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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 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Learn Tunes

Joe Pass is one of my all-time favorite jazz guitarists. He was best known as a solo guitarist. His "Virtuoso" recordings are jaw dropping. My favorite recordings of Joe Pass are his duos with Ella Fitzgerald. I love the mix of solo guitar and understated, "just right" comping for Ella's singing.

Joe Pass' most famous advice for learning to be a good jazz guitarist was to "learn tunes." Many guitarists search for "secrets" of the master players. The big secret is that there is no secret. It all comes down to practice. The more you practice, the more you develop whatever talent you were born with.

While it's necessary to put in the hours, the quality of those hours is also important. This is where Joe's "learn tunes" advice comes into play. You can play technical exercises and develop fast fingers, but nobody wants to hear you play a bunch of scales. When you spend a lot of time learning tunes, you not only develop your technique, but you learn how to use your technique to serve the music and not the other way around. Joe Pass had astounding technique, but at the same time, his improvisation was approachable and melodic.

Last year, I spent too much time working on technical exercises when I should have been learning tunes. I was approaching jazz in guitar in the way I approached classical trombone. Most classical trombonists are ensemble players. They spend most of their time sitting with a handful of other trombonists in the back of a large orchestra or concert band, rarely playing solos. Back then, my job was to be able to sight-read anything you put in front of me. I spent a good portion of my practice time working on very difficult music that you would never hear outside the practice room. My philosophy was that because the exercises I was playing were so difficult, I would rarely encounter a trombone part that I couldn't read perfectly on sight.

It's different with jazz guitar. First of all, I'm a soloist. Even when I'm sitting in as a back-up player, I usually get the nod to play a solo here and there. Second, as a jazz player, I have to improvise. When you learn a lot of tunes, you gradually learn the language of jazz. If you spend a lot of time playing exercises, your improvisation will probably come out sounding like an exercise. If you spend a lot of time playing melodies, your improvisation will come out sounding more melodic.

I'm still practicing my core warm-up exercises of scales, arpeggios, fingerpicking exercises, and licks. I've scaled it back, though, sticking to just the basic exercises so that I have more time to work on tunes and increase my repertoire. It's just the first week of January, and I've already had time to write a guitar arrangement and learn a couple new vocals. I'm discovering that there's another good reason to spend less time on exercises and more time playing tunes: It's more fun!

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