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Tag: jazz

10 Years to Learn a Lick?

Confession time: I’m a terrible student. March 2019 marked an entire decade since I took a lesson with the great Dr Richard Niles, a guitarist/producer/composer/arranger who studied under Pat Metheny…

Confession time: I’m a terrible student.

March 2019 marked an entire decade since I took a lesson with the great Dr Richard Niles, a guitarist/producer/composer/arranger who studied under Pat Metheny at Berklee in the 1970s and has subsequently worked with Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, James Brown and a host of others.

I met Richard while studying for my degree at The Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, and shortly after graduating I began to realise that in spite of having a music degree I still didn’t know enough about harmony and improvisation to feel comfortable as a freelance musician, particularly as I was starting to develop an unhealthy interest in The Dark Arts of Jazz.

It turned out that I had a lot to learn (and still do). Reviewing the dictaphone recording of the lesson is hilarious and humiliating in equal measures as Richard begins to ascertain the extent of my ignorance. In order to get my rather malnourished sense of harmony on track, he gave me a set of exercises that involved voice leading through a split-bar ii-V-I progression using arpeggios.

Wait, what?

Here’s a basic ii-V-I in the key of F major (7th chords on bass are almost always better with the 5th omitted):

 

Voice leading is an expensive-sounding term for finding the path of least resistance between chords – in this case, we’re looking for semitone resolution from one chord to the next.

The b7 of the Gm7 chord (F) falls by a semitone to become the major 3rd of the C7 chord. This process is repeated for the resolution from V to I: the b7 of the C7 chord (Bb) falls by a semitone to become the major 3rd of the F chord (A):

Playing just these notes (known as ‘guide tones’, because they guide your ear to the sound of each chord) provides us with the essential outline of the ii-V-I progression:

Building an 8th-note line that includes these semitone movements can be done using a simple combination of ascending and descending arpeggios:

Why is that a useful thing to practise? Even if you’re not looking to become a fully fledged jazzer then it’s still a very nutritious exercise. My perspective is that although I don’t want to make playing jazz standards my main thing, I definitely don’t want to have to shut myself off to that area of music because I haven’t done my homework and put the hours in; improvising over a set of chords changes with confidence and musicality is the hardest thing I can think of to do on the bass.

Playing these sorts of exercises will benefit your playing in four different ways:

A greater understanding of harmony: this sort of harmony is not limited to jazz, and understanding the way in which chords move can help to improve your playing regardless of the areas that you operate in.
Voice leading: as bass players, we spend our lives moving from root to root and are often guilty of not thinking about the rest of the notes in the chord. Developing an intuitive sense of voice leading helps to strengthen the melodic content of both your solos and your basslines.
Technique: this is a great example of an exercise that falls into the ‘music, not chops’ category – everything here is derived from a musical concept, and working out how these patterns fit on the fretboard in every possible way will definitely present your fingers with a variety of technical issues to solve.
Vocabulary: This is the main reason why I was prescribed these exercises: even though I understood the concept on paper I definitely couldn’t conjure up an improvised line that fulfilled the criteria of using arpeggios to voice lead a melodic line through a split-bar ii-V-I. Developing fluency in improvisation in jazz or any other style of music first requires that you amass a collection of small fragments that can easily be recalled whenever you get into trouble and don’t know what to play, and these sorts of lines are a great starting point.

A full run-down of possible fingerings for this exercise on 4- and 5-string basses can be found here:

ii-V-I Licks I Ought to Have Learned by Now

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Learning By Stealing

Learning How To Learn Learning a new skill can be a daunting task, especially if you’re pushed for time – which, let’s face it, we all are. The good news…

Learning How To Learn

Learning a new skill can be a daunting task, especially if you’re pushed for time – which, let’s face it, we all are. The good news is that there’s a straightforward, repeatable process for skill acquisition that works regardless of whether you want to learn to juggle, cook or play decent walking bass.

