Practicing in all 12 keys

Practicing in all 12 keys can be an overwhelming task for many beginner improviser, but is absolutely essential to internalizing and developing your own improvisational vocabulary. Luckily, the process can be fairly simple on the guitar because of the nature of the instrument.

Transposition on the guitar is just a few frets away. Simple in concept, right? Just move that lick and fingering and move everything by a certain number of frets to transpose to the key you want. Don’t let your guard down. A major hurdle that is overlooked is that it becomes visually disorienting. The fret markers that you use as reference points shift around. It’s easier than transposing on a keyboard, but there are still challenges. Don’t fall into the trap where you think you’d easily be able to transpose a lick on the fly.

If you are advanced in your understanding of theory, you’ll probably be trying to understand the relationship of the notes you’re playing to the harmony that it’s being played over. If you do this, then you have another layer of understanding to tackle. The physical aspect of transposition is easy, but the theoretical aspect will be challenging as any other instrument.

A great tool for transposing an idea through all 12 keys is the Circle of Fifths. This tool has been a source of many guitarists’ confusion. Without getting into the theoretical explanation of this tool, we’ll simply apply it to the order of keys we’ll play through. I recommend going in the counter-clockwise direction on the circle (in the direction of flat keys). IE: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, D, G. Start with a blues lick in A minor pentatonic? Next play in D minor, then G, etc.

When you’re first starting to do this, you will have to practice slowly to make sure all the mental processes are in check. Realistically, it might take an hour or more to get through this exercise. If you’re short on time, I recommend breaking these up into smaller chunks, like six keys at a time. Once the concept is solidified in your mind, you’ll be getting through licks in a matter of minutes, so hang in there!

Solkattu for Polyrhythms

Indian classical music (Hindustani & Karnatic) has a long tradition of rhythmic complexity that became popularized in the Western world through bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti (both lead by John McLaughlin). In this tradition, rhythms are often learned by vocalization (spoken syllables) and gestures (claps and tapping with fingers). This tradition is known as Solkattu.

Western European music’s distinction is found in it’s harmonic system, which is rooted in the understanding of the harmonic series. Many non-Western musical traditions do not have as sophisticated a system for harmony, but they frequently excel in rhythmic complexity. In the Western tradition, rhythms are approached by counting beats with numbers, and subdivisions in syllables. If we are to take 16th notes as an example: 1e+a, 2e+a. Triplets can be counted “one-trip-let” or “1+a”. While this is effective, it can become difficult to manage multiple layers of contrasting rhythms (polyrhythms) since the voice can only produce one sound at a time.

Even a basic understanding of Solkattu can benefit your rhythmic awareness.

Hand gestures are used to keep track of the meter: IE 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc. Let’s take 3/4 as an example. Beat one is played with a clap. Beat two is played by tapping the pinky on to the palm. Beat three is played by the ring finger, then the cycle repeats. You can keep adding beats until you run out of digits, making a total of 6 beats possible. More beats are possible by turning the palm around.

Over top of this, you can use vocalized syllables create a second layer of rhythms. For groupings of two, “ta-ka” is used. Three note groupings: “ta-ki-ta”. Four note groupings: “ta-ka-di-mi”. Five notes: “ta-ka-ta-ki-ta” and so on. Most rhythms will be easily handled with combinations of 2 or 4 note groupings. combines with 3 note groupings. For example, seven note groupings can be expressed as “ta-ka-di-mi-ta-ki-ta” or “ta-ki-ta-ta-ka-di-mi” depending on where the rhythmic emphasis is placed.

As an exercise, try this rhythm: Using hand gestures, tap a 3/4 time signature. In eighth notes, sing a 4 note grouping over it. When you do this correctly, the claps will fall on the emphasized syllables: “TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta, TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta”. There you go, you have a polyrhythm!

This is only scratching the surface of possibilities. I highly recommend exploring different combinations of time signatures and subdivisions to create your own unique rhythmic grooves! If you’re interested in some literature on this topic, check out this link.

Chord Tones to Guide your Soloing

One big hurdle often encountered by guitarists who are learning to improvise, especially within the rock and blues genres, is to create coherent sounding melodies that don’t end up sounding like plain noodling. A frequent cause of this problem is the lack of associating these scale ideas with the other elements in the music, such as counter-melodies, rhythms, and harmony.

This lesson will talk about how to tie in your soloing to the underlying harmony and not to be slavishly tied to one scale throughout the course of the solo.

As an example, let’s take a look at the chord progression for “House of the Rising Sun”. The chord progression goes something like Am, C, D, F, Am, C, E, Am, C, D, F, Am, E, Am, E. Without getting too deep into the theory, an experienced guitarist might look at that and say “I’ll improvise using the A minor scale, since the song is in the that key.” The A natural minor scale is comprised of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G. This is a fair deduction but we run into some issues when we arrive at certain chords.

