Category Archives: Learning to play

I’m taking lessons off Yardbirds fresh new guitarist Ben King. Ben impressed me with his tasty guitar playing and amazing knowledge of music theory. I’m looking forward to working with Ben to improve those chops and licks.

Check out Ben’s website.

At the moment he’s got me working hard on John Mayer and John Scofields version of Ray Charles’ “I dont need no doctor” Some nice jazzy chords.  Great live performance on this youtube clip

Informative and highly amusing series of articles by a jazz musician highlighting the shortcomings of the average pub band

10 things pub rock bands can learn from jazz musicians (Part One)

A while back, I wrote a two-part post called ’10 things jazz musicians can learn from pub rock bands’. Despite the fact I decided to remove a couple of points from the first draft (so there were only eight in then end!) these posts have been the most popular on the blog to date. I thought it was about time I took a look at things from the other perspective; so here is the PlayJazz guide to 10 things pub rock bands can learn from jazz musicians.

Learn to Play
Seriously. The average grassroots jazz musician is a universe beyond the average pub rock band member when it comes to basic musical competence. When jazz musicians don’t sound so good, it’s often because they’re trying to pull off a 32nd-note, diminished-whole-tone-scale pattern at 200bpm.

When pub rock bands sound bad, it’s because they can’t play. Bass players that can’t keep time, guitarists that can’t play half the chords, drummers that just can’t – there are an incredible number of players in pub rock bands that shouldn’t even be thinking about playing in front of friends and family yet, let alone playing gigs! Do yourself and our bleeding ears a favour and spend some time in the ‘shed before inflicting your bizarre twanging and banging on the rest of the world.

And just to be crystal clear about this, I mean practise. Note I’m using the word as a verb, not a noun. This is not the same thing as showing up to your weekly rehearsal (we all know how much pub-rock bands love to rehearse), making the same mistakes in the same places for 25 minutes and then sitting around for two hours drinking cans of beer, smoking spliffs and slagging off everyone who has ever been successful in the music business. This means actually getting off your arse and putting some work in so you don’t suck. Got it?

It Doesn’t Matter What Your Band Is Called
Look, I know you think that picking the right band name is probably the single most important factor in whether you achieve the global fame and fortune that your musical genius richly deserves, but seriously, it makes absolutely no difference what your band is called.

History is littered with successful bands with unbelievably stupid names, such as ‘Hootie and the Blowfish’, ‘Kajagoogoo’, ‘Chumbawumba’, ‘Hoobastank’, ‘Spandau Ballet’, ‘Smashing Pumpkins’, ‘The The’, ‘Mott the Hoople’, ‘Prefab Sprout’….Need I go on?

The reality is that even with the most inane/pretentious/unimaginative/downright stoooopid name, you can be successful. Or not as the case may be. Either way, as a factor in musical success, it’s not going to be anywhere near as important as pub rock bands think it is.

Jazz musicians have always known this and, preferring to concentrate on the music, they make their band names as unoriginal as possible. In fact, after the last band with the word ‘stompers’ in the name hung up their sousaphones, the old New Orleans jazz musicians forced congress to pass a bill making it illegal to have a band using anything other than a musician’s name and the number of people involved in the group as a name. This explains why all jazz bands were called ‘The Oscar Peterson Trio’, ‘The Miles Davis Quintet’ and so on. This directive produced names that were very descriptive and very dull – therefore forcing audiences to focus solely on the music.

Few people know that this law was repealed in 1952 when Jazz musician and amateur lawyer Milt Jackson single-handedly fought a lengthy and hugely expensive legal battle which went all the way to the Supreme Court. On winning his case and being now legally entitled to call his new band anything he liked, he went with the imaginatively shocking, outrageously radical and indisputably paradigm-changing name of ‘The Modern Jazz Quartet’ .

The moral of the story Dear Rocker, is that you need to spend a bit less time in the Pub arguing about whether ‘Walrus Massacre’ carries the necessary gravitas to propel you to the big time and a bit more time learning how to sound less like a bunch of fat mammals being slaughtered.

You don’t need all of those drums
You really don’t. In an evening at a grassroots jazz gig, the drummer will play at least of couple of solos and will undoubtedly have numerous opportunities to trade 4 and 8 bar sections with the rest of the band. For this he uses a kit with a tiny bass drum and at the most, a couple of toms. Setting up any more than 3 cymbals will result in a visit from the Jazz Police.

At an average pub rock gig, the drummer doesn’t get a solo (for a very good reason). Nevertheless, pub rock drummers seem to labour under the illusion that they require a kit the size of a small principality to play the drum parts to ‘November Rain’ and ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’.

