Friday, December 02, 2005

Watch the bass line

I've been reading Marc Sabatella's "The Harmonic Language of Jazz Standards" to help me better understand the harmony behind standard tunes. If you know any theory at all, there's going to be some review, but he's filling in plenty of gaps for me, as well as providing unique ways to look at harmony that are of special benefit to jazz musicians both for understanding chord progressions as well as learning tunes quickly and eventually being able to play melody and harmony by ear, without ever having seen a lead sheet.

Now, I'm nowhere near there, but the book works on many levels and is extremely well done.

What I'm working on right now is playing solo versions of tunes and keeping smooth motion in the bass. Marc points out that many chord substitutions happen for this reason. So for now, I'm focusing on the bass notes themselves, rather than looking for a good chord grip below my melody note. Only after I get the highest and lowest notes down do I add other tones in between.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What have I been doing for the past month?

Not much.

I wrote a bunch of reviews. Three for Just Jazz Guitar (for which I haven't written in awhile):

Issi Rozen, a very interesting Israeli guitarist who graduated from Berklee and still lives in the Boston area. He mixes Middle Eastern sounds with jazz, though I wish he included more of the former.

Calvin Keys, who I never heard (or heard of) before and who really cooks on a double live CD.

And a guy from the north of England named Jamie Taylor. He's a professor of jazz guitar at the Leeds College of Music. His record, under the group name Java and called "Anywhere But Here," has about five different styles on it, everything from funk to Afro-pop to mainstream jazz. The best was the solo acoustic stuff that kind of sounds like folk-jazz; a couple of very nice arrangements on that.

I'm about to review a few more. I've been struggling for some time with Kurt Rosenwinkel. I just don't know what to make of him. If you read, he's the heir to Metheny and Martino, etc. But there's something I'm not getting. I think I need to hear him live and as a sideman. What he's doing on this record seems a bit too ethereal and cold. The tunes are nice, and the harmony seems more complicated than post-bop jazz, but ...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Yamaha's cheapest classical

Chris Weinkopf of the Daily News opinion section brought in this Yamaha C45R classical guitar, shown at right, which I strung for him with D'Addario Pro Arte strings. It seems to be the same as the Yamaha C40, but perhaps a special model for Costco, where he bought it.

Anyway, it's pretty good for $99. Yamaha does a surprisingly good job with these inexpensive acoustic guitars, which are made in China. About a year or so ago, I picked up a Yamaha FG-403S from Guitar Center for $199 -- it's a steel-string flatttop guitar with a solid spruce top. Now the C45 (like the C40 before it) does not have a solid top (what do you expect for $99?) but it does have a Javanese rosewood bridge and fingerboard. It's interesting that Indonesia is a now source of rosewood (going from Brazil to India and now Java.) The back and sides are Indonesian mahogany (probably laminated, as is the top (of undertermined wood).

I didn't get a whole lot of time with it, but from stringing it, I noticed that the holes in the bridge and the tuners were a bit narrow -- not a problem, because they will hold the strings tighter as well as provide a cushion for wear -- those holes will only get bigger as strings are taken in and out over the years.

Still, you can get a whole lot of guitar for $99. Yamaha guitars seem to be very traditionally built -- these acoustics all have set necks and fairly standard construction. Nice guitars to learn on -- and to take just about anywhere without worrying too much.

Now I'm not a member of Costco (can't justify spending $40-something for the privilege of buying stuff I don't need in amounts I can't store), but if you know anybody who is, you just might want to ask them to order one or two for you. Also, Costco has one of the best return policies around -- they will usually take a return with no questions asked, although in this case I doubt you'e need or want to give the guitar back.

No doubt, a solid top will sound better, but I bought my Yamaha as a beater, and since it's so nice, I haven't been beating it around enough. It's probably better to buy the guitar used and already abused. I did that with my Goya classical, and now the back's coming loose. It's just not a good idea to leave guitars in the trunks of cars -- the dranatic temperature changes will really loosen things up. That's why everybody needs a beater or two. Gotta see what I can find out there for $free to $25.