Let’s stick with the last of those items; I was raised on a solid diet of classic rock, singer-songwriters and classical music – basically all the genres that don’t swing – which meant that developing the skills necessary to play jazz with any sort of competence has been (and continues to be) something of an uphill struggle.

It turns out that the solution to learning anything effectively is actually about learning how to steal.

Steal From The Best

To outline the process of assimilating walking bass vocabulary from a pro, I’ve enlisted the help of John Patitucci (I’m fairly sure that he’s completed jazz on expert mode).

Important note: This process can be used to learn anything musical (or, actually, anything non-musical, too). If you’re averse to jazz then you can still get results from applying the method to any style of music that you’re learning. What we’re actually doing is:

  1. Modelling a professional by transcribing their playing in a given context
  2. Analysing their strategy in order to tease out the underlying concepts
  3. Creating an etude that succinctly incorporates the methods of a master musician
  4. Imitating these phrases until they become ingrained in our playing
  5. Building new vocabulary based on the previously learned phrases

 

Here’s how I used the process of transcription to teach myself about walking bass concepts and develop my own vocabulary:

The source material was this John Patitucci masterclass – I’m guessing from hair/jumper combo that it’s from the 1990s:

JP discusses different approaches to walking through standards, playing ‘Stella by Starlight’ (he later plays through ‘Alone Together’) and mentions some key concepts in playing effective walking bass in both a 2-feel and playing 4 notes to the bar.

What Did I Do?

1. Transcribed 5 choruses of John Patitucci walking on ‘Stella’

The actual transcription process was quite straightforward thanks to the setting of the clinic – it’s just bass and guitar, so there’s no piano or drum kit to obscure the low end. The audio quality is also pretty good compared to many recordings from the 1950s where it’s often difficult to accurately isolate the pitches of a walking bass line. Other must-hear recordings with a similar duo lineup include Jim Hall & Ron Carter Alone Together and – one of my favourite albums ever – Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden Beyond The Missouri Sky

The transcription reveals that JP plays some changes differently as the tune progresses choruses; bar 12 of the form is outlined as Gm7 – C7 in the head, then Bbm7 – Eb7 for solos (as per the changes in most real books).

The transcription is available for download here: John Patitucci – ‘Stella By Starlight’ pdf

2. Created a ‘transcription graph’ in Sibelius

What’s a transcription graph? This is a transcription graph:

This is something that I’ve stolen from saxophonist David Liebman (there’s a pdf kicking about on the interweb detailing his very intensive transcription process). Aligning the choruses vertically makes it easy to spot phrases that appear multiple times as the tune progresses.

3. Analysed the harmonic content of the lines

Each note was labelled according to its function relating to the harmony – either a chord tone, scalar approach note or chromatic approach. Some notes have dual functions, where they are both chord tones and act as an approach note into the next bar.

4. Highlighted phrases common to multiple choruses (‘licks’)

Any phrases that had similar harmonic content were highlighted to easily spot JP’s favourite walking bass licks; I opted for the rather attractive hue that Sibelius calls ‘salmon’ to make things stand out:

 

5. Created composite choruses

I copied and pasted the most frequently occuring line for each successive bar of the tune in order to create a composite walking bass etude that features the essential elements of John Patitucci’s walking bass concepts – one chorus of a 2-feel, another with ‘regular’ walking bass.

Some octave adjustment of pitches was necessary in order to preserve the contour of the lines and make things feel less ‘cut and paste’.

So here you have it – 2 choruses of small, easily digestible fragments that have been distilled from a larger pool of source material:

‘Stella By Starlight’ – Composite Walking Bass Etude pdf

The next steps look something like this:

6. Learn the lines

Memorise the etude. I’d suggest learning this in 12 keys, but few people ever bother to do that. Personally, I’d rather transpose it into 3 or 4 keys and then…

7. Apply to other tunes

Write out etudes based on this one for other tunes in your repertoire

8. Write your own variations

As you play through the lines, you might find that your ears suggest other routes for navigating the harmony; write them down and create your own ‘licktionary’.