The first problem area you might notice is the D chord. The D chord contains the notes D, F# and A. Where did that F natural go? We’ve temporarily altered this note from the original natural minor scale to become an F#. In other words, we’ve raised it by a semi-tone. Try improvising over this chord with the F natural versus the F#. Which sounds better to you? Probably the F#. This is how we can begin to acknowledge the underlying harmony in our lead lines. If a chord modifies a note in the given scale, then you should modify the scale to match the chord. The result is an A Dorian mode: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G.

Later on we encounter a similar situation on the E chord. If you observe the E chord you’ll notice there is a G# contained in it. G# doesn’t belong in the original scale of A natural minor. If we replace the G natural with a G# we end up with A harmonic minor instead.

Now the tricky part is making these modifications as you’re improvising, and that’s where practice comes in. Start with a familiar position for this scale then map out where the F will be changed to an F# and a G to a G#. When the chords change, change the scale tones to match. Start slow and deliberate. It’ll be the easiest if you focus on improvising near those notes without trying to cram in too many improvisational ideas. Once you start to get a hang of it, increase the tempo gradually and it will start to come out more naturally in your solos. It also doesn’t hurt to learn some licks and compose some phrases that incorporates these harmonic changes.

If you can do this, you’ll be amazed at how much more cohesive your solos will sound will the accompanying chords!

Mixing Gypsy Jazz Guitar

There are so many great Gypsy Jazz records out there now that are well produced; Selmer #607 and Les Doigts de l’Homme are among my favourites. However, there are even more poorly mixed records out there.

I don’t blame the mix engineer. This is a small niche in the jazz world and requires an entirely different approach to mixing the guitars. If you haven’t listened to a ton of Django Reinhardt records and modern Gypsy Jazz artists, you can’t expect them to be aware of the different roles the guitars take in this genre. Having experienced mixing in this style myself, I’d like to offer some advice to those who might be less informed in this style and looking for some guidelines to follow.

Let’s talk about the instrument itself first. These guitars (Selmer/Macafferi design) tend to be voiced as a lead instrument rather than an accompaniment instrument. Tonally, it translates to having much more of a mid range bite rather than a deep low end and shimmering presence. One huge mistake I hear frequently is giving these guitars a shelf-EQ boost in the presence (>4khz) which results in a harsh and unpleasant attack.

When the guitar is not playing lead, it will be playing rhythm. This isn’t to be mistaken with sustained and open chords ringing behind a lead. The guitar actually replaces the drums as a percussion tool, since this style is usually performed without drums. A rhythm guitarist will generally play short chords with a heavy backbeat that imitates a snare drum. To that extent, applying EQ and compression in a similar approach to drums would yield better results than the traditional approach to mixing guitar accompaniment.

Now that we understand the roles of the guitars, I’d like to address the history of recording technology and this style. Django Reinhardt’s recordings are often considered the holy grail, but the tone on his records are a result of the technology available at the time, as much as his technique. Ribbon mics were the norm back then, and recording in mono around one microphone. The high frequencies were attenuated even further by the medium of vinyl records. There’s no reason to slavishly follow this approach (although some have achieved an uncanny resemblance to the original recordings). Now you have plenty of new technology to create a compelling modern sound, but it’s important to understand what the ears of the audience has been trained to expect.

Let’s get down to the practical part now. EQ and compression are the most commonly used mixing tools so let’s talk about those. For EQ, it seems fairly obvious now that you will likely have to cut the high frequencies instead of boosting them. Pay close attention to the pick attack of the players, as it is probably the most distracting part. Low frequencies can be extremely lacking in these guitars so sometimes a little boost in that range can help thicken up a sound. If the sound is otherwise pleasing, you can apply a high pass filter to make room for other bass instruments in the mix.

One component of the high frequencies is pick noise, which is especially problematic in this style.  Players tend to use a technique called rest-stroke picking that accentuates the attack. If an equalizer doesn’t quite cut it for dealing with this annoyance, a multi-band compression can be a handy tool. I’ve sometimes used vocal de-esser (essentially a narrow band compressor) to specifically weed out this problem area in a natural and subtle way.

A trend that’s becoming increasingly common is to compress the crap out of the rhythm guitars, to give it an extremely aggressive and punchy swing feel. The guitars are often played with very little sustain so a fast attack/release is recommended. If there is a doubled rhythm guitar, you can get a wider stereo mix by hard-panning the two, a common trick in rock mixes.

Finally, any mix should always be tested against a reference track. My recommended reference recordings are (if you haven’t guessed already) the Selmer #607 record series, and the Les Doigts de l’Homme records (particularly Mumbo Jumbo and Couers des Vivants). The Selmer #607 series is particularly interesting as Ghali Hadefi’s production style evolves over the course of the records.  It’s particularly interesting to hear the latest Selmer #607 record and its treatment of the high frequencies. To me, it borders on sounding unnatural but the result is very smooth on the ears. Les Doigts de l’Homme records have incredible arrangements that do a great deal to create an amazing mix but the rhythm guitars is where it particularly shines.

This ended up being a little long but I hope it helps you create a more compelling Gypsy Jazz mix!