For those looking at good, cheap acoustics, Yamaha has a new line out, the Acoustic FG series, at right, with a nice range of models starting at $279, including six- and 12-strings, plus acoustic-electric. Here's a Musician's Friend review of the new guitars (predictably positive, since they're selling them, but it's some information to consider nonetheless).

To my ears, the Yamahas don't sound like Martins, they certainly don't sound like Taylors. These are just good working guitars that sound ... like a guitar. And the necks are very comfortable. My friend Bruce just bought a Takamine steel string (can't remember the model) for $200, and it sounds and plays pretty well, but the neck is a bit chunky (not that I'm not used to that, coming from the substantial neck of my Fender Lead I solidbody). I just got used to the comfortable neck of the Yamaha, which is that much easier to play because of its matte finish (the rest of the guitar is glossy).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Ted Greene and Cathy Segal Garcia

Cathy Segal Garcia, one of L.A. best-known jazz singers and probably its most popular vocal instructor, tells on the Ted Greene Tribute Page about how she met Ted when she was a waitress at the famous Donte's night club (the site of many great jazz performances, and where I saw George Van Eps and Grant Geissman as a teenager). The cool photo above, from the Ted Greene Flickr archive, is from the period when they gigged together in Studio City.

Here is what Cathy wrote:

I came to Los Angeles when I was 21. I had come from a jazz-musical background, I was mainly a singer, and had attended Berklee, where Ted's name floated around the guitarists...that was 72-75. When I got here I waitressed at Donte's, the main jazz club in LA at the time. Ted was there one nite...happened to faint because the music volume bothered him! (you guys know how Ted felt about music volume!) We became friends and when he found out I sang, he suggested getting together... We did, and started rehearsing; we modulated every song at the bridge! Then we were ready for a gig...I put up about 4 or 5 signs at some music stores. I convinced David Abhari from the Sound Room in Studio City to let us play, we were one of the first live bands to play there. I showed up to my first gig in L.A. that a packed standing room left! We played that club once a week for a year...

One time we were hired for a private party in the Hollywood Hills. About 3/4 way through the party people stopped partying and sat down and listened to the rest of the gig.....That happened more than once!

Words are just words...what they signify is important. To say that Ted was kind and full of humor brings to my mind and body the warmth that Ted, the spirit, is. Ted, the spirit, is not dead and will never die. He has and continues to affect thousands of people because of the quality of livingness that he put out into the world. To not be able to hug him or see the whole package, body and all, is so very sad. But I can visit Ted whenever I want to. He has affected me. Beautifully. What more in this lifetime could anyone want?
Love, Cathy Segal-Garcia

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ted Greene's "Jazz Guitar: Single Note Soloing -- Volume 1"

There's always an argument in methods of jazz improvisation over how much of a role learning, using and thinking in terms of the modes of the major and minor scales should play in figuring out how to hit the right notes when soloing over jazz chord changes.

The whole thing is very Zen: You're supposed to do all this theoretical work on scales and modes, master it and then "not think about it" while you're playing and let the music spontaneously flow.

Some people think it's about learning a language: When you speak English (if it's your first language), you don't think about grammar when you converse, and there aren't even that many pauses between words. You just convey your thoughts in a continuous stream of sound. And that's the same principle in jazz improvisation. You've gotta learn the language of jazz. And just as phonics competes with "whole language" in the teaching of reading, there are a ton of ways to skin the cat in jazz music.

Anyhow, back to Ted Greene's "Jazz Guitar: Single Note Soloing." Ted's focus is on arpeggios, scales and written-out examples, or licks, using that primary material. For him, playing over standard changes is all about chord tones, hence the primary importance of arpeggios (chords broken up into their single notes).

To make your music "sound like jazz," and to learn the musical language, there are several theoretical constructs that will help you wrap your brain (and fingers) around it, and while Ted mentions modes at various points, as well as situations where you could theoretically be using modal thinking to play over diatonic (major and minor) harmony, he doesn't recommend it. Even if you are playing the same notes over two different chords, it's best to think of the harmony you are in, as opposed to some modal construct that requires too much mental work and provides no clue as to which notes are more important than others.

