before the chord (e.g., rather than to A7, going through A#7 to get to A7). This is the "half step approach". (Speaking of voice leading, there are a few examples in the book where the top note of the chord progression remains the same pretty much throughout, until the turnaround. Similarly and something very common, blues rhythm guitarists often use some voice leading by walking the bass notes to approach chords).
  • For all this to work, chord voicing (and, as always, rhythm) is important – how and where chords are played on the guitar neck. There are many possible chord voicing options. One thing I picked up from either this book or a different one ("Jazz Riff Sampler", I think, as this book hints at it but does not state it explicitly; I cannot remember) is that some chords are very similar, and depending on the voicing one chord can sound much more like a different chord. There are only twelve notes on the chromatic scale, after all. For example, F = F, A, C and Dm7 = D, F, A, C have the same three F, A, and C (use F7 or whatever other variations). Thus, in a blues in C, a minor seventh chord built on the second note of the scale (on D), could substitute the standard chord on the fourth (on F).
  • How would one remember all the different chords at all positions? The book suggests to, instead of learning chords, learn scales of chords. An example "chord scale" of four-note chords in the book walks the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G (the G Mixolydian scale) on the first string of the guitar (the top note of the chords), whereas the other three notes of each chord try to complete the G7 = G, B, D, F chord, as much as possible. Alternatively, a scale chord can be built by starting on a chord and moving up the neck, where each note of the chord will move to the next note of one and the same scale.
  • All of this, of course, becomes that much more interesting, when combined with the endless possible rhythmic options. One must be careful, as not all voice leading / chord substitution techniques will work with all rhythmic figures. Some rhythmic figures do not offer enough action to allow too many chords. I like the fact that there is a repeated theme in the book – too many chords played / changed too quickly does not make a good jazz guitarists and a few chords can be very effective in the appropriate rhythmic structure.

This is the gist of the book (what I took from it). There are, of course, examples of advanced rhythm and voice leading techniques, but that is a separate story. The book is, for the most part, a lot of examples and not that much explanation. That is good and bad – a lot of work to figure out why certain chord progressions work the way they do, but doing the work helps in learning. The book remains interesting to me, as it has allowed me to move beyond simple rhythm and standard solos into something that I have always wanted to do – "soloing with chords".

authors: mic

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