Spy Vs. Spy

Nov 21, 2019
I'm beginning to think fingerstyle guitar is the great leveler. I touched on this in an earlier post, quoting jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini's observation that as guitar players, we like just about anything played on the guitar. One of the reasons I started off my first Friday Music playlist with Guy Van Duser's version of "Black Beauty" is because that recording single-handedly got me interested in jazz. Once I realized it was a Duke Ellington song, I was off to the library to try and find the source. I'm still heading down that rabbit hole decades later.

Ironically, that same interest in jazz led me into one of those great disconnects I think many guitarists experience. That's the one in which someone who loves blues goes looking for more information – new, different, more "interesting" things to play on the blues – and winds up studying a bunch of details on a page that have nothing to do with what attracted them to music in the first place. You know what I mean: "You need to know the modes!" "Here, learn these John Coltrane tunes," and my all-time bête noire, "You should really be practicing these in all twelve keys."

I've yelled about this before, often in the summer workshop classes I used to teach, but basically, learning modes and playing the chords to songs off of a Real Book chart does not a jazz experience make. Moreover, the great jazz ensembles of the 20th century were just that – ensembles, as much bands as Muddy Waters' 1950s group, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, P-Funk or the Bangles. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, the Horace Silver and Miles Davis quintets, the Modern Jazz Quartet – these groups wrote and arranged a repertoire of material, held rehearsals, developed a sound and a point of view, and went out to present a show.

Yes, at the legendary reputation-making after-hours sessions at places like Minton's and Monroe's Uptown House, it was part of the culture to turn tunes upside down and inside out, and in those environments, a demonstrable command of total instrumental facility was indeed the coin of the realm. But just like you don't need Michael Phelps' gold medals to swim laps every day or just goof around in the community pool, neither do you need a Coleman Hawkins-like level of virtuosity to enjoy wrapping your hands around a tune from the Great American Songbook or hang casually with a few fellow swing aficionados. In those settings, navigating a tune like "All Of Me" or "Sweet Georgia Brown" isn't a driving test, it's a social skill, like knowing enough origami to entertain a over-hungry kid with a restaurant napkin or having two clean jokes you can deliver with aplomb.

Jazz finally clicked for me when I began to treat it like the blues, listening broadly enough and often enough to slowly assemble a definition of who and what I did and didn't like within the genre. As that came into focus, I took what I liked best and started figuring out how to play those licks and tunes myself, to understand how and why they worked the way they did.

Part of what I learned, and continue to learn, from doing that, is how integral the blues is to the jazz I like most. Which is something I read about in "History of African-American Music" my sophomore year of college, but it's one thing to nod while underlining sentences in Albert Murray's Stomping The Blues and another to work out a Dexter Gordon move and realize "hey now wait a second...he's just playing the blues! Can you do that?"

And the flip side is true. If you know where to look, there's a world of sounds to glean from the playing of blues-oriented jazz musicians – cool jazz moves you can turn into fingerstyle licks. Yeah, you could be the 18-billionth guitarist to work out "Mississippi Blues" – a not-unworthy project, I might add – or you could be the first one to to slip a couple of Charlie Christian licks into your third chorus on same.

So let's walk the walk. This week, I've dipped into the Fingerstyle Archive to tab out a couple of licks from my 2017 Youtube lesson "The Jazz Vs. Blues Party Trick." You can download the tab directly at the link below, without re-entering your email address:

Get The Tab

Here's a link to the lesson, on my Youtube channel:

The Jazz Vs. Blues Party Trick

More soon,