Do you follow Jazz and Grass on instagram? If so, I’m Lyman Lipke, the other half that isn’t Marcel. If you don’t follow Jazz and Grass, then I’m just some guy with a few opinions on guitar and music related things. Marcel and I have played in groups before, including a bluegrass band! I want to make something clear though, I am NOT a bluegrass guitar player. I bow to The Billy Goat in that respect. I’d wager that a large number of you readers are bluegrass players. With that in mind, Marcel came up with the idea to have me give all of his blog readers (hey, that’s you) an introduction to jazz.
That looks complicated right? Lots of extra symbols and numbers. It’s not too complicated. In jazz (or any kind of music, really) the three biggest things I would look and listen to first, are harmonic content, melodic content, and rhythm/phrasing.
The thing that was mysterious to me about jazz when I was first learning about the genre, was all of the cool chords. I heard terms thrown around like Major 7s, Minor 9s, Diminished and Augmented. These terms eventually make sense, but in reality, there’s three general sounds that you’ll hear that set the foundation for these chords.
Major, Minor and Dominant. That’s the basis of (almost) all the chords in the most common jazz standards. If you’ve been following Marcel for a while, I assume you’re familiar with these simple chord types. If not, hang tight, we’ll get there in a future post. Ab13#11, C#dim7, Bm11, Amaj7#11, C69, Gm7b5… all of these chords can fit in to these three categories (a couple of them might even fit in to two)! Once you get the basics of Major, Minor and Dominant down, then you can start adding these extra flavors into your chords. Which flavors can you use? Again, we’ll get to that in later posts. Learn to identify Major, Minor, and Dominant sounds. That should give you a good foundation to build off of before starting to get too fancy with the harmony.
Melodies in jazz are important. Melodies are important in general. Improvisation is one of the hallmarks of jazz, and when you’re improvising, your goal should be to compose a melody over the harmony of the tune you’re playing on, in real time. Sounds tough right? It’s absolutely tough, but there are a few things you can listen for and try to emulate. There are a multitude of different melodic languages in jazz, but the one I like to focus on is Bebop. Bebop melodies usually use scales in interesting ways, enclosures (playing a note or two above and below a target tone), chromaticism (using extra notes that aren’t in the scale you’re currently using), and extended arpeggios. Having your triads and scales down pat will make improvising much easier. This is a good place to start, when trying to learn tunes or solo.
And now, probably the most difficult part about playing jazz, rhythm and phrasing. The 8th note is a tricky little bugger, as its value is different across genres. Two bebop 8th notes will have a different ratio as opposed to two samba 8th notes. Or two 8th notes on a ballad. Or on a dixieland tune. One thing I want to be abundantly clear on. Two swing 8th notes =/= a quarter note triplet and an 8th note triplet. That’s something taught in high schools (and some colleges) that is completely wrong, in my opinion. If we were to look at one beat as a ruler, the ratio of a swing 8th note is somewhere between equally divided, 6in to 6in, and 75/25, 9in to 3in. A quarter note triplet and an 8th note triplet is right smack dab in the middle of those two options. 66/33 (give or take a unit).
The interesting thing is, the length of time you give each 8th note varies between tempos. Two swing 8th notes at 90 bpm will be closer to 75/25 than two swing 8th notes at 220 bpm. It would feel really wonky to play your 8th notes that unevenly at such a fast tempo. My personal swing 8th note lives around 55/45. Listen to different players and you’ll begin to notice how they swing differently.
Another thing I’d like to point out, is where the accents live, in swing. They usually live on the and of each beat, or the upbeats. Except when they don’t. Again, that’s something you just have to listen to, but as a good default, place your accents on the offbeats. One way I achieve this sound is to articulate with the pick on each upbeat and hammer on each downbeat. This isn’t possible all the time, because we do have to change strings. A good exercise would be to take any scale you’re comfortable with, play your 8th notes completely 50/50 straight, and only pick upbeats, and each time you need to articulate on a new string. Any other time, use a hammer on or pull off. After a little time working with this sort of exercise, let your 8th note values naturally deviate from 50/50. You’ll start naturally swinging. And soon, you’ll be able to get that sound while picking every single note.
This may all seem confusing, but reading a blog introducing you to jazz is like listening to a podcast that’s trying to introduce you to painting, so I have some homework for you. Here are 10 recordings that you should listen to, to familiarize yourself with what the actual masters did with these three concepts. These are common jazz standards, played by different players. Get to know these recordings and listen for the similarities and differences in how they navigate melodically and differently. Extra credit if you go digging for more recordings from your favorite players on this list.
- Autumn Leaves – Chet Baker & Paul Desmond
- Blue Bossa – Dexter Gordon
- Fly Me to the Moon – Oscar Peterson
- Misty – Joe Pass
- Oleo – Pat Martino
- Bye Bye Blackbird – Miles Davis
- Days of Wine and Roses – Wes Montgomery
- Corcovado – Stan Getz
- Stella by Starlight – Bill Evans
- 10.Have you met miss jones – George Garzone
There are a few guitar recordings here, but jazz isn’t just guitar. Take influence from pianists, saxophonists, trumpeters and even drummers! Whenever someone asks me the question “Who do you listen to?” I know they’re legit. Listen to these recordings as a starting place, and we’ll get to learning how to play some of these chords next time.