78 PREMIER GUITAR NOVEMBER 2009 www.premierguitar.com
There are two kinds of practice: repertoire
practice, and the other kind. We’ve examined
the other kind here in months gone by, and
there will be plenty more of that to come. This
time, however, let’s get some repertoire practice underway and start booking some gigs.
“Wanna play some tunes?”
“Sure, what do you wanna play?”
“Uh, I don’t know, what tunes do you know?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I know a lot of tunes, really.
What do you like to play?”
“Well, do you know Stella?”
“Uh, let’s see… (noodle noodle)…Um, how
‘bout a blues? Do you know any blues heads?”
And on and on it goes.
It turns out that knowing a song and being
able to play it are two entirely different things.
As a jazz guitarist, it’s important to know the
following four aspects of a song: 1.) Melody
(playing “the head”); 2.) Chords (comping);
3.) Melody and Chords Together (playing a
chord-melody solo); and 4.) Improvising (
taking a solo over the chord changes or harmony
of the tune).
These four aspects of a tune are all related
and helpful to each other. While not all tunes
will fall neatly on the neck as a chord-melody
solo, learning to express at least some of the
chord quality behind a melody will give you
the best understanding of the song. The more
fully you understand a song, the better you
will be able to improvise on it. The better you
have the melody down, the better you can
interpret it freely and refer to it in a solo. The
better you know the chord progression, the
more confident you can be while soloing and
playing a chord-melody solo.
Write it down
There’s nothing like seeing something in writ-
ing to make it seem so much more official. To
illuminate exactly which songs you “know”
and enjoy playing in different ways and in dif-
ferent ensemble contexts, let’s get a few lists
going. It might start with one song in one cat-
egory, or you might find that you have several
songs already at your disposal, but the impor-
tant thing is to begin. I recommend one piece
of paper with three column headings across
the top: HEADS, CHORDS, CHORD SOLOS
Begin. Take an honest inventory of your playing. We’re talking about memorized melodies
and chords here. Songs you can play if you
have a chart in front of you can go on a separate list—that’s worthy, too, but not quite in
your repertoire. It will be a good feeling to
discover that you actually can play the head to
“Stella,” for example, and you just didn’t realize it. You might surprise yourself to know that
in fact you do have the chords to “Donna Lee”
memorized quite easily, you just need to work
on the melody some more. Write it all down in
the proper place. Watch your list grow.
Go through fake books and try playing songs
you’ve heard for many years, but you’re just
not sure if you know the changes. Try not to
look unless you really get stuck. Then try it
again. Write it down. Just learned a new song
last night on the bandstand by someone calling out the chords to you? You’ll probably
never forget it. Write it down in your comping
category. So you worked out a comfortable
fingering for the head to “Billie’s Bounce?”
Write it down. Then go over it a few times
every day to be sure. (That’s likely one you can
add to the chord category, as well, if you know
the modified 12-bar blues form).
It seems that if we learn a song without having
read it from a written part, we will never need
a chart for it. If, however, you have always used
a chart for a song that you’ve played again
and again, you’ll need to wean yourself from it.
Try going chart-free during a practice session.
More often than not, you’ll impress yourself
by knowing at least one part of the song: the
chord changes or the melody. You’ll be able to
visualize the phrases and the form as you play.
You’ll gain freedom and a deeper understand-
ing of the tune by playing it intuitively rather
than relying on exactly what’s on the page.
I used to watch and listen to jazz guitarists
play tunes all by themselves as if they had just
decided to pick up the guitar that moment
and see how it goes. I couldn’t imagine how
those gorgeous voicings and reharmonization
ideas were just flowing out so effortlessly.
Then, dawn broke. There, as if written on the
sky, I saw so clearly what had been going on:
they had practiced! Be creative and reach for
the unexpected harmony when making choices in a chord-melody solo. Take your time and
craft it and let it build in a way that you like.
Listeners will appreciate that, too, when the
time comes to perform the piece.
Make notes to yourself as much as you need
to. Many players and arrangers for solo guitar
performance write out their chord-melody
arrangements in notation for other players to
use and perform. Again, the power of visual
representation is considerable. Write your ideas
down for future reference, either your own or
someone else’s. Then play it, play it, play it.
Add it to your chord solo list. The longer that
part of the list gets, the more comfortable you
will be at playing solo gigs, duo gigs and even
trio gigs. Whatever role you are called upon to
play as a guitarist, you will be prepared. It will
say so right there on your list.
The Repertoire List
THE JAZZ BOX
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger
with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a
working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie
Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group
has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble
Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at
Berklee College of Music in 1994. janemillergroup.com
Whatever role you are
called upon to play as
a guitarist, you will be
prepared. It will say so
right there on your list.