I was looking at Vol. 1 of Ted's book, and as far as scales go, he wants you to directly think of a scale or two that directly relates to the chord you will be playing it over (here related to the major scales for purposes of figuring out the notes):

Major 7th chords

Major (as in C D E F G A B C) scale
Lydian (major with #4) scale

Minor 7th chords

Minor 7th scale (major with b3 and b7)

Dominant 7th chords

Dominant 7th scale (major with b7)
Overtone dominant (major with #4 and b7, also known as lydian dominant)
Two flavors of "altered dominant," which I don't quite have MY head wrapped around.

Along with the many, many arpeggio grids, these scales, with the accompanying "jazzy" examples, will get you playing over just about all the chords you will encounter in jazz. Not that I'm anywhere near being able to do this, at least (in my own mind) I understand what's required.

Also introduced in Vol. 2, along with how to play over fast changes, plus work on the harmony in standard tunes, are many more scales (including diminished, whole tone and harmonic and melodic minor) and arpeggios. It's very interesting to see the order in which Ted introduces each piece of the jazz puzzle and compare it with the rest of the improvisation method books I have on my shelf.

Somewhere in the two "Single Note Soloing" books, Ted writes about converting the material for other instruments, something I wish he had done in his lifetime, because his way of thinking about music transcends the guitar itself in deep and profound ways.

A Ted Greene encounter

Here's a great story about one guitarist's encounter with Ted Greene:

"Ted Greene," by Scott Detweiler
Photo by Pete Huggins from a seminar at California Vintage Guitar and Amp in Sherman Oaks.

Scott really captures the feel of what it was like to see Ted play after years of knowing him only through his books and sole CD. There's an added dimension to meeting a legend when the person you're in front of is not known to anybody else in the room, somebody who most guitar players knew about and were in awe of, yet who was humble about his importance and impact.

In this anecdote, Ted is playing at a gallery opening. From what I read, he liked the kind of gigs where the music could be construed as background. He could pull out an extremely diverse selection of tunes and weave them together in creative ways, all the while REALLY connecting with a few in the room who had never heard a guitar played like that before. Playing solo guitar at that level, with such command of the fingerboard and the harmonic and melodic language of jazz (and music in general) is rare indeed -- and definitely something to aspire to.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Leavitt vs. the CAGED system

Leavitt, in "Modern Guitar Method" is not CAGED. For those who don't know, the CAGED system is based around the open-string "cowboy chords" in the first position, building scales and arpeggios off of these shapes -- the C, A, G, E and D major chords, moving them up and down the fingerboard to hit every other key. Worked for Joe Pass and plenty of others. Is Leavitt too complicated to be useful? Does the CAGED system rely too heavily on visualizing shapes and not enough on note awareness?

You can't get away from either one. The guitar is a visual instrument. You're going to see patterns -- they're there, and you can't avoid them. But coupling the visual and technical with genuine note awareness is key, I believe, to mastering the instrument and to musicality in general.

As far as note awareness goes, I think I'm solid up to the 8th fret, and everything on the 12th and later is just a repeat of the open strings and the lower frets, so it's the 9th through 12th frets where I need the most work. Thinking of the 11th fret as a half-step below the 12th makes that one easier. Just playing everywhere on the neck is the way to get around this, and that is where Leavitt is useful. By Vol. 3, you are all over the fingerboard -- that's when you really start hitting his method of position playing. It's a bit boggling, but for major scales, you can basically call on a Leavitt fingering to play in all 12 keys without moving from a six-fret area (as I've said previously, he calls for lots of 1st- and 4th-finger stretching).

Whether or not you could ever identify all of these ways to play a major scale, Leavitt Vol. 3 gives you quite a sight-reading and position-playing workout, playing through all keys in a single position and playing in a single key all the way up and down the fingerboard. It's a difficult but potentially rewarding way of learning the entire guitar and getting the sounds you want from as many places as possible.

