Watch the Bossa Nova Basics online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp
The music that came to be called bossa nova (literally, "the new thing") took shape in Brazil in the mid 1950s. Bossa nova grew out of the country's powerful samba tradition, crossbreeding samba's heavy, hypnotic groove with the breezy, urbane mood of American cool jazz.
As the late composer and bossa nova patriarch Antonio Carlos Jobim explained in the liner notes to Verve Jazz Masters 13, Antonio Carlos Jobim: "The authentic Negro samba in Brazil is very primitive. They use maybe ten percussion instruments and four or five singers. They shout and the music is very hot and wonderful. But bossa nova is cool and contained. It tells the story, trying to be simple and serious and lyrical. Joao [Gilberto] and I felt that Brazilian music had been too much of a storm on the sea, and we wanted to calm it down for the recording studio. You could call bossa nova a clean, washed samba, without loss of the momentum."
This isn't to say that bossa nova is merely whitewashed samba, however. Bossa nova has its own deep, earthy pulse, and while it's mellower than its percussion-laden cousin, it is equally persuasive.
The nylon-string acoustic guitar is at the heart of bossa nova. For a taste of prime bossa playing, listen to Getz/Gilberto, the classic record by American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist/vocalist Joao Gilberto. Other albums, for example, Gilberto's 1959 disc, Chega de Saudad, may have been more purely Brazilian, but Getz/Gilberto crystallized the bossa nova craze in North America. It swept the 1964 Grammy awards, winning best album, best jazz performance, best engineering, and best song for "The Girl from Ipanema."
Throughout the record, Gilberto's seductive guitar provides both primary rhythms and undulating counter-rhythms.
Let's take our first step into the world of bossa nova guitar by exploring some of Gilberto's comping patterns. Ex. 1 is the fundamental bossa rhythm Gilberto used for the intro of "The Girl from Ipanema." (If "The Girl from Ipanema" conjures images of elevator music or a torpid wedding band, you've probably never heard Gilberto's original sensual and swinging version.)
There are several key points to consider. First is bossa's fingerstyle technique: Pluck the chords (the up-stemmed notes) with your index, middle, and ring fingers, and attack the down-stemmed bass notes with your thumb. Next, notice the accents, they needn't be excessively strong, but you want a dynamic difference between the first, unaccented eighth-note and the following two chordal attacks. By contrast, attack the bass notes evenly, and let them ring for their full value.
Did you notice Ex. 1's 2/4 time signature? In pop- and jazz-oriented fake books, you may find bossa nova standards such as "The Girl from Ipanema" and "Desafinado" rendered in 4/4, but Brazilians write and, more importantly, feel this music in 2/4. You can tap into the 2/4 vibe by gently swaying your body, shifting your weight from left foot to right as you count " One, two, one, two." If you aren't moving, you aren't grooving.
Also, note that the Db6/9chord is voiced with the 5 (Ab) in the bass. While not the rule, in bossa guitar it's common to have the 5 in the bass on the sixth string. Here's a tip: When playing a major 9th, major 6/9th, dominant 9th, or minor 9th chord whose root would occur on the fifth string, leave the root out of the voicing and instead fret the 5 on the sixth string. Play Ex. 2, and notice how the 5-in-the-bass voicing gives chords a more open sound. The separation between the upper part of the chords and their respective bass notes adds to the musical illusion that the bass and treble parts are played by different players. (When you're playing with a bassist, he or she will cover the roots.)
Ex. 3 shows how Gilberto uses a simple two measure rhythmic pattern to work his way though the chord progression in "The Girl from Ipanema." The last sixteenth-note of measures 2, 4, and 6 anticipate the next chord Eb9, Ebm9, and Db6/9, respectively. Play this anticipation very lightly. In fact, many bossa nova guitarists play these anticipated chords as pitchless ghosts, using the chording hand to mute the strings briefly by lifting the fingers ever-so-slightly off the strings.
Again, pay attention to the accents, and strive to keep the bass notes smooth and even. Resist the temptation to play syncopated bass lines or couple the bass line to all the chords. To nail the bossa style, you've got to keep a steady quarter note pulse on the bottom.
Jobim also played guitar, but his style was a little different from Gilberto's. Ex. 4 is a sample of Jobim's comping from the introduction to "Vivo Sonhando" (from his album, The Composer of Desafinado Plays). This example illustrates an important bossa nova concept: Each two-bar rhythm pattern usually has a "down" side and an "up" side. The down side relies on eighth-notes, which are not considered syncopations in bossa nova. By contrast, off-beat sixteenths, or upbeats, are felt as syncopations.
Another example of this two-bar up/down feel can be heard in Gilberto's comping on "Doralice," again from Getz/Gilberto. The song was recorded at a brighter tempo than typical bossa novas, so play the lively Ex. 5 accordingly.
This four-bar progression also introduces the concept of moving voices within a chord. For example, in the opening measure, Dmaj7's top note (C#) drops down to B, changing the chord to a D6. For the E13 chord, B returns to C#, and then chromatically works its way down to B again (via E7b13 and A9). This kind of innervoice motion adds harmonic sophistication to an otherwise simple progression. Note that 7 shifting to 6 is a characteristic bossa move, as is 6-7, 6-5, or 5-6. The motion can be direct or chromatic (7-b7-6).
The up-side/down-side concept is not a hard-and-fast rule, but you'll hear it in many bossa nova songs. In any case, the two-bar patterns are rarely repeated verbatim for very long. Instead, rhythmic accents shift and change to compliment a song's melody and mood, or, as in the many collaborations between bossa nova and jazz musicians, to compliment the soloist.
Yet bossa guitarists will sometimes repeat a one measure rhythm to keep the music static for a while. Ex. 1 is the kind of a one measure phrase you can loop this way. To hear the difference between one and two measure patterns, first play Ex. 3 as written, then repeat the chords, but play them using Ex. 1's one-measure rhythm.
Play It Again, Joao
Ex. 6 brings us back to "The Girl from Ipanema." But this time, instead of copying Gilberto's rhythms, we'll play a composite of several patterns we've tried thus far. Once you have this passage up to speed, make up your own combinations, and try them out with this tune, other bossa classics, or with your bossa nova songs.