The Five Scales to Conquer Jazz

Did you know that as complex and exotic jazz improvisation and scales seem to be, the majority of jazz vocabulary is derived from only five scales?

They are:

  • The major scale
  • The harmonic minor scale
  • Melodic minor scale
  • whole-tone scale
  • diminished scale

That isn’t to say that learning to use them well is easy, but I hope this can dispel any misconceptions about jazz improvisation requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of different scales.

So how can you get so much musical material from just five scales? Well consider that each of these scales have modes. The major, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales will each have seven modes and seven chords that can be derived from them. The whole tone scale only has one mode and the diminished scale only has two modes because of their symmetrical structure. Therefore they are often used in a parallel fashion.

What’s important is not how many scales you know, but how thoroughly you understand and utilize each of them. If you can do that with just these five scales, you’re well on your way to becoming a jazz musician!

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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!