One thing about Leavitt that causes controversy is all the stretching that's involved. I think some players just don't want to do all that 1st- and 4th-finger stretching, and there are plenty of fingerings that avoid it. Shifting positions also does this. Jimmy Bruno's "Six Essential Fingerings" also shies away from those stretches. And I remember seeing something in Just Jazz Guitar magazine that pushes note awareness and forbids the visualization of scale fingerings entirely (don't know how that one works).

I honestly don't know what's best here, but knowing the notes AND having some muscle memory as to how to make them can't hurt.

Leavitt on chords

Leavitt's Vol. 2 is heavy on chord forms, even though "Modern Guitar Method" isn't billed as a chord book. It is known for it's reading and scale work, but there are tons of chord forms, some in Vol. 1 but many more in Vol. 2 that can really improve your comping. He doesn't get into any heavy talk about voice leading, instead saying something like "smooth rhythm guitar is made possible by knowing as many chord forms as possible." That's true. I struggle with voice leading myself, and for the guitar, I do think it's a matter of figuring out and using more chords, letting the ear help you figure out which voicings lead best from one chord to the next.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"Modern Guitar Method" by Bill Leavitt

I'm in no way, shape or form a Berklee student, but I think there's a lot of good things in the three-volume "Modern Guitar Method" by Bill Leavitt, who founded the guitar department at the Boston music school.

I saw some posts in the Yahoo Jazz Guitar group recently recommending Leavitt as a beginning method, and it's there that I pause. Yes, there is plenty in Book 1 that is fundamental, but I think it's better as review for a guitarist getting into jazz from other genres than as a raw introduction for somebody new to the instrument or to music in general.

Somebody on that group said that it would take you until book 6 in the Mel Bay method to get to the same place as book 1 of Leavitt. I might agree with that statement. I came up with the Mel Bay Classic Guitar Method and, to a lesser extent, Mel Bay's Modern Guitar Method (not Leavitt's), and I think there's a lot of value for the beginner in those books. I see the same value in other beginning books (just saw the Hal Leonard method, and that looks good for beginners, too). For one thing, I think Leavitt will scare away beginners. It's just too much of a leap.

That said, for the guitarist coming from a rock and/or classical background (and that's me), Leavitt offers quite a lot in terms of position playing, chord forms, scales and arpeggios, all meted out in graded fashion and all designed to get you reading and playing all over the neck in all keys, major and minor. And there are more books by Leavitt to supplement this material.

I have the three separate volumes, but the Leavitt "Modern Guitar Method" has recently been completely re-set -- it's much, much clearer to read now -- and gathered in a single volume, which I recommend very much.

Now there is some controversy over the Leavitt scale fingerings, which use a lot of stretching by the first and fourth fingers of the left (fretting) hand. The Segovia scales, which I used to be able to play without even looking at the book (it's a thin book, don't worry) favor shifting instead of stretching (and there's only one way to play each scale), and I don't think there's much if any in the CAGED system favored by Joe Pass (see his "Joe Pass Guitar Method," the blue book). Additionally, Jimmy Bruno's "Six Essential Fingerings" book does not use much shifting, and there are few guitarists today that are better than Jimmy, so he should know.

In my analysis, the Leavitt fingerings tend to emphasize note awareness and fingerboard mastery over pattern-playing. As Jack Grassel demonstrates in his book, "Guitar Seeds" there's a PDF of this page on his Web site), the Leavitt system allows one to play in all 12 keys from a single six-fret position.

Berklee has turned out a ton of guitarists over the years, so there are plenty of proponents of this system out there. I think it's up to each individual player to figure out what works for him or her. The main thing is hearing the sounds in your head and then playing them on the instrument. That's the aim of this whole thing -- to learn the jazz language and be able to "speak" it on your instrument.

If you do learn all the major and minor scales, arpeggios and chord forms in the Leavitt books, you have a lot to work with. Improvising, accompaniment, ear training and sight reading will all benefit from this work.

