David Mead addresses your technical, musical and theoretical issues.
Alternate Lifestyle? Dear Theory Godmother
I’ve been working on my speed and want to play quickly enough to make a decent job out of covers of the rock songs I like.
But what to learn? When I start to learn pieces that I like, I often find myself struggling, even though I can play fast enough while practising.
So I spend hours struggling on one or two solos that are probably too hard for me and not learning stuff that is more appropriate. Do you have any tips for choosing pieces that are right?
Matt This is one of the more difficult aspects of teaching yourself, Matt. In order to progress on the instrument you need to strike a balance between material that you’re comfortable with, and the more challenging upward gradient necessary to move forward. In other words, this means that you have to pick pieces to work on that present a few obstacles to stretch your technique, while keeping one foot on solid ground. This little by little approach has proved effective in the past and continues to do so today - but it’s difficult to do on your own.
When you teach yourself you sacrifice objectivity; you’re alone with your playing and it’s very hard to see exactly where you fit in and where to go next in order to progress. This is where a good teacher can help immeasurably as he or she will be able to see the level that your playing has reached and be able to formulate a plan to move you forward. This will often be a combination of technical exercises that will make you sweat a bit, and pieces that push you onto new ground. If it’s done right, you won’t even realise how far you’ve progressed until you look back at where you were previously.
So my advice would be to seek out a good teacher and ask if you can have a short series of lessons to assess your technical level and set you on the path towards making some headway. This should give you enough inertia to go back to teaching yourself knowing how to reach your goals more realistically. You should then naturally be able to select the appropriate level songs to learn - by instinct. I realise that this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but trust me - there isn’t a quick and easy solution to this and having someone there who is experienced in pacing your playing is a sure fire way of achieving your goals.
The Joys Of Jazz… Dear Theory Godmother
I’ve read so many letters in your column about people having trouble when they try to learn jazz - and I’m afraid I’m going to add one more!
I’ve been playing now for around ten years and have become a fairly proficient rock and blues player and decided that I want to venture out a little more and try my hand at playing jazz. The players I enjoy in this area are John Scofield and Pat Martino and I have been to see a couple of contemporary jazz players like Phil Robson, too.
The trouble is, whereas I can usually work out solos and riffs in the rock medium, when it comes to jazz I can’t even hum it to myself - I can’t seem to conceptualise what’s going on and I end up frustrated. Being an experienced teacher, what would you advise me to do to solve this problem?
James As you can probably imagine, this is something I’ve addressed before during the 30 years or so that I’ve been involved with teaching. So much so, in fact, that I’ve discovered what I think is the root of the problem when it comes to making a smooth transition between playing rock and introducing a little jazz into your style - and believe it or not it’s all down to perception…
I realise that I’m generalising here, but I think it’s fair to say that most of the blues orientated rock out there is based around the minor pentatonic scale. There might be a few variations - blue notes and so on, but it’s the minor pentatonic that embeds itself into our consciousness first and foremost.
To this extent, any music that is pentatonically based becomes easy to recognise and, as our fingers and ears become more experienced, we find it fairly easy to work out on the fretboard. But the shortfall here is that the pentatonic scale is only five notes out of a potential 12 (Ex 1, A major pentatonic). So there are seven notes of the chromatic scale that are not used quite so often - and so when we encounter them, they’re more difficult to process.
Some players will stay with their pentatonic alphabet quite happily and learn to include a few ‘guest’ notes every so often - but even if they move on to the full diatonic scale, there are still some notes missing. I’ve found in the past that even if I introduce students to the basic ‘starter pack’ of scales - major and minor pentatonic, major and minor diatonic (Ex 2) - they still have trouble assimilating jazz. I believe that this is because jazz is a chromatically based music and the ears need to be exposed to the full chromatic scale in both theory and practice before it becomes possible to tell exactly what’s going on. Even with the scales I’ve listed, you’re still going to be five notes short of the full chromatic scale (Ex 3).
So initially you need to listen to as much jazz as you can. Not only include the chromatic scale in your practice routine but learn to sing it, too; literally put the notes inside your head and learn to speak them. Get hold of some transcriptions of jazz solos and work through them slowly. Gradually your ear will take on board the new information and you’ll find transcribing and playing jazz becomes easier and easier, and pretty soon licks like the one in Ex 4 will have a real meaning for you!