Pub-rock drummers: Nobody is impressed that your kit takes up 3/4 of the venue and is spilling over into the car park. Nobody thinks it’s cool that your bass drum is so large, a family of Guatemalan refugees has moved in. Even the most gullible member of the audience knows that you can’t possibly find a place in the set to use all 6 floor toms, and everybody knows that there’s no way you could possibly distinguish the nuanced individual sound of each of the 19 cymbals in a blindfold test.

And apart from anything else, why would you bother with all that showing-off when Buddy Rich can wipe the floor with you with just a snare drum? (skip to 3.45 if you’re impatient!)

Here’s the next one

10 things pub rock bands can learn from jazz musicians (Part Two)

Lastly the final one. Wasn’t quite so keen on this although the keyboard player bit was spot on. I still like the simple chugging anthems chords though and oddly so do millions (when played properly)

10 things pub rock bands can learn from jazz musicians (Part Three)

I’ve finally admitted to myself that I’ve been a lazy guitar student . I’ve been playing for 40 years on and off but only this week has it really dawned on me that there’s no short cuts if you want to really progress. If you’re reading this and you’ve only just started then hopefully I will save you years of noodling, all you have to know is how to practice and you will get better and better. How quickly that happens I guess depends on how well you can concentrate and how much time and effort you can put in.

So what have I been doing wrong? Well I’ve gone for an 80% solution. If I wanted to play a song I would learn it up to a point that it sounded pretty good to me. Once I got to a certain point I would jam the bits that I couldn’t do properly and just groove away and sort of create my own version. Nothing wrong in doing that of course except if one doesn’t make the effort to really learn the song one falls into a trap. Armed with a certain level of skill you’ll go off and learn lots of songs, only they will all be your version. I accepted this 80% solution and developed a style of playing and satisfied myself with the idea that somehow I was being creative when in fact I was being lazy. I have often scoffed at guitarists that were obsessed with playing tracks note for note and I have met many that can do precisely that but don’t seem to be able to jam. Until now I’ve felt being able to jam as being more important than being able to play properly.

80% solutions work well in most walks of life but I reckon in guitar playing its limiting. My playing is full of issues and the 20% part that i havent bothered to sort out are all the bits of my playing that sound crap. Keeping to the beat, phrasing, and memorising are my particular bug bears and that’s because they were difficult and time consuming to work out I skipped the problem and it’s meant that I don’t have the fluidity and flexibility to play in the infinite different phrasing and styles that I could be by now. My fingers are programmed to play a certain way – I’ve developed a comfort zone that makes certain licks so hard to do. There’s nothing difficult about any particular lick that doesn’t stretch you physically , the only reason you find it hard is because I’ve never phrased those notes in that particular way before

This is different from something being hard because your fingers don’t stretch that far or it’s simply too fast for you. If that’s the case then you have to leave it alone or create a workaround. No what I’m talking about is the lick that someone else can do easily but I find I keep messing up. The reason I mess up is because my fingers are programmed by years of playing in my comfort zone. So this why I’m determined now to do what I should have done right from the start and that is to learn great solos note for note and beat for beat. And it’s taking hours and hours sometimes just the simplest lick I have to repeat hundreds of times but when I crack it it’s very satisfying, and because I’ve learnt other stuff about playing over the years like playing with feeling I have to say it starting to sound pretty good.

I have to thank my guitar tutor Gizz Butt for this. I’ve never had any lessons until a few years ago and I reckon all players would really benefit. I guess many of you know that but I didn’t and this is my confession. Hope someone learns from it.

I think many if not most guitarists think they are better than they actually are. We’re a pretty cocky bunch. Something I’ve learnt is that once you really start to try playing properly your repertoire goes right down. I used know loads of songs only I didn’t really I could just play lots of songs badly and mostly incompletely.

I should explain that most of my playing time has been noodling on my own and this is the worst sort of practice I think you can do. You’ll never learn anything because you are never wrong you just make a mistake ignore it and carry on. There’s no band or audience to collaborate with. If you are not in a band you must practice to backing tracks or at least a metronome. Being in a band makes you realise how much you need to learn. Now instead of knowing hundreds of songs I know 15-20. Even then these need a lot of work and I spend hours just on these songs.

I guess some guitarists learn really quickly and that’s what makes them a natural. But for me it’s about lots of practice and practicing properly. I may have been playing for years but I still discover everyday just how much of a beginner I really am. But I’m now making progress…..

Advice on running a band

December 16, 2010

Nice article that explains the ins and outs of playing in a band and how tough it can be, I lifted the original off , I hope they dont mind…

What turns a jam session into the beginning of a real band? How do the members of an ensemble get a “band sound”? This workshop explores the ways that people can put style in to their playing together, such as the combination of instruments that are used, rhythmic and melodic variations and creating arrangements.

