Making Musical Sense

A number of years ago I had the opportunity to take a class with renowned jazz guitarist Herb Ellis.  As one friend said at the time, ”Herb has more swing when he snaps his fingers than a lot of people have when they play a whole solo.”  Herb was humorously bemoaning the fact that George Benson was gaining a lot of attention by scatting along with his solos. Herb said that he had always done that, but nobody thought to mic it and record it. He could have been a big star!

The discussion had a more important point behind it.  If you can’t sing what you’re playing on the guitar, perhaps what you are playing is a bit much.  Herb called it ‘playing what makes sense.’  Now this may seem somewhat ironic coming from a guy who could solo with Oscar Peterson on Sweet Georgia Brown played at about 220 beats per minute, but it is still good advice.  Playing what makes sense is more than the speed of the notes.  It is possible to sing or scat quite fast.  Making sense also involves both intervals and phrasing.  It involves spaces and note lengths.  It involves silence as well as sound.

One of the differences between playing an instrument like a guitar or a keyboard and playing a horn or reed instrument has to do with respiration.  Wind instrument players, like singers, are regulated by the need to breathe.  Guitar players and keyboard players don’t have the same restraint.  While this allows for longer and more complex lines and phrases it can also be a trap.  Those long, extended lines can really stand out and command attention.  They can also run together into an ill-defined mush that is more self-indulgent than it is edifying.   It should be the principle of tension and release.  You want the listener to be saying, “Oh, I thought it was going to stop there,” once, twice or even three times before getting to, “that was interesting” when the line does resolve.  You definitely want to avoid going to the point where the listener is saying, “Please make it end, when is it going to stop?”

As a guitar player, there are a number of solos from recordings that I ‘sing’ along with. Some are sax solos, some are piano or organ solos, most are guitar solos.  When a song comes on that they like most people sing along with the lyrics.  I just listen until the solo starts. The common denominator on all these solos is that I can sing along.  There is a melodic sensibility that is somehow human.  Think about what a monster guitar player Ella Fitzgerald would have been considered had she been playing along with what she was scatting.

I think that a lot of blues players know this instinctively.  The whole driving force behind the blues guitar was to express human emotion in both raw and primitive and in its complex forms.  By necessity that demands some semblance to the human voice.

These are three of those solos that I like to sing along to, what are yours?

Miles Davis’ solo on “So What” from Kind of Blue

Don Felder’s guitar solo on the Eagles “One of These Nights”

The horn section solo on Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening”


Author: Ron

I started playing guitar in high school bands playing songs by the Ventures, early Beatles and other British Invasion bands. With excursions into many types of musical styles and genres in the intervening years I have developed an appreciation for the unique skills of the guitar accompanist. The accompanist serves the song and serves the singer, enhancing rather than competing with the song and the performance. This blog highlights those skills and the practitioners who exemplify this important bit of artistry.

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