Many guitarists have a habit of pigeonholing their playing style and technique, usually in terms of musical genre, and almost always as a result of staying well within their comfort zone. This is totally normal and completely understandable - after-all, a punk fan is probably happiest hammering out power chords, and a country aficionado would most likely cheerfully strum in train-time all day long. However, its worth considering the depth of what 'comfort zone' truly entails - does confidence in ability have any part to play here?
The punk fan may not have the nerve to extend their chord harmonies beyond the root and the 5th, the country player might require the cosy walled musical garden afforded by CAGED chords and a capo. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with this. Many great artists have stuck rigidly within the confines of their comfort zones throughout their careers. But think about what just minor excursions beyond these areas of normal can achieve. One great example to think about; take some basic blues scales, play them faster, turn up the volume, drive the hell out of your amplifier, and suddenly you're approaching Hendrix territory...
It only takes simple alterations with many existing 'basic' guitar methods to start approaching new genres you might have never thought you could play. This might feel a bit like 'cheating', and that's fine with us! So let's consider how to cheat our way into the realms of simple jazz guitar playing.
Which axe to grind
The art of truly successful subterfuge usually begins with looking the part. But whilst jazz guitar players are usually associated with fat, hollow-bodied semi-acoustic instruments, the range of guitars used in this genre over the years has included quite a few surprises. Fender Telecasters and various Gretsch's might seem insanely out of place in a jazz setting, but players such as Bill Frisell and Chet Atkins would disagree. And when it comes to fully acoustic guitars, the world is pretty much your oyster - everything from nylon-stringed classicals to Martin 000s have frequently appeared on jazz recordings for years.
So in terms of the basics, anything you have with 6-strings should be fine for jazz playing. Just don't expect to receive TOO much credibility from an audience if you're attempting to carry off 'Fly Me To The Moon' on an Ibanez Jem.
Tricking your way into sounding like a jazz guitarist means you'll need to, well, sound like a jazz guitarist! This presents no issues for an acoustic player, but those of you attempting this deceit with an electric instrument need to follow a few simple rules;
- Got a bridge pickup? Hide it, throw it away, or at the bare minimum ensure it's not selected. When it comes to either solos or basic rhythmic comping, the neck pickup is king for jazz playing.
- Dial down that tone control - you're not after a totally 'dead' sound, but take the edge off any treble frequencies.
- If you're using your amp then step the hell away from the gain channel - this needs to sound cleaner than a priest on Sunday. Tone controls should be fairly flat, but the merest hint of reverb won't hurt.
Making some noise
One of the greatest secrets you’ll ever learn about playing jazz is that practically ANY tune can be made to work in this style. If you don’t believe us, check out the incredible work of artists like Postmodern Jukebox (brilliantly subtle) or Richard Cheese (fantastically un-subtle) to hear reinterpretations of some songs you wouldn’t have even considered playing with a swing feel.
We can demonstrate this with a simple four-bar progression. Jazz guitar players tend to avoid the standard root CAGED chord positions, generally preferring moveable chord shapes. So let's do that with some basic major minor harmonies.
A very basic pattern here, both in terms of rhythm AND harmony – we’re only using major and minor chords after-all. But a few simple tricks is all it takes to make things ‘jazzy’...
- Harmony; one of the key distinguishing features of jazz is the use of various 7th So let’s make a few basic changes to the moveable major/minor shapes here, turning that first D chord into a major 7th, the B chord into a dominant 7th, and all the minor chords into minor 7ths. Heck, let’s really push the envelope with the final D chord, and drop a 9th into the mix – that’s just one extra tone added to a standard 7th after-all.
- Rhythm; the rhythm in our progression is pretty boring, and jazz isn’t. So let’s make the chords in the first bar staccato, strummed short and sharp in an early big-band style.
- Syncopation; accenting the rhythm so that chords hit on the off-beat is a common jazz feature that we’ll use here. Let’s make the second chord in bar 2 hit just before beat three. And let’s use that same trick twice in bar 3, hitting the second chord just before beat three AND tying a chord from the final off-beat into bar 4. A bonus of all this rhythmic subdivision is that we now have eighth-notes, which can be played with some swing in the rhythm!
- Chromaticism; jazz music frequently uses chromatic movement in melodies and harmonies. On a guitar, this simply means sliding either single notes or whole chords up or down a fret. Let’s do this in the second bar, dropping the second chord down and then back up again. In the third bar, we’ll slide down to both the second AND third main chords from one fret above.
Let’s put all that together and try our simple four-bar progression one more time...
Just four simple tricks, and we’ve changed the feel of this progression completely! Almost feels like cheating, doesn’t it? Or maybe jazz guitarists are no different to the rest of us, save for a few cunning gimmicks up their sleeves...