Musical Education & Sage Advice
June 11, 2013 by Larry Grinnell
I recently found a great site containing quotes from many fine jazz and studio players. I’d heard many of them before, but it was nice to find many of them in one place. To these quotes, I added some of my own observations, coming from a lifelong love of music and deep admiration for musicians.
The late Joe Pass was a brilliant soloist, and a very humble man, who spent a lifetime honing his craft. At the same time, he often admitted to being somewhat lazy. He didn’t practice a great deal, and really disliked doing scales, feeling it was a mind-numbing activity. He claimed to know the barest minimum of music theory. He told his students to back off with their “brilliant” improvisations, and learn the melody inside and out before attempting to be a “big time soloist.” Like he said, “learn tunes.” His sometimes playing partner Herb Ellis took this concept one step further, advising his students to quietly (or silently) sing the tune as they’re playing. There’s no better way to get inside a melody than to sing it.
Count Basie was a man of few words, and a man of even fewer notes. His spare technique (less is more) won the admiration of players and fans over a 50+ year career. When asked what defined what the Basie band was, he replied simply, “just tap your foot.” Anyone who listened to the Basie band knew how perfect the tempos were. The band originally was a dance band, and the swinging tempos reflected this. One very talented pianist asked Basie what made him (and his band) successful. He replied with a one word answer: “Listen.” Listen, in a musical context, has multiple meanings.
- Listen to the other players. Know where they are playing and stay out of their way.
- Listen to the time. Basie’s band was a metronome. Guest drummers often stated that they hated playing with the Basie band because they felt the tempos were dragging. The reality was that these drummers were popular hot-shots, for whom keeping time was a secondary concern. Basie and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green guarded the tempos with an iron hand. Woe be it to a player who couldn’t sync up with the band. They got one strong dressing-down by the Count or Freddie. If they needed a second counseling session, they were gone. That simple.
- Listen carefully for your openings. Be ready. If you are new at gigging, you never know when your more experienced bandmates will make some space for you.
- Listen to the soloists. The best ones tell stories with their music. Learn to not only find your own voice, but learn to tell your own stories.
Guitarist Howard Alden, early in his career, was playing in a band led by tenor man Benny Carter. Howard was playing straight rhythm, but apparently in a rather stilted way. It didn’t flow, it didn’t swing. During the break, Carter told Alden to “loosen up.” This does not mean ignore the time; it means to flow with the rest of the band. Keeping time is a very important function of a rhythm guitar player, but it can be done in a loose fashion. Just listen to the work of Count Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Green. I don’t think he played a stilted note in his life. When he was playing four-to-the-bar rhythm, often at breakneck speeds, there was always a sense of playfulness, of swing. It isn’t something that can be easily learned, but once you have it, you’ll always be able to find it again.
If you’re working a regular gig and need to bring in a substitute, find the best player you can find; someone better than yourself – Howard Roberts
Okay. You have a regular gig, be it a club or a studio setting. Let’s say you need to take a day off. Maybe one of your kids is sick, or just want to take a few days off. Replacing yourself with someone better than you demonstrates to your peers and bosses that you take your job seriously; that you are confident, that you are responsible and professional enough to ensure the gig goes on the right way, and that you check your ego at the door. It also shows your reliability, especially important in a studio setting.
Be Prepared – Lord Baden Powell (Boy Scouts Founder)
Whether you have a studio gig or you are practicing with your buddies in a garage band, be prepared. If you are expected to know one specific tunes before a gig, know them. If you are a studio musician, you already know this, but I’m going to share with others: be prepared to walk into the studio, sit in your assigned seat, and set up your instrument. At this moment, you will be handed the sheet music (often nothing more than chicken scratches on a lead sheet) for the session, and you will be expected to play the piece perfectly, without rehearsal, because a studio musician is supposed to be able to sight read almost anything. The sheet music may even be written for a different instrument and you will be expected, based upon a few comments written on the lead sheet, to instantly transpose the tune into the correct key. It may also mean that you might need to carry a few extra instruments with you. As a guitar player, for example, you may need to have an archtop (a Gibson ES-335 or ES-175, for example) for jazzy pieces, a solid body (Gibson Les Paul, Fender Telecaster/Stratocaster, or both), a banjo, and a gut string acoustic. Those players who were at the pinnacle of their careers might have even brought a mandolin, a six-string electric bass (an old Danelectro, which used guitar tunings, one octave lower than a guitar), a Fender bass, and goodness knows what else. You are working with professionals and you will be expected to be the consummate professional yourself. Otherwise, you won’t be working in the studios for very long. Studio gigs these days, thanks to synthesizers and such, are a rare occurrence. The glory days of the studio musician, roughly 1955 to 1975, are long gone. Today’s studio musicians have learned to adapt and do jingles, commercials, and whatever work they can find to feed their families.
Eventually you’ll take the phrases and rhythm patterns you’ve copped and begin to put your own mark on them – Eddie Van Halen
This goes back to what I said earlier about finding your own voice. I think most musicians start off playing in a derivative style—a mishmash of everyone else’s musical styles and ideas. The best musicians work very hard to get past the imitative period and show their listeners that they have something to say, and they’re not just an automaton, playing zillions of notes (even if expertly played). There are lots of professional players out there who do just that (in kindness, I’ll not name names), but you know, long runs of precise eighth or sixteenth notes get real boring after awhile.
2,400,000 Americans play the accordion – hopefully not at the same time. -unknown
… although one can get very clever at home, progress comes a lot quicker if you step into a room with other people and start playing .. – Steve Howe
You can get every Jamey Aebersold record, practice with Music Minus One records, Band in a Box, and various and sundry rhythm machines, but it’s not the same as playing with other human beings. The give and take from playing with others makes you, and hopefully your musical partners, better musicians.
A real leader faces the music, even when he doesn’t like the tune. – Anon
During the golden days of the studios, from about 1955-1975, many of the top studio players were jazz artists who got into studio work on innumerable rock and roll sessions, for the steady paycheck. Most despised the things they were playing, but were pragmatic enough to take the money and take care of their families. Like I often say when my day job gets me down, or when commenting about the long (45 mile one way) commute: “A gig’s a gig.”
Play the music, not the instrument. – Author Unknown
The late Barney Kessel spoke of this a lot. He often said that he was a musician, who just happened to choose the guitar as the medium for expressing what was inside of him. Don’t get hung up with “tone” and how one guitar, amplifier, or microphone sounds over another. Joe Pass played on lots of different equipment, and pretty much sounded the same, no matter what he played (assuming we are talking about an amplified electric guitar). My uncle, the late Andy Nelson, was much the same way, though he was hung up on how he held the instrument, and often used a footrest.
The pause is as important as the note. – Truman Fisher
One of my favorite guitar players is the late Jimmy Raney. He came out of the combined Charlie Christian/Charlie Parker sphere of influence, but maintained a truer sense of the bebop language than most of his brethren players. He also had a sense of space that was unparalleled. He instinctively knew how much space needed to be admitted into his solos. It wasn’t just pausing to think about the next line, but a concerted effort to provide space to the music. Another player who shares a similar sense of space is Jay Carlson, a player who deserves much wider recognition. That said, you don’t have to fill every bar with your brilliance. Lay back a little. See if you can incorporate strategic pauses into your solos. Oh, and listen.
I forgot to mention that I am not a musician. I cannot play a note, though I do hope to learn enough guitar to satisfy myself sometime before I die. I have been around music for much of my life, being influenced by my late uncle, who was a clinician for Gibson and Epiphone. One of my favorite lines of his about me was that I was the best musician he ever knew who couldn’t play. I’m still trying to figure out if this was damning with faint praise.