Back to Contra Dance Music: A Working Musician’s Guide

What makes a band a Band?
There seems to be a moment when a bunch of people jamming together suddenly feel that there’s the beginning of a “real band” starting to come through. One person turns to the others and says, “Gee, we sound good – maybe we can get some gigs together!” What makes this happen? There are lots of reasons why a band sounds different. One of them is that in a band there is something about the way people play together that becomes more than the sum total of the instruments. Somehow there is an identifiable style that those particular people achieve when they play together. Sometimes it’s by accident; sometimes it arises through the combined experiences and talent of the participants. But there are a lot of specific ways that this style can be deliberately developed. Today we’re going to look at three of these ways:

1) Pay attention to each other and listen

2) Use the instruments and different ideas to vary the sound

3) Create arrangements that make the music flow better and sound more exciting

1. Pay attention.
Playing with others is very different from playing on your own.

Any of us as musicians have worked long and hard to become proficient at our instruments. Thus when a number of musicians first try playing together, each one is likely to pound away in his or her acquired style. What is the result? Completely straight playing which is potentially boring and does not allow any instrument or player the chance to explore or enliven the sound. Or worse, unsynchronized playing, or instruments competing to drown each other out.

Different instruments playing together in a fairly similar way can sound great just by virtue of the inherent differences in their sound. Yet when we pay attention to and make use of the opportunities that combining instruments provides, we find ourselves having musical experiences on an entirely different level.

You need to get tight.

All of us can agree that if we want to sound good, we have to be “tight,” i.e. have solid rhythm, keep together, keep to a basic semblance of the tune we’re playing. How do you keep together? Certainly keeping your ears open is crucial. Pay attention to how hard you feel you’re working – if it feels difficult, chances are you’re out of sync.

Rhythm is the fundamental issue. Tight rhythm feels supported, sometimes effortless, sometimes even elevating. To achieve this, it can be helpful to choose one person in the band whose rhythmic sense is the most consistent, and follow him or her (it doesn’t even have to be a rhythm player). Another good method we’ve learned is that if you’re not sure you’re playing tightly, play more quietly for a while.

One basic method for assuring that you’ll stay tight is to take turns experimenting. When you hear someone take off on an idea, make sure you keep your own playing basic for support. Also, when you all have been playing around for a while, take a time through the tune with everyone playing more simply.

Listening is the first step.

When you feel comfortable that you have a generally tight group, then you can explore getting a “style.” This basically means more interesting ideas, both as individuals and as a group. As in any musical situation, listening is the first and most important element of creating an exciting sound, but sometimes the hardest to remember. Fundamental to all ensemble playing is to listen to others almost more than you listen to yourself. Nothing can sound exciting if it fights with the rest of the music, and no band is fun to play in when someone (or lots of people) consistently will not listen to the other musicians.

Start by listening to your own style. Really hear how you use your instrument – yes, you do have a style of your own. Ask your band members to describe your style to you. You’d be surprised by what you hear! Let them know what new ideas and methods you’re trying. They can provide a lot of insight and support.

Finding ways to groove with each other can be as simple as listening to what you are already doing. Knowing your fellow musicians will give you a lot of information on which to base your own playing. As you all play, listen to what their instruments sound like. Are they essentially high or low? What are their characteristic sounds? Then listen to how the individual player uses his or her instrument. What kind of variations does she or he like? Find out all you can about what he or she enjoys most and does best. Learn about what challenges them the most, and what they’re striving for.

Then think about how you could take advantage of having these other instruments playing along with you. If you don’t have full responsibility for the melody or rhythm playing, how do you prefer to express yourself? What would you like to explore now that you can share responsibility for the music with someone else?

2. Use the instruments you have to the best advantage.
In a band, each instrument can find its best sound.

As we learn about what kind of sounds the other instruments can make, we find ways of using these sounds in exciting ways.

We can’t talk much here about specific notes, harmonies, or chords. We’d like to introduce you to a philosophy which boils down to “it doesn’t matter what you play, it’s how you play it.” One of the beauties of a variety of instruments is that they can even use dissonance to an aesthetic advantage, since they don’t sound alike anyway (a ninth chord on the piano just can’t sound like a ninth chord on the guitar, no matter how you try). But you must be judicious and listen carefully; use your aesthetic sense and discuss the choices with your bandmates. Making sure everyone’s playing the tune exactly the same way, or even using the same chords, is not always crucial. That’s the beauty of having a band!

