Jazz Guitar Thoughts by Chris Standring

Take A Breath, Listen To The Spaces

As jazz guitarists, there is a terrible tendency for us to play a lot of notes, firstly because the genre historically has given us permission to do so, and second, archtop jazz guitars don't generally lend themselves to sustaining notes, so in order to 'get over', guitarists fall into the trap of overplaying.

There are of course compromising situations which affect the way we play and it is important to be aware of these at the time. First, if you are taking a solo and the band behind you is not being particularly supportive, i.e.; playing busily and not listening to you, then this very often makes a player play more notes because they are fighting to speak, as it were. But if the band is just grooving, you as a soloist can play just a few notes and the spaces are music in themselves!

Another compromising situation might be a borrowed or rented amp that just won't sound the way you want it to. Perhaps a boomy hall. All these things can and will put your head into a different space, often unconsciously.

So first, we need to get out of our heads, or get out of our own way, so to speak, in order to make the best music.

And then we need to really focus on playing beautiful phrases that tell little stories. And I have found there are a couple of ways that you can drill this kind of thinking into your own playing, so it becomes subconscious. First, and the most traditional idea, is to adopt a 'question & answer' stance. You simply play a phrase, almost like stating a question, leaving the end of the phrase open ended somehow, then take a breath and answer it, making it a little more final in response. As time goes on, this will feel more and more natural.

Something that I have been doing recently which really got me to think about phrasing and spaces is by setting a nice vocal or hall reverb on my amp. I would then play a phrase and really listen to the reverb at the end of the last note in the phrase, and let the reverb die away before I would play another phrase. I found that much of the musicality was really in that reverb space. I do that now when I play with the band in a live setting, and if the band is overplaying, I usually can't heard those reverb trail-offs. It has almost become second nature now, I am always listening for those reverb spaces.

Finally, another way to practice is to hold your breath for a while, play a phrase and when you naturally want to let the air out of your lungs, end your phrase. Try to connect your own breathing with the phrases you play on the guitar.

There are of course plenty of examples of great players overplaying too. But intensity also has its place, and I can think of a few masters who can get quite intense, yet in a next breath, play the most beautiful passionate phrase. Pat Metheny immediately springs to mind.

Personally, if I listen to music that doesn't breathe, I find it difficult to. Do you?

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Read all about the great jazz guitarists here:

Bill Frisell Charlie Christian Django Reinhardt George Benson George Van Eps Grant Green Jim Hall John Mclaughlin Joe Pass John Scofield Kenny Burrell Larry Carlton Lee Ritenour Pat Martino Pat Metheny Tal Farlow Wes Montgomery