Watch the Overview & Approach online guitar lesson by Fareed Haque from Jazz Rock Workshop
One thing that I cannot emphasize enough is the power of rhythm. A simple scale played with rhythmic inventiveness and style can be interesting and charming. The great blues players often use the same material night after night, raising the roof (while others can't), I like to say that music is very much like language. All of us can speak, fluently, functionally. Yet only a few of us are poets. It's very similar with music. It's not just talent, but artistry that makes the music meaningful.
Rhythm is not just the metronome. Actors or comedians tell you that timing is the difference between getting that laugh or that gasp from the audience, and getting yawns.
Subtle timing is everything! So remember there is brute rhythm, the ticks on a metronome, and there is subtle rhythm, the flow of the breath. Both are important, but subtle rhythm is the one that is going to connect you to your audience. So take a deep breath, exhale, and at the right moment, wham! Strum that chord…it has power. Believe in it. One of the reasons that the pentatonic scale is so powerful is that it has its roots in the blues, and ultimately in the music of Africa, and much of the music of Asia.
All of the concepts we will introduce here are meant to build on a foundation of the blues. Blues, as a genre, is so important. It's always a good idea to study more blues (whether it's new tunes, licks, riffs etc) and then take those blues ideas and apply the concepts to all styles of music. Blues is like the heart of western pop music – so let's bring it on!
I remember playing at the High Sierra Music Festival and getting invited to sit in with The Radiators (www.theradiators.org) - the legendary New Orleans rock and blues band. I had just got off stage with my own group (the Flat Earth Ensemble), wearing an all white Indian Kurta, which is a formal long Indian concert dress.
When the Radiators got a look at me, they appeared to be a bit flustered, probably wondering "Who is this weirdo, and what's he gonna do on our stage?" I mentioned briefly that I was from Chicago (home of the blues right?) and that seemed to reassure them. But just a bit.
However, after we hit the stage, my one number turned out to be eleven songs. We played until 4 am. It's like the old saying, "You can take the Pakistani kid out of Chicago, but you can't take the Chicago out of the Pakistani kid." The blues is a deep and wonderful art, and understanding it, or beginning to, was and is, a profound lesson for me. I like to think that the basic difference between blues (and many other African and afro inspired musical forms) and western music is merely one of intention. Most western music is obsessed with the need to tell a story, hence the operas, long concertos and symphonies of the great classical composers. Most of the Tin Pan Alley standard songs that jazz is built on, tell a story too. They are often from musicals so they were an essential part of telling the story. I call this "prosaic" music like the prose of our western literature.
I would argue that on a deeper level, what we love about the blues is that it does not have to tell a story. It is not "prosaic" rather "poetic." In fact, one of the most striking and surprising things about the blues is that nothing really happens! We start out at home (I), head to sub-dominant (IV), go back home (I) then head off to V, only to head back to I, where we start the thing all over again. It's hypnotic almost.
In fact, the blues progression is basically the same for almost every blues song. Imagine a blues band plays its set of ten blues songs at a blues festival, 5 bands a day for, say 4 days. That's like 200 blues tunes in one blues festival, the same song like 200 times. And yet, 200 songs later, the audience is still screaming for more. So why doesn't it get boring? The reason for this is repetition. The blues feels good and the repetition gets you into a groove. I feel that this difference represents the difference in concepts of time between western music and African music (and much of the tribal world). Westerners (or western music) typically want[s] to go somewhere or do something. As a result, we are always in a hurry because we have to "get there"! But the blues just feels good. It sits there. It doesn't have to go anywhere or tell a long story because…it's already there…and it feels fine.
In the blues one of the best things you can do is simply play something that feels good. Then play it again, again and again (maybe in a slightly different way). Like poetry that uses repetition (saying a few things again and again, but with beauty and grace or charm) so it is with the blues.
This is especially true for "bluesy jazz." To groove and play something that feels good, and then repeat it, modifying it with some variations, will eventually get your audience "into the groove." It was the great alto sax player Arnie Lawrence [1938-2005] that first clued me in to the blues. I was young (maybe 16 or 17) and Arnie and I were playing together in Chile, with some great musicians from down there. He'd sing or play the blues, and then I'd play. Now I wasn't proud of my playing back then…it was seriously corny. I did not understand repetition and variation.
Arnie used to kid me, on and off stage, he'd say (in a huge pre-war radio announcer voice), "Ladies and Gentlemen, now our young guitarist is going to play for you, one of his favorite songs, called 'The Blues'". Humiliating, but I eventually started to get it (and many thanks to Arnie for so much music, fun, and a seemingly endless supply of great jokes.) Here's a video of Arnie online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQLkcZgEKJk&feature=related Even the great Joe Zawinul (check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th3fi-4k8uY) had his take on this. His instructions to me at our first rehearsal was, "play this part, and don't ever change it. But be sure to never ever play it the same way twice."
That took a week (or a lifetime) to make sense of. But Joe was making sense. He wanted me to play the part and never change it, but always keep making variations on it. Like in nature where no two leaves or snowflakes are ever the same, so too do all of the variations create poetry.