Three Ways To Look At Swing And Jump Blues

courses improvisation playing the changes swing Mar 06, 2019

Here's what happened. I was at the National Guitar Workshop one week back in the '90s when someone attached my name to a course listing on a bulletin board. I'd mentioned in passing that I could offer a one-hour elective class on blues songwriting, so someone had dutifully put "Blues SW" on the board. A few hours later, about 20 guys came piling into my classroom looking for the "Blues Swing" class. "'Blues Swing'?" I asked. "What the heck is 'Blues Swing'?"

"We dunno," various students responded. "It said 'Blues SW.' We just figured...uh...swing ideas for playing on the blues?"

So I spent the next hour talking about two of my favorite things, Charlie Christian licks and Freddie Green chord voicings, and everyone went away happy. Happy enough, at least, that for the next few of summers I taught a week-long class called Swing For The Blues Guitarist, in which I taught the moves of musicians like Oscar Moore, Mary Osborne and yes, Charlie Christian, lots more Charlie Christian. Along the way I realized that while it was really fun and plenty useful to treat swing like a period piece, it was also the perfect place to start exploring the idea of playing the changes in a more general way.

"Playing the changes" is jazz shorthand for "playing the chord changes," and at its most fundamental means that for each chord in a progression, you choose to play notes – chord tones, scale tones – which match as directly as possible the notes of that chord.

Two things about this: first, this clearly differs from the blues idea of taking one pentatonic scale and pouring it over the whole chord progression. (Sub-thing, about that thing: of course, there is a lot more nuance to it than that, and there are many musical and beautiful ways in which that idea can and has been spun into something far more detailed than it sounds, but that is a whole other conversation waiting to happen).

Second, once you have a notion that "these are the proper notes you can choose to play over this particular chord," that opens up an epic can of creative worms in which musicians, being human beings, immediately begin asking themselves and those within earshot, "oh, really? well what if I start bending the idea of what's proper like this? Or maybe like that? Yeah, howdya like it when I...?" Which is how we get from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman in almost less time than it takes to go from being born to getting tenure. But I digress. As usual.

Playing the changes is arguably the stepping stone into a more nuanced and satisfying relationship with soloing over a chord progression. And swing (along with its raucus fraternal twin, jump blues) is the ideal stepping off point for blues-savvy guitarists looking to delve into a more nuanced and satisfying relationship with the twelve-bar form. The way swing musicians play the blues is familiar yet different enough to sound fresh and intriguing. And swing riffs and phrasing are already in the bloodstream of every major American roots genre, whether consciously nicked back in the day by the Texas Playboys, country session ace Hank Garland and rockabillies Scotty Moore and Bill Haley guitarist Danny Cedrone , adopted from secondary sources by southern rockers Dicky Betts and the Skynyrd crew or swiped by jazz-admiring bluesmen from B.B. to Gatemouth Brown to Albert Collins for their horn charts and hot licks.

My own fascination with swing and jump blues started out as the usual desire to sound like - like Charlie Christian, like T-Bone Walker, like latter-day "West Coast Blues" purveyors including the emminently inventive and stylish Rick Holmstrom. However, over time I've realized that, just like learning to phrase like blues singers and soloists gave me guiding principles for behaving musically in any soloing situation, learning to play in the swing idiom gave me essential grounding in how to relate scales and chord tones to any chord progression - in short, how to play the changes.

Not only that; understanding swing was a critical ingredient when I finally took on hard bop and the jazz blues changes. The difference between listening to '50s and '60s jazz before I studied swing and after was remarkable. But really, considering how bebop was developed as a daredevil extension of swing by a generation of musicians thoroughly grounded in the big-band aesthetics of the '30s, it makes all the sense in the world that understanding swing would provide an invaluable basis for hearing and understanding what came next.

So here are three ways to think about swing and jump blues:

  • as a essential genres worth learning for their own sake
  • as an improvisational framework you can apply to any kind of soloing
  • as the grounding for exploring the jazz blues changes, altered and diminished sounds and more.

The second unit of my Practicing Blues Guitarist course, Swing And Jump Blues, gets right into all of this, exploring the scales, phrasing, eighth-note lines and fingerings involved in these genres. In particular, I go into detail about:

  • The Swing Scale – the mix of blues scale, major scale and mixolydian scale sounds at the the heart of swing and jump blues soloing
  • Eighth Note Flow – hands-on ways to practice and develop those long, fluid eighth note lines and play with drive and momentum
  • The "Charlie Christian" position – how to relate a whole new area of the neck to the basic "home" position for soloing.

I've posted a sample lesson from the course, a more detailed course description and a table of contents listing all the lesson topics at the link below:

The Practicing Blues Guitarist: Swing And Jump Blues