Real Book is a huge compilation of jazz standards. It's something that nearly every jazz player has in their library.)
I plan on cycling through the Real Book for the rest of my guitar playing days. First of all, I like this music. It's enjoyable to play through a few standards at the beginning of my practice sessions.
Apart from the simple enjoyment of playing this music, Real Book reading is a good way of learning to apply new concepts and techniques. When I first began reading through the Real Book, I had only been playing guitar for a year. I used it to improve my sight-reading, learn the entire fretboard, and apply the new jazz chords I was learning. It was a painstaking process, but by the time I had finished volume three, I was a strong reader, and I found most big band guitar parts to be a piece of cake.
As I began working through the Real Book for a second time, my initial goal was to be able to create simple chord/melody arrangements on the spot. (Chord/melody is a style of guitar playing where you play chords, voicing them in such a way that the melody note is always the top note. You really need to know your chords and the fretboard to make this work.) This was very difficult at first, and as I near the end of volume three, it's still a challenge, but I'm much better at it. About halfway through this second tour of the Real Book, I also decided to challenge myself to improvise unaccompanied, using the chord changes of whatever songs I was reading that day. This is also a major challenge, and I have a long way to go, but at a recent gig, I finally felt confident enough to add unaccompanied improv throughout the evening.
The newest concept I'm applying to my Real Book is shell voicings (also known as guide tones). ***Music theory jargon alert.*** When you play shell voicings, you play only the 3rd and 7th of every chord instead of the full chord. These two guide tones are the notes that most strongly define the chord. Shell voicings are especially useful if you're playing with a piano player. When a jazz guitarist and a pianist play together, the pianist often plays extensions, or color tones, while the guitarist stays out of the way and plays the more basic chord tones. ***End music theory jargon alert.*** You'd think it would be easier to play just the two notes at a time rather than the full chord form. Physically, it is easier, because you only have to use two fingers. Mentally, it's a challenge, because I'm not yet used to zeroing on in just the 3rds and 7ths. Just like everything else, shell voicings will get easier over time until they becomes a natural part of my playing. Even after just a week of practice, these voicings are becoming more comfortable. Once I've applied them to just one of the Real Book volumes, they'll be second nature.
Even as I get used to playing shell voicings, there will be other challenges. Each pass through the Real Book will help me learn new skills and become a better musician. As with any other good book, I find deeper and deeper meaning each time I read it.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.