Are You Learning Or Just Copying?
Spending as much time as I do - enjoyable time, to be sure - transcribing and
playing along with the solos by my musical idols of the moment,
I sometimes have to stop and question whether I am making the best use of the
(unfortunately) limited time I have for practicing.
To begin with, there is always the question of whether I should be writing
instead of learning. The answer to that may well be "yes", but I don't
seem to be in a writing mood these days - being a software developer and editor
of Woodsheddin' rarely leaves me with enough concentration for writing.
But learning solos and licks is something I can do whenever I have a spare hour.
OK, but what do you do with those licks? Well, to be sure, I use them
performance as I play "Night and Day" a la Django or "Road
Song" a la Wes. And you get several pure benefits just from doing the work
of transcribing and practicing up to speed. The act of transcription extends
your musical vocabulary. I often come away with a sense of "I didn't know
you could get away with that" after transcribing some killer-sounding
passage that completely violates whatever harmonic logic I've absorbed through
the years. It's a liberating feeling, like being given permission to go beyond
the world of formal rules about what's right and wrong, and to play in the world
of pure imagination. Even if emulating someone playing from that place doesn't get you there, it reminds you that
the place and the feeling exist.
Emulation is also great for your chops. Getting your fingers to move in
patterns that are unfamiliar, often at challenging speeds, expands your physical capabilities and breaks you out of ruts. If your
muscles evolve to where they are comfortable moving like Wes Montgomery
(or Art Tatum or John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix), then your spontaneous
improvising is likely to drift in those directions on occasion. A gradual
process of integrating new sounds and new approaches with your own playing style
is bound to occur if you just play the new riffs enough and naturally listen
more carefully to everything as you get deeper into one thing.
This article is about what we can do to consciously accelerate that kind of
Mainly the process involves actually thinking about what I'm doing and, in
a practice situation, extracting the essence of a riff (i.e., answering
the question, "just what is it about this passage that appeals to me so
much?"), and applying
it in a new context. Well, gosh, this is suspiciously like work. And, in
fact, it is work, but the rewards are substantial and lasting.
Let's look at two examples for now: two little fragments of riffs, one from Wes
and one from Django (also used by violinist Stephane Grappelli).
Interestingly enough, both of the examples that I am drawn to look at are
essentially ornaments - ways of hitting a particular note that involve
"beating around the bush" a little bit by trilling or slurring the
adjoining notes before settling into the target. As all classical players know,
ornaments are key elements of various musical styles. The way you play the
ornament around a single note can determine whether you're playing in a
Renaissance, Baroque or Classical style - or, in our case, whether you sound
like a bluesman or a gypsy.
Look at the first ornament, taken from the first turnaround of Wes'
Montgomery's solo on Road Song, from the CD Jimmy & Wes, The Dynamic Duo
(click here for more about the CD and the solo), shown
here (the song is in Gm):
I was drawn to thinking about this element simply because it feels so good to
play. If you're playing in a jazz context, throwing this riff in just says
"blues". So, the question is, where does it work best? When should you
Being the brute-force kind of experimenter guy that I am, I figured the best
way to approach this would be to put a major and minor blues progression onto
tape (well, actually I used an Echoplex, but that's just 'cause it was
convenient), to play phrases involving the ornament on top of it, and to see
what works. And I made it even simpler for myself: I just played the first five
notes (together with the grace note at the start). The phrase eventually, as I
tried to apply it, got even shorter, until I was using just the first three
notes (plus the grace note).
What I learned is simple: this sounds great practically in any part of
a blues progression, major or minor, as long as you start on the fourth degree
of the scale. So, in a Gm progression, start the trill on a C. In E, start in on
Oh yeah, there's one other thing to keep in mind - although it's great,
during practice, to
play the ornament a zillion times, wherever it fits (or even where it doesn't
fit), you should use it far more sparingly when actually
performing. If you sneak it in a few times (or even just once!) in an evening,
it can add a bit of spice without becoming a cliche.
By the way, another key stylistic element of Wes' playing that I discovered
while transcribing and analyzing is the fact that he almost always uses a half-note interval when sliding into an
octave from below - almost never a whole step or other interval. And he does quite
a bit of this sliding.
In the next issue of Woodsheddin': we'll apply this method to the
"gypsy trill" beloved of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
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