Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative and exciting moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: acoustic instrumentalist par excellence, Laurence Juber
GT: What appeals to you about guitar instrumentals?
LJ: One of the first records that made an impression on me was The Shadows’ Apache. So the concept was baked into my musical consciousness from the beginning.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
LJ: Playing the tune without vocals puts the focus on the melody, although, with a familiar song the audience may be mentally filling in the missing lyrics. That familiarity can create an interesting live performance dynamic. It also leaves room for melodic, harmonic and textural embellishment. And it’s the player that sets the agenda, rather than following the singer’s lead.
GT: Any tendencies that you aim to embrace or avoid?
LJ: On acoustic, I’ve made it my artistic focus to explore the possibilities of arranging and composing for fingerstyle guitar. I attempt to embrace the lyrical ‘meaning’ of the song, articulate the melody, be true to the harmony, or at least expand on it appropriately. It has to be both at the service of the song and guitaristically satisfying, which, for me, often means using an altered tuning, typically DADGAD or CGDGAD. Composing is a more random process and it depends on how the tune and the texture evolve. I try to avoid note-spinning and look for something guitaristic to hang the work on. On electric lead guitar it’s simply about finding the right voice and tone. The way that Jeff Beck coaxes multi-dimensional fingerstyle solo lines is the epitome of that, to me. Rhythmically, I enjoy being able to integrate something percussive. You’ll find different grooves in my work – shuffles, reggae, swing – whatever fits.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach for guitar melodies?
LJ: I recently played at event for Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday. He is a master of putting the song across with no artifice. It’s a pure engagement with the audience. There’s a 1959 Johnny Mathis album, Open Fire, Two Guitars recorded with Tommy Mottola and Al Caiola – it has an amazing interplay of Mathis’ voice and the chromatically-voiced, jazz-toned guitars. Great vocalists all have one thing common: they are great storytellers. I look for something that sparks the imagination.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
LJ: I try to stay focused, as it’s usually 90 minutes of solo playing. When I’m with my trio, I have a lot more freedom to extend the soloing.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
LJ: I don’t use fingernails and I pluck rather than pick the string so I work to bring out the voice of the guitar. Mostly I use my Martin signature OM model which has the tight focus of a smaller-body guitar and the 25.4” scale that keeps it from getting flabby in dropped tunings. On electric I’m partial to some Hank Marvin-style twang from a Strat!
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
LJ: Jazz guitarists are typically pushed into flat keys by playing with horn players. Sharp keys are naturally friendly to standardtuned solo guitar because of the open bass notes E, A and D. I’ve written tunes in B major and minor, and used DADGAD for the flat keys. CGDGAD is great for Cm and Gm. My arrangement of Bacharach’s Alfie uses that tuning in the key of Bb.
In DADGAD, I’ll tend to start in D – it’s the home key, whether major or minor. Tempos are all over the map. It can be fun to take a fast tune and arrange it slowly, or the reverse.
GT: Are minor or major keys easier ?
LJ: I’m a fan of melodic minor because, if you include blue notes, it’s almost completely chromatic. Otherwise I’m equal opportunity.
GT: What about key modulations?
LJ: I like the twists that come with a tune like All The Things You Are, where the modulations are a compositional feature. Half-step modulations of the ‘here-comesthe-last-chorus’ kind are tricky for solo guitar as you’ll often end up with handfuls of barre chords. I do tend to look for ways of doing more distant key changes.
GT: And harmonising melodies?
I’m all for it! Sometimes all you need is the minimum to establish the harmonic perspective: a bass note, a 3rd, 6th or 10th. I enjoy playing chord melody style. An altered tuning can allow sax section-type four-note parallel voicings that don’t finger so easily in standard tuning. In DADGAD, the multiple octave strings allow for a 12-string like effect, as well as a Wes Montgomery octave approach.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have most inspired you?
LJ: There are many but the top three are: Apache (The Shadows), Anji (the Bert Jansch version), Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (Jeff Beck), from the album Blow By Blow.
i atteMpt to eMBrace the lyrical ‘Meaning’ of the song and expand on it appropriately
Laurence Juber with his OMC-18VLJ Martin signature