Vamp 'Til Ready

Mar 25, 2021

The thing that always drove me crazy when I first got into fingerstyle was learning some cool guitar instrumental that only lasted for eight or twelve bars. I'd play it over and over, learning it, grooving on it, but mostly just wishing there was more of it. So when I finally learned how to improvise a little bit, I thought, "Aw yeah, now I've got it made, I'll just play the tune, solo for a while and then play the tune one more time!" The problem with that, though, is that you've got to really have a lot of good soloing ideas. For another, you've got to know how to make them build. And for a third, if you play every song that way, it starts to get predictable pretty quickly.

The summer I spent at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, I went to see Gene Bertoncini's trio play every week at a little bar downtown. And during the six weeks of the program, he and bassist Michael Moore were a constant presence on campus. Gene had this soft-spoken way of communicating that carried a disproportionate degree of authority; we all clustered around him whenever we could, collecting and passing around his best moments, like the time he paused, gazed off in into the middle distance, and finally remarked, "Beethoven...he didn't write any tunes, did he?"

In one of his clinics with Moore, Gene talked about their duo's arrangements. Since I was spending the summer trying to learn how to write horn charts, I was pretty baffled at first. How could you characterize anything just two musicians did together as being "arranged"? It's only now, decades later, that I get what he must have been talking about. Because what I remember most is his explanation that "a good arrangement is like a safety net." When you play improvised music, he went on, you might be having an inspired night. You might not. If you're not, and all you're doing is winging it, you don't have much to fall back on. But if you have good arrangements, you know the music won't fall below a certain level. The thought you've put in ahead of time to create things like intros, endings, rhythmic hits and planned chord substitutions will give you something good to play even if you're having an off night as an improvisor.

This, I've found, can be just as true when it comes to solo instrumental fingerstyle blues. Forget two musicians – just one musician can have an arrangement for a song, and it can totally solve both of the problems I outlined above: how to turn an eight- or twelve-bar idea into a full-length instrumental, and how to give it shape and momentum. In today's lesson, The Seven Step Arc, I'll show you how to combine vamps, solos and shout choruses with the fundamental and embellished versions of the tune itself to consistently create arrangements that develop, build, peak and resolve in the space of just two or three minutes.

Along the way, you'll learn about a few highbrow moves like guide tone lines and ostinatos, and how to use them to create your own vamps, intros and more. Just go to the link below to get started, and if you missed the first couple of lessons, you can find them on the same page, along with the downloadable PDF of all the tab:

The Seven Step Arc