The most fundamental tools you can use in developing a “band style” are the variety of sounds that the different instruments produce. Some areas to consider could be: the combination of instruments, the use of voicing, and dynamic variation.

Combination of Instruments

Look around your group. What instruments do you have? Which are melody and which are typically rhythm instruments? Consider the character or quality of the sounds each instrument produces. Play together and think about how they all sound together. Then pick smaller groupings and play the tune once through in different combinations. Try adding one instrument at a time. If the tune seems to suggest it, borrow the jazz concept of “trading fours,” i.e. different instruments take turns playing phrases of the tune that echo each other. In general, taking instruments in and out of the mix will immediately give the feeling that you’re a band that rehearses and wants to make it sound better. And it will!


When we speak of voicing here, we are referring to where in the available range of pitches instruments in your band might play. When playing in a band it is useful to think of where you are playing in your instrument’s range in relation to the other instruments in your band.

When we have spent most of our time playing alone, we usually find ourselves playing right in the middle of the typical voicing. On instruments with a large range, like the piano or guitar, we might be playing as many notes as possible to get a “full” sound. But it’s very helpful to give up these tendencies when playing with a group. Think of your instrument as playing a particular role, or voice, in the ensemble, comparable to a voice in a vocal ensemble – soprano, alto, tenor, bass. If everyone is playing across the entire range of their instruments all the time, the result can be a din in which hardly any individual instrument is really discernible. Thinking about voicing can give everybody room in which to express themselves, and be heard individually, even though the entire ensemble is playing. Note: We recommend listening to recordings of Count Basie to understand these ideas. The playing is spare and lets each instrument shine, and the timing and use of voicings are both lovely.

How do you achieve this? Try to simplify your sound to complement the other instruments. Talk to each other and decide who’s going to be in which register for a while. Find the logical best place for each instrument. The truth is, there are sounds that only certain instruments can make, so instead of trying to imitate with your instrument, give the other player room to shine.

Maybe you’re feeling like this will be very constraining–don’t. Because now that you’ve given the above idea a whirl, try doing the opposite. Play really high on the bass. Drone low on the fiddle. Vary the sound; explore it. Now everybody high, now everybody low. Listen to the tune and use pitch to complement it–either play low-pitched with a tune that’s low and dirty or at least some of you play high to counteract it.

(Have you noticed that this takes a lot of listening? Of course it does–but the beauty is that you don’t have to painstakingly coordinate and rehearse to achieve this; if you listen while you play you can adjust what you are doing on the spot. It becomes natural after a time.)


We’ve all used changes in dynamics, or the volume of our playing, to make our music interesting. This idea is even more exciting when you have more than one instrument. Use dynamics creatively; playing all out all the time is monotonous and exhausting and also loses “swing.”

There are many ways to use dynamics to your advantage. Play softer once through the tune, louder another time. Change the dynamics all together, or individually. Think about the natural volume of the different instruments at hand. For example, lowering the volume of the piano is always helpful for accentuating softer instruments like the guitar.

3. Make an arrangement!
Think of the great musical moments you’ve experienced listening to your favorite band. When you’ve had a chance to ask yourself what was so exciting, isn’t it often that you heard a great idea, something that was thought up and executed with precision and care? This is heartfelt, often homespun music, so we’re not advocating lots and lots of specific arrangements. But a few arranged moments strategically placed can bring your band’s playing up to a new level, and make dancing even more exciting. The main areas we can talk about arranging are:

° Beginnings, endings, transitions

° Rhythmic variations

° Melodic variations

° Energy builders

Beginnings, endings, transitions
Absolutely nothing will make your band sound better, tighter and more professional than good beginnings, endings, and transitions. We’ll say right now that all of these ideas require practice. Yet as you get more used to each other, you’ll find that you will become more comfortable and be able to communicate them more quickly, so that you can use many of these ideas in a variety of situations.

Beginnings are essential – they have to set the tempo, introduce the mood, and excite people. Let’s think first about “potatoes.” Find different ways of playing those crucial introductory two bars, for variety and to suit the tune you’re playing. If one particular instrument typically starts the tunes in your band, try starting with a different instrument or combination of instruments. Use blocked chords instead of “oom-chuck.” Use the last two bars of the melody. Have two instruments start with harmony. Use percussion. Yell! Note: Don’t mess with “potatoes” to the point of confusing the dance leader or the dancers. Again, it’s essential to get the job done – no surplus of style will make up for a sloppy introduction. Also, out of courtesy, do warn the callers if your beginning is unusual in any way.

