"Less is more." It's a cliché, but it's true. It's a lesson I find myself learning over and over again. Examples:
I lead a band at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, made up of two singers, two guitars, piano, bass, and percussion. When I begin learning a song for the band, I tend to play very rhythmically and with full chords. With two guitars and a piano, there is a lot of overlap in comping, so this full out approach usually doesn't work when I play with the band. As I listen to what the other players are doing, I invariably find myself playing less and less. I'll just play offbeats or some other simple rhythm, and I'll play 3- or 4-note chords instead of full guitar chords. On hymns, which tend to be simpler than the band songs, I sometimes find that it sounds best if I don't play at all. It's humbling to find the band sometimes sounds better when I lay out. On the other hand, it frees me up to be a more effective song leader for the congregation.
The larger the group, the less you have to do. I play guitar in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra, a 17-piece big band. My role as a rhythm guitarist is to help keep time and to outline the basic harmonic movement. Rhythmically, my job couldn't be simpler. I'm playing quarter notes 95% of the time. (Notice I said that my job is simple…not easy. Believe it or not, there is an art to playing quarter notes.) Harmonically, the less I play, the better it sounds. The bass player covers the root notes, so I leave those out. The piano player plays all the extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths), so I leave those out. That leaves me with the guide tones, sometimes called shell voicings. Unless I have a solo, which is rare for a guitarist in a big band setting, I usually play 2-note chords. By themselves, those shell voicings don't sound like much, but they're wonderfully effective in a big band.
Being the sole instrumentalist in the Godfrey and Guy duo, you'd think I could play all sorts of crazy stuff, but no. As much as I'd like to think otherwise, the main focus of the listener is on the vocals. If I get overly fancy with my guitar accompaniment, I get in the way of the singer. I have more freedom to branch out in Godfrey and Guy than I do with the church band or the SJO, but I still find that a strong basic groove sounds best…a walking bass with rhythmic stabs, simple quarter notes, a basic Bossa beat, all in support of the song. And if I feel like throwing in a little lick now and then, it's more effective when it jumps out of a simple texture. As a bonus, when I'm playing a 3+ hour gig, my hands get less fatigued if I keep it simple.
As I delve deeper and deeper into jazz guitar, I'm constantly working to improve my technique, solidify my time, and open my ears. I'm not setting the world on fire, but my technique is far better than it was five years ago, and I'll keep working to improve. But even as I continue to stretch my own boundaries, I keep reminding myself of the basic rule that less is more. Simple is good.
- 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 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.