Instruction books

Go ahead, ask me about the Western world and it's relationship to books. The Jews are called "the people of the book," and all three of the major Western religions, Judiasm, Christianity and Islam, are all based on sacred texts. So the worship is focused on gods, prophets, saints and beliefs, to be sure, but there is plenty of devotion left for the books themselves, and that way of thinking is an integral part of how we look at every other subject and endeavour.

If only we could find the perfect cookbook, home-improvement tome, great American novel, even self-help book, then that part (or even all) of life will fall into place, and all the answers will be contained therein.

That's the thought with music books as well. Find any musician and ask how many instruction books they've bought over the years, and chances are (for guitarists especially) the number is staggering. Many (including myself) have probably spent as much or more on books as on gear -- unless you have some very expensive instruments.

And we're always hoping for the one book, the one author, the one approach that will open the gates and tell us exactly how and what to do to become the player we want to be. And sometimes this happens, even if it's not just one book but maybe three, five or more that, together, provide the path toward mastery.

I keep a list of what I have that I want to keep close to the guitar (someday I will put in links for all of these):

Modern Guitar Method - William Leavitt

Building a Jazz Vocabulary - Mike Steinel

Jazz Guitar: Single Note Soloing Vol. 1 and 2 - Ted Greene

Modern Chord Progressions - Ted Greene

Mastering the Guitar - Gene Bertoncini

Essential Jazz Lines in the Style of Grant Green

Joe Pass Guitar Style

Joe Pass Guitar Chords

Joe Pass Guitar Method

The Harmonic Language of Jazz Standards - Marc Sabatella

Eddie Lang Modern Advanced Guitar Method

Charlie Parker Omnibook

George Van Eps Guitar Method

Improvising Handbook - Putter Smith

Fretboard Basics - Arnie Berle

And here are the books I don't have but am interested in getting a look at (this list used to be a lot longer, but I've pared it down to what I'm really interested in):

Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony by Bert Ligon. Published by Houston Publishing.

Comprehensive Technique for Jazz Musicians by Bert Ligon

A Common Sense Approach to Improvisation for Guitar - Joe Negri

Jazz Etudes Over Classic Jazz Changes - George Benson

Voice Leading for Guitar: Moving Through the Changes - John Thomas

Linear Expressions - Pat Martino

Guitar Seeds
Bix Ax
Super Ax
Monster Chops - All by Jack Grassel (from his Web site)

Jazz Guitar Technique - Andrew Green
Jazz Guitar Structures - Andrew Green
Jazz Guitar Comping - Andrew Green (just released ... go to for all three)

Talk Jazz - Roni Ben-Hur (

Modern Harmonic Technique by Gordon Delamont ($30 from

Creative Comping - Daniel Davis (Neil A. Kjos Music) (out of print)

Classical gas

No, not the 1970s instrumental hit.

I recently pulled out my Goya G-10 classical, the first guitar I ever played (I've had it since the 1970s, it's been in the family longer and is beat up as hell). The D string broke awhile ago, and I finally got around to restringing the basses. (Classical guitar tip: Once you have the guitar strung, the nylon treble strings can last for years, while the basses are good for a MUCH shorter time, from weeks to months, depending on how much you play them, so I have about a thousand extra treble strings lying around.)

Playing a different guitar, especially a different kind of guitar (nylon string vs. electric archtop or acoustic flat-top) can re-energize you, or at least change your perspective for the moment. While the Goya was at the bottom of their line (it's not 3/4 size, but not full-size either -- Goya calls it "Concert size," I believe), it does have a solid spruce top and sounds pretty nice. Just noodling around on it while the strings stretched out was fun, and my chordal approach definitely changes on the 2-inch-wide neck. Smaller voicings with fewer notes. And just listening to each note as I play it. Making nice sounds is what it's all about, and I don't have to worry so much about how much jazz theory or ear training I've done.