Great endings are a surefire way to sound like a “real” band. The main idea here is to end solidly; don’t fudge your way out. Variations for endings include blocking chords, simplifying the melody or rhythm, cutting the tune off abruptly, adding a tag, holding out the last note/chord. Use “ritard” (getting gradually slower) carefully. Note: Ask your dance leaders respectfully to give you ample notice for going out, so you can actually have the time and mental space to USE these ideas.

In discussing transitions, we’re assuming you’ve come up with multiple-tune medleys. A nice medley is a definite way to sound like a real band. One reason for this is that a transition from one tune to the next is a stellar moment – it takes a dance and a mood that’s been internalized by the dancers and shifts it to a new level. This can be done in many ways. Don’t just rely on the “differentness” of the tune to do the trick. Sometimes just moving subtly into the next tune has its own excitement, but more often it sounds better to set the new tune apart somehow. Transitions can resemble endings, by using the methods of cutting the tune off or building volume. Using a “clean break” transition is very effective. Find chord progressions that link the tunes. Sometimes we change the last bit of melody to make a nicer connection.

Rhythmic variations
There are a few rhythmic variations that are typical in arranging dance tunes. Some of these are: using blocked chords (either with one rhythm instrument or with one at a time), syncopation, droning, or even dropping the rhythm instruments out completely. Be extremely careful with this last one – remember, you have to keep solid rhythm going at all times. We’ve also borrowed lots of rhythmic ideas from other kinds of dance music, e.g. calypso, swing, ragtime, etc. If you hear an idea for these kinds of rhythms, try them in these tunes.

Melodic variations
There is nothing essentially wrong with playing melody in unison, but how the tune is played is part of what adds “style” to your band. This would include phrasing, rhythm, and melodic variations. Harmony, which often requires writing harmonies and rehearsing them, is also very useful. We recommend trying anything that occurs to your ear; listen and decide. Counter-melodies are lovely, as are the improvisational “comping” phrases such as those used by jazz musicians. Melody instruments can also syncopate or otherwise adjust their playing to echo the band’s rhythmic variations.

Energy builders
What makes an exciting moment? We’ve found that we can do things musically that generate energy on the dance floor that feels like it literally explodes into the room. We’re working to heighten anticipation, or to create a moment of contrast, within the body of a particular tune, or as one tune transitions into another. Without trying to dissect what could be considered “magic,” we’ll give you a few hints that we’ve learned.

Before you can build energy, first take a look at the structure of this music. It’s organized into phrases. So is the dancing. Consequently, the clearest way to build intensity is to create climaxes where phrases “turnaround” into the next section. The most obvious place for this is moving from the A part to the B part, or back to the beginning of the tune.

A solid method for creating intensity is to “build” musically. As you’re moving toward a turnaround, be working toward something. For instance, add one instrument at a time. Increase your volume gradually. Or simplify, melodically or rhythmically, and get quieter. Drone with one or several instruments. Create moments of silence – people will fill them with pent-up hoots of excitement. Hang on an unresolved melodic phrase or unresolved chord, then launch triumphantly into the next section. The tunes will help you think of ideas.

Enjoy each other
Nothing creates a great band sound more than a group of people who clearly enjoy playing together. A lot of unusual and exciting musical ideas arise simply from people having a royally great time, taking risks, trusting each other, and even having a good laugh. We’re hoping that the philosophies and specific ideas we’ve suggested will send you on your way to creating your own band style, give the music a lift, and help your own playing grow.

Before we close, though, we just have to say more about listening. Listening is not only essential while you’re playing; we strongly recommend taping yourselves and listening carefully afterwards, alone and as a group. You’ll find musical moments you missed at the time, and you’ll be able to figure out what worked and what didn’t. You’ll also get a chance to listen to each other’s playing without having to be playing yourself. This is not a time to criticize. You’ll find listening to tapes fertile ground for coming up with solid arrangements, and for building your relationships as well.

And, after all, listening is what it’s all about. Don’t we play music because it’s the best way to listen to it? Sitting right in the middle of the sound, feeling it with our hands as well as hearing it with our ears, is pure exhilaration. Playing in a group increases this sensation: you can feel the other people listening to you and answering back. When the other players respond with a funky beat you started, or you all work your way into a drone together, or some of you drop out to highlight another player, there’s a connection impossible to describe.

This is when you know you have a “Band”: there’s a chemistry, an empathy – even a telepathy – that means you’ve found a sound you can collectively call your own. We’ve felt a sense over the past few years of having a special way of playing almost any tune: we try a new tune and notice we’ve put a “Last Gaspé” stamp on it right from the start. Sometimes we laugh – it’s fun to play old chestnuts and use these ideas to swing them up!

So get together, listen, enjoy and find exciting ways to play together with style – and watch the dancers reach a whole new level of fun!