THE JAZZ BOX
(or 10 Ways to Get Unstuck)
Everyone has stuck-in-the-mud days. Even after
buying the best instruments, many joyful hours
of practice every day, studying with the best
teachers and listening to the masters, we’re still
not guaranteed an endless flow of brilliance. It’s
okay to have an off day. In fact, it’s important to
give yourself a break and rest. When you notice
that you’ve been down a little longer than
you’re comfortable with, however, it might help
to have some inspiration licks figured out for
yourself to keep at the ready. As a jazz guitarist,
you already know that a stockpile of vocabulary
and phrases comes in handy when you’re in
musical conversation. It is similarly handy to
know the things you can do for yourself when
you need a boost up to that good place where
your creativity lives and works.
The other day I went nuts over the Simon and
Garfunkel recording, “So Long, Frank Lloyd
Wright.” I grabbed my little guitar that stays
faithfully near my computer and I figured out the
chords. It wasn’t as big of a time commitment as,
say, transcribing a Bird solo, but it surprised me
with all of its quirky modulations and harmony.
band. Input like this most certainly plays a role
in your creative output when the time is right.
Get up. Sometimes that’s the hardest part.
If you live in a city, take yourself to a rural
scene for a change. If you live in the country,
visit a nearby city. If you’re tight on time, just
It is handy to know the things you can do
for yourself when you need a boost up to
that good place where your creativity
lives and works.
Play Interval Games
Try playing your way out of a puzzle while
you’re practicing. Take a solo over an entire
chorus using only the interval of a 4th (and
5th if you want to allow for the inversion). Or,
if you’re hitting a wall with a melody you’re
writing, try limiting yourself to 3rds ascending and 6ths descending. It doesn’t matter
what you choose, just that you engage in
a thought process that your ears might not
have guided your fingers to habitually.
I played a duo gig recently, and although it
was all going well enough, I wasn’t feeling
particularly happy with my sound, my ideas,
or my physical comfort level. For the next
gig—same room, same players—I brought
my nylon-string guitar instead of my big hollowbody jazz box. From the first down beat, I
was a much happier player. It was fresh, fun,
comfortable, and sounded killer.
Listen to that Bill Evans solo again, the one
that gave you goose bumps and kept you
up all night transcribing once back in 1998.
Recognize any of your own more recent
playing in there somewhere? Hear anything
new that you hadn’t noticed? Just enjoy it
and marvel at it this time. Listen to your own
recordings from a few years back. Did you like
it then? Do you like it now? Grab your guitar
and expand on that; make it better this time.
Find another style that you enjoy or want to
learn more about and jump in. You’ll find a gem
that you can’t predict until you are right there in
it, but it will be valuable to you as a player.
Rearrange Your Space
Your guitars need to be played. Make sure
you can see them. Switch them around from
time to time, so when you’re watching Law
and Order reruns you’ll just have to jump up
and play that steel-string you sort of forgot
you had. Keep them safe and humidified, but
make them appealing and accessible. Set your
recording gear up in a friendly and comfortable way, too. Keep it simple. Whatever you
need, make that the best corner of your home
for you. Go there and sit down and turn all the
switches and play something there every day.
Change Your Strings
It’s hard to resist playing something fun on
a freshly strung guitar. I’ve written a tune or
two that way. Maybe it’s time for something
different, like wound strings instead of flat-wounds or vice versa.
Watch and Listen To Live Music
Hit a jazz club and just take it all in. Focus on
different instrumentalists as the set goes on.
Be the drummer, be the bass player, etc. If
there is no guitar player, imagine how a guitar
player would contribute to the group. Go to
a string quartet concert; go watch a bluegrass
take a walk in your neighborhood, but get
moving. Listen to the rhythm. Be ready for a
melody to emerge. Pay attention.
It’s time to practice, write and record. If you work
on a schedule, then get in there and grab a guitar. It’s not time to do anything else. Remember,
you go where you aim. If you’re serious about
playing and want to grow as a musician, you will
naturally gravitate toward the guitar anyway. But
for those times when you’re stuck and not doing
it enough, get on a schedule and stick to it.
Don’t Be a Stranger
Call a friend and get together to play, someone
you trust to have a stimulating conversation.
Exchange ideas naturally. Stop into a store or
a café and shoot the breeze with someone.
Reach for that metaphor, that description, that
punch line. Keep the level of creativity high.
Then, leave them wanting more as you rush
home to play your guitar.
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