The ideal is to be able to play -- and play out, for that matter -- at whatever skill level I'm at. To make the tunes and the style fit what I can do at any given moment and work on that. That is my goal for the moment, to balance study of advanced concepts (for me, at least) while working on repertoire -- and not just jazz tunes -- that I can get out and play for people. All the exercises in the world won't help if you've got nothing to play for an audience. Nice words from me, but can/will I follow through?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Remembering Ted Greene

Photo courtesy of Nick Stasinos, who was at the July 25 gig as well as the Dec. 12, 2004, performance pictured above.

The legendary Ted Greene -- one of the few to whom the word "legendary" really applies -- was found dead July 25, 2005, in his Encino, Calif., apartment. He was 58. Right now, the cause of death has not yet been determined, but suspicion is that it was a heart attack. I bought all of Ted's books and his only album way back when I was a young player, and there's just about a lifetime's worth of material in those four books alone.

A busy teacher for decades, Ted rarely performed, and while he recorded a couple of tracks each on two John Pisano albums, his "Solo Guitar" LP, long out of print but finally re-released on CD by Art of Life Records last year, provides a very complete picture of what Ted Greene, the player, was all about.

In 2004, Ted began playing Sunday brunch about once every other month at Spazio in Sherman Oaks. I was lucky enough to attend one of those performances and review it for Just Jazz Guitar magazine. It's a bit eerie that it was exactly a year before his death. Here is that review:


Concert review: Ted Greene at Spazio

By Steven Rosenberg

You don’t see Ted Greene every day. In fact, the elusive solo guitarist hardly ever gigs at all, and you can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he has done so in the last decade.

But the busy educator and well-known author of “Chord Chemistry” and other now-classic instruction books mesmerized the Sunday brunch crowd at Spazio in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with three sets on July 25 (2004) that showed how a lone jazz guitarist can indeed deliver every bit as much musical nuance and emotion as the finest piano players.

Hunched over his signature Fender Telecaster, equipped with a neck humbucker, Greene’s playing is all about great songs with strong emphasis on melody, seemingly impossible chords and heartfelt delivery. From Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” through a wonderful “West Side Story” medley and even a soulful rendition of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” Greene has lost nothing in the decades since his long-out-of-print “Solo Guitar” album raised the bar upon its release in 1977.

For those who haven’t heard “Solo Guitar” or his tracks on John Pisano’s “Among Friends” and “Conversation Pieces” CDs, Ted Greene’s sensitive, harmonically rich approach to music and the guitar leans heavily on the pioneering chord-melody work of George Van Eps and the artificial harmonics of Lenny Breau. The other thing to remember about Ted is that he’s in love with the songs he plays, and his renditions can teach us to love them, too.

At Spazio, Ted’s clean and clear sound (amplified by a Fender Vibrolux Reverb and a very sensitive house PA) was just like it is on record, almost acoustic at times. He had a older Guild archtop on the stage but didn’t use it.

I couldn’t determine the extent to which Ted’s arrangements of the tunes were worked out beforehand or created on the spot, but there was a lot more harmonic experimentation on the Spazio stage than I remember from the “Solo Guitar” album (one of my chief reasons for keeping a turntable hooked up). Hearing the way Ted expanded the harmony of “Hey Jude” made me want to grab his “Modern Chord Progressions” book and start working on his extremely fluid (but often hard-to-finger) ideas.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

It's easier to write about than do

That's what I've been doing the last couple of years -- writing about it, for the Los Angeles Daily News, where I work, and Just Jazz Guitar magazine, where I've done many freelance reviews.

I'm also semi-active on the newsgroup, which I access through Google Groups. It's a great way to take the pulse of what's happening in jazz guitar, and quite a few pro players participate in what is, for the most part, a lively and civil discussion.

At left is a 1976 ES-175T, the relatively rare, thin version of the ES-175. I got this picture from eBay. My 1976 ES-175D, which I bought from Betnun's Music in L.A. in the early '80s, is the full-body version and has the rosewood bridge (the guitar at left has a metal Tune-o-Matic).

Here is the side view of the thinline.