“Joy Spring” or a Joyless Frethand Mess?

So “Joy Spring” by the late great Clifford Brown is actually a pretty cool tune. The title is a little ironic given the temperature plunge in DC the past couple weeks. Also, Brown was a trumpet player and clearly didn’t write with the fretboard in mind. There’s just no ergonomically friendly way to approach the melody; you’re either stretching to grab the intervals, making liberal use of the weak 4th finger (pinky), and/or shifting position every few measures. In fact, taking on “Joy Spring” — or any tune written for another instrument — is a great exercise for guitarists, albeit with considerable frustration potential.

I’m working the tune because I was recently bumped up a level in the jazz band masterclass program, which feels really good given how much time I’ve been putting in on the instrument. It does mean a whole new repertoire though. In addition to “Joy Spring,” the group is tackling other timeless standards including “Witch Hunt,” “Nothing Personal,” “How High the Moon,” and “Moanin’.” These tunes span the swing, bop, post-bop, and modern eras, and are each challenging in their own way. As a guitarist in an ensemble context, my role is primarily rhythmic and harmonic. However, on “Joy Spring” in particular, I’ve set a personal goal of being able to keep up with the horns in belting out the melody.

Following up on my last post, the New Yorker has one of the best Jim Hall tributes I’ve read so far. Like one of Jim’s solos, it hits all the right notes and gets straight to the point. Also, if you don’t yet have any Jim Hall albums in your collection, any of the collaborations cited in the essay are a great place to start (I’m partial to “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins).

The Complete Jazz Guitarist

I recently picked up The Complete Jazz Guitar by Jim Hall. The trio date, with Carl Perkins on piano and Red Mitchell on bass, was his 1957 debut as a leader. It’s a solid bop set and an interesting footnote in the development of Hall’s sound. His playing is restrained, melodically grounded, and only beginning to reveal shades of the subtle complexity that would lead him to loom large in the evolution of jazz guitar. From the standpoint of a jazz student like myself, The Complete Jazz Guitar also helps Jim seem a little more mortal; his sound and technique on the album is something I feel I can aspire to and achieve — less daunting than his masterful accompaniment of Sonny Rollins on The Bridge, for instance.

To that end, my jazz instruction in DC is off to a good start. The lessons with Steve Herberman are kicking my ass — in a good way. We’ve been dissecting one of my favorite standards, “Autumn Leaves”, which has involved some painstaking (but illuminating) arpeggio and scale etudes, intervalic exercises with the melody, and even a little transcription (see the Cannonball Adderley album Somethin’ Else for one of my favorite versions of the tune). I highly recommend Steve as a teacher; besides just being a super down-to-earth guy, he’s also very enthusiastic about teaching and accommodating of your personal goals as a student.

I also attended my first “jazz band masterclass” this week; the jazz ensemble program comes via sax player Jeff Antoniuk and his local cadre of master instructors. I’ll have the opportunity to sit in with a full band every other week and receive expert guidance on the ins and outs of jazz performance. This week our guest instructor was Brazilian bassist — and Montgomery College artist in residence — Leonardo Lucini, who shared theoretical and stylistic perspective on navigating the samba standard “So Nice,” among other tunes. It was a good first class, and I’m looking forward to future sessions. In the mean time, back to the woodshed…

Guitar Apps for the Enlightened Picker

Q: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing?

A: Put some sheet music in front of him/her.

Sad but true. We 6-stringers have a bad — but often deserved — reputation on the bandstand for being musically illiterate. On the one hand, it’s great that the guitar is so easy to pick up by comparison to other instruments, what with its cleanly delineated frets and the minimal technique required to strum a chord and pick a basic melody (try doing the same with a violin or trombone). On the other hand, it means we really have no excuse for not learning some theory along the way.

I’ve spent the last several years recovering from a decade of notational neglect, and let me tell you it’s been a slog. Fortunately, 21st century technology is there to help — particularly the availability of some great instructional apps for phone and tablet.

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Thanks in part to leads from friends and N.O.S. readers, I finally managed to set up some sessions with a local guitar instructor. In preparation for my first lesson, I’m brushing up on chord and scale forms. While excited, I have to admit to being a little intimidated as well. My teacher will be DC-area guitarist Steve Herberman (see vid below), who’s appeared on the cover of Just Jazz Guitar magazine and received glowing album reviews from Downbeat and JazzTimes.

I’m also pursuing leads on a couple community jazz ensemble programs. I played in one while studying at the John Payne Music Center in Boston, and found it a great setting for applying the concepts I was learning. My long-term goal in all of this is to acquire chops that will let me hook up with a gigging jazz ensemble. I’m hoping to more regularly update readers on my progress in that direction; the “chops” section of this blog has been a little thin.

Practice Space

Fellow blogger gtr1ab, over at Confessions of a Wannabe Guitar Player, recently encouraged readers to share pics of their home practice space. Like him, my space is in a corner of my home office. Music stand and Roland Micro Cube anchor one end; my Ikea desk has a pullout extension that serves as an all-purpose guitar repair bench and work area, usually occupied by my laptop and Band-In-a-Box. The dry-erase board provides space to write out the chords and scales associated with whatever tune I’m currently learning.

Unfortunately I’ve been in a practice rut as of late. Following a recent move, I’ve been without private lessons and a regular practice regimen. I’m hoping to change that soon; any reader suggestions for a good jazz guitar teacher in the DC area would be much appreciated.

The Elusive Tone

NYC-based guitarist Cameron Mizell has a great blog. His latest post addresses the elusive “tone” — the aural nirvana sought by millions of guitarists, but only rarely achieved. The quixotic obsession with tone props up a massive industry of big-name and boutique builders of guitars, amps, effects, pickups, and other myriad gadgets guaranteed to keep working musicians broke and always on the lookout for the next big thing. This is despite the fact that — as Cameron very eloquently explains by way of scientific and musical evidence — the “tone” is really in your fingers, not the gear. The two most important sentences in Cameron’s post:

“If you’re not satisfied with the tone from your fingers, you’ll never truly be satisfied with the tone from any guitar, amp, and pedal combination. If you know how to manipulate tone with your fingers, however, you’ll be able to make the most out of whatever rig you’re playing.”

Exhibit A: My Ibanez Tubescreamer, modded to vintage TS-808 specs by the Analog Man. This pedal is the last remaining artifact of countless hours and hundreds of dollars spent in college trying to find the perfect overdrive. Notably, the TS9DX was not the last pedal purchased in that quest. It was, however, the pedal to which I kept returning. It’s no accident that the Tubescreamer is a point of departure for literally hundreds of big-name and boutique overdrive pedal designs. Some of the variations and tweaks represent significant tonal departures, while others are probably indistinguishable (especially if you’re on the listening end of the pedal).

That said, I didn’t end up with the Tubescreamer because it’s the perfect pedal. No, I eventually realized that what I really needed was not new gear, but rather a lot more time in the woodshed. The Tubescreamer is reliable, consistent, and the dirtbox of choice for many great guitar players; if I can’t get a satisfying sound, it’s probably a greater reflection of my playing than the vintage authenticity of the components. I can’t necessarily say that I’ve since found “the tone,” but at least I think I have a better (and more cost-effective) idea of what’s needed to get there.

So check out Cameron’s post, stop surfing Musician’s Friend, and pick up your perfectly good guitar for some well-spent practice time.