 

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Bro, Do You Even Syncopate?

Get out more, get more out of it Confessions of a working bassist #37: I’m terrible at getting out to hear gigs. Maybe 3 times a year I’ll get my…

Get out more, get more out of it

Confessions of a working bassist #37: I’m terrible at getting out to hear gigs. Maybe 3 times a year I’ll get my act together, check listings, book tickets and go and enjoy being in the audience rather than on the stage.

This post comes from one such occasion this time last year, when I saw that Mark Giuliana was coming to town – I’d heard lots of buzz about him from other musicians and was vaguely aware of his Beat Music project (featuring bass hero Tim LeFebvre) but had never actually bothered to listen to much of his output.

One of the most memorable moments of the gig involved a tune with a lengthy bass and drum intro that consisted of nothing but horribly syncopated unison stabs and didn’t appear to feature any repeating figures. After some Spotify surfing the following morning, it turned out that the song in question was ‘One Month’ from 2015’s Family First album – I realised yesterday that it had been on my transcription ‘to-do’ list for almost an entire year, and my brain was repeatedly nagging me to sit down and decipher what was going on:

 

It’s 2 notes in 4/4 time – how hard could it be?! Try sight reading this at 130bpm:

It’s a roast-up, right? Now, if you want a real challenge, attempt to memorise it.

Dealing with flyshit

I still vividly remember my first lecture at music college – I was 19 years old and had come from a small town with very little in the way of a music scene, so I thought I was pretty good. As soon as this was put in front of me I quickly realised that I knew nothing:

Having grown up on a solid diet of internet TABs and Hot Licks videos, my reading ability was somewhat lacking. I was determined not to be beaten by the little black dots, and by the end of the year I was one of the best readers in the class. How did I do it?

From zero to (reading) hero

My lectures didn’t start until 11am, so I resolved to get up at 7.30 every day and do a couple of hour’s work on my weaknesses – there were (and still are) many – with a particular focus on reading. I worked on rhythm separately from pitch and slogged my way through this riveting tome:

 

If you can read this book, you can read (almost) anything. And, if you can read it then you can also hear rhythmic figures elsewhere and write them down quickly There’s an entire blog post on it here.

 

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Janek Gwizdala Masterclass 2007 Part 3: Gear, Tradition and Finding Your Voice

Here’s the third and final instalment of Janek Gwizdala’s bass clinic at ACM Guildford in 2007. For those who missed the first two episodes, you can find them here: –…

Here’s the third and final instalment of Janek Gwizdala’s bass clinic at ACM Guildford in 2007. For those who missed the first two episodes, you can find them here:

Part 1 focuses on transcription, including things he stole from George Benson and Allan Holdsworth
Part 2 deals with Janek’s early days playing the bass and how he developed his prodigious technique

Part 3 covers a range of topics, including:

Janek’s philosophy on equipment

Regular viewers of his ‘coffee with Janek’ blog might find it interesting to hear how his views on being a gear head have shifted over the last decade – this masterclass happened before he started hanging out with Juan Alderete and stockpiling Meatboxes and OC-2 pedals.

The value of understanding tradition

While talking about his time playing with the late Hiram Bullock, Janek reveals that he didn’t begin his journey with jazz and started on a solid diet of pop music before moving on to the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.

One of the most important points that Janek makes on this topic is that it’s essential to have a comprehensive knowledge of your chosen musical genre(s) before you can forge your own musical path – if you don’t know what has come before you, then how can know when you’re being original?

(and yes, I was that guy who knew everything about Anthony Jackson. I’m pretty handy at a pub quiz…)

finding your ‘voice’ on your instrument

Closely linked to the idea of understanding your ‘place’ in musical history is the importance of not simply regurgitating things that have happened before – but how do you work out which direction you should go in? Janek discusses some of his own ‘self talk’ that he uses in musical decision making.

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