Bring It On Home
So, now that I’ve written a couple of columns
in which I’ve blabbered on about jazz and
blues guitar records that have meant a lot to
me (to everyone that sent me an email, thank
you!), it’s time to shift gears and perhaps get
back to some more “how to” kind of stuff.
And I’ll start by discussing a few musical concepts that I find very important.
Tone is king
If the sound of the instrument (any instrument) doesn’t get me, then the rest doesn’t
really matter. I need that link to the sound.
And what makes great tone? Well, to me it
can be a broad palette, but since this is a
guitar mag let’s limit it to just guitar. My all
time favorite jazz tone is Howard Roberts’
sound on H.R. Is A Dirty Guitar Player, closely
followed by Wes Montgomery’s sound. Other
examples of players that always seem to
get a sound that grabs me are Ry Cooder,
Christopher Parkening, Jim Hall, Tony Rice,
B.B. King and Hound Dog Taylor. They’re all
very different sounds, but they all get me.
Why? Who really knows; the why just happens in your gut when you hear something
that works for you. And don’t get me wrong,
I’m not saying that the things that sound
great to me will work for you. My point is
that tone matters.
Playing to the song
Did you ever hear a song that had a solo
that had become a part of the song? Think
about the guitar lick on “My Girl” by the
Temptations; how could you have that song
without that lick? Or how about Richie
Blackmore’s solo on Deep Purple’s “Highway
Star”? A worthy goal is to try and make what
you play indispensable to the song, and I
think you may have read that here once or
Playing to the song can be made up of little
“bits” too. When you make a recording, you
can layer in sounds, licks and other things
that only appear once. Listen to the production of recordings and it can teach you ways
to play, and ways to fit into what’s happening. The Beatles and Stevie Wonder were
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masters of sticking things in their songs that
on their own sounded goofy, but in the mix
it sounded like the work of a genius. One of
the best produced songs I have ever heard
is Shawn Colvin’s studio version of “Sunny
Came Home.” Check it out and listen to how
subtle the parts are, and yet they make a
texture that gives you a kaleidoscopic motion
all through the tune. It even ties in with the
lyrical content. Amazing!
The great glory of the
guitar is that it can make
a huge range of sounds,
so explore them all. If you
were a painter, would you
paint with one color?
In jazz and blues where improvisation is
important, you can still get things happening
that are melodic or thematic. Those are the
things that keep me coming back again and
again to a recording. It’s not the chops. A
great example of this kind of playing is Jim
Hall’s solo on “All Of A Sudden My Heart
Sings,” from his Circles album. The CDs that
I actually play over and over are the ones
that tell me a story, the ones that go places
that surprise me or just have something that
seems “right” to me. By story I mean that the
music takes me from one place to another. I
can’t explain it any better than that, but I bet
you know what I mean.
Simple is okay
Think about that organ solo on The Rascals’
“Good Lovin’.” If you sit down and try to
figure it out, I bet it would take you all of
one minute. And yet, you can sing every note
of it after you hear it once! There are also
things that sound easy then turn out to be
not so easy. Chuck Berry’s intro to “Johnny B.
Goode” comes to mind. Everyone can do it,
but to play it like Chuck isn’t so easy.
Last, but far from least, I love music that
grooves. What does that mean? Well, I don’t
know, but I know it when I hear it. I try to
bring the blues into everything I do because
the blues are about feeling and phrasing.
Be bluesy! Listen to B.B. King, Count Basie,
Tower of Power, James Brown and Aretha
Franklin. Listen to how vocalists bring in
vibrato—one thing many pickers forget
about. There are so many flavors, and you
can use ‘em all if you want to—from fast B.B.
King-style to slow Paul Kossoff-style.
And think about how you pick. Different
thicknesses and materials sound different, so
try different picks until you find your voice.
Learn to use your fingers, both the nails and
the skin parts because again, they sound different. The great glory of the guitar is that it
can make a huge range of sounds, so explore
them all. If you were a painter, would you
paint with one color? And yes, I say this too
much, but listening is so important. Listen
to things outside of what you do then bring
those things into what you do. Love it, and
enjoy it. Damn, I love the guitar!
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played
Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob
Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy
Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays
in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.