Tag Archives: lead guitar

Great Guitarists #5: Charlie Christian

Many of the jazz guitarists featured so far will have been influenced by today’s Great Guitarist. Not only one of the foundations of how jazz guitar can be played & appreciated, but also one of the innovators behind bebop…

Charlie Christian

As one of the first players to ensure the guitar was taken seriously as a lead-playing instrument (along with Django Reinhardt), Christian arguably helped lay for foundation for all jazz guitar to follow. Born into a musical family Texas in 1916, he was the youngest of three brothers. His introduction to jazz and first break came while playing in his oldest brother Edward’s band across the state border in Oklahoma, impressing fellow musicians in late-night jam sessions while still only a teenager.

Taking his style from horns, Christian’s goal was for his guitar to sound like a tenor saxophone. Although he was undoubtedly aware of Django Reinhardt’playing, it does not appear to have influenced him anywhere near as much as the various horn and reed players Christian was surrounded by and worked alongside.

Christian was recommended to band leader Benny Goodman in 1939. Various accounts demonstrate a reluctance on Goodman’s part, largely due to the fact that the electric guitar was a very new instrument, and not regarded as a soloing one. Up until then, it has largely been an alternative to the banjo as an accompanying instrument. As Goodman was mainly leading a sextet at the time, he clearly preferred versatility in his performers. However, Christian’s skill at melodic improvising soon won him over. When Goodman overhauled his sextet in 1940,Christian was the only band member who stayed on, playing in a new ‘supergroup’ lineup which included Count Basie on piano and Cootie Williams on trumpet.

During this time, Christian was also a prominent figure in the after hours jams at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where bebop was born. Many of the leading jazzmen of the day frequented these sessions, including Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Kenny Clarke, almost others. According to Leonard Feather (1960), several participants in these jams attribute Christian’s humming of the melodic phrases as the onomatopoetic origin of the name bebop.

According to the legendary guitarist (and Charlie Christian fan) Barney Kessel (read my Great Guitarists installment on Barney Kessel here), Christian played almost entirely using downstrokes with a large triangular pick hekd between his thumb and forefinger. His remaining right hand fingers apparently remained steadfast against his guitar’s pick guard. I’m always amazed at how early pioneers of single-note guitar playing sounded so smooth without using an alternate picking technique. It only goes to show what can be achieved when the music needs to come out…

Unfortunately, the world never got to see where Christian would take jazz, or at least his own playing, next. Having contracted tuberculosis in the late thirties, Christian’s health started to decline, not helped by the lifestyle of a busy working jazz musician. He died in a sanatorium on Staten Island in New York in 1942, aged just twenty-five. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bonham, Texas, the town of his birth. Today, the exact location of the father of modern jazz guitar remains unknown.

Essential Listening

Due to his untimely demise, Christian never cut any records as a band leader. A few amateur recordings exist of groups he led playing live (presumably between Goodman dates), as well as some of those Minton’s Playhouse sessions, such as Swing To Bop (1941).

The main way to hear Christian’s playing is from recordings made with the Benny Goodman sextet between 1939-1941. Thankfully, Goodman recognised Christian’s talent and allowed him plenty of time in the spotlight. These solos have been listened to and learned by jazz guitarists the world over, not least greats such as Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and many more. Among the recordings by the Goodman sextet , Solo Flight is a great starting point.

Christian (front row), between Count Basie (piano) and Benny Goodman (clarinet). Freddie Green, a guitarist famous entirely for his rhythm playing, can be seen in the back row.

Christian’s influence lives on beyond the world of jazz guitar. Countless musicians have credited him as an early influence, from Miles Davis to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Outside of jazz, Christian’s pioneering use of the guitar as a lead instrument helped pave the way fir rock’n’roll. His direct musical influence can be heard in artists such T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore and Eddie Cochran. Indirectly, he probably reached all of us…

Guitar tone: have you been missing the obvious trick?

Still looking for a better guitar tone? You might have been missing something obvious for some time. You have the guitar, the amp, the overdrive pedals, EQ, but that sound isn’t quite there? It just doesn’t feel right. The obvious answer is to do less. More specifically…

Dial down the gain. Clean up your sound.

Sound ridiculous? Stay with me for now and I’ll try to explain why I believe a cleaner sound makes for not only a better guitar tone, but also helps your sound cut through the mix of a full band. A few things to consider…

Here comes the science (sort of)

Adding overdrive or distortion to your guitar smooths out the tone. Yes, it can sound lovely and ‘syrupy’, not unlike Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’ or the thick lead sounds of Gary Moor or Slash, but have you ever noticed how your solo cans till get lost in the live mix? This is particularly true if your band includes keys, a second guitar player or a horn section, as all of these instruments predominantly occupy the midrange of the frequency spectrum. In effect, your smooth tone is competing with many different voices, and all that lovely smoothing-out (which sounds so cool for your legato runs, etc) makes your sound more likely to dissolve into the wider sound of your band.

The trick is volume over distortion

Try listening to pretty much any classic rock record from the late sixties and seventies (the age of the ‘guitar hero’). Notice how so many of those riffs are only slightly overdriven, at best? Some, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, make use of guitar sounds which are virtually clean. That classic sound you hear is usually a small amp (say 30 watts) being turned up full, and breaking up into a light overdrive sound. This applies to most of the back catalogues for most of your favourite ‘heavy’ bands, from Led Zeppelin and The Who to early Aerosmith and even Black Sabbath.

My favourite example to highlight this is the classic song, Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. The link takes you to the studio recording. Compare this with every covers band that had played this song. Ever. Heck, compare it with how Deep Purple play it now! Everyone has a different opinion, but wouldn’t most agree that the original sounds better?

These bands sounded heavy because they were playing the loudest amplifiers available, and as they got bigger, the sound got heavier, but we’re still a long way from the Mesa Boogie levels of heaviness the eighties would bring along…

Wouldn’t these bands have played heavier, if they had been able to?

Quite probably. They were considered pretty noisy for their time! If those full, thick distortion sounds had been more readily available in the mid-sixties, would the sound of rock guitar have been very different? The truth is, we’ll never know. Those artists used the equipment they had available, and we can only hypothesize as to alternative outcomes. Here it becomes a little too ‘chicken-and-egg’ for my liking, though there are numerous threads on guitar forums across the internet if this is the kind of debate you’re looking to investigate further.

Of course, one counter-argument would be the fuzz pedal. This was heavily used by some artists, notably Hendrix (if you’re not sure how that fuzz sounds, think of the opening riff to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones as your starting point). This effect created a thick and – it goes almost without saying – ‘fuzzy’ sound to the guitar’s tone, making solos sustain for longer and creating a warm, distorted sound. However, the fuzz pedal didn’t take over the sound of rock guitar as we know it. Perhaps distortion wasn’t the end-goal for guitar players back in the sixties, after all?

So should I play clean but loud for the rest of my guitar-playing career?

Probably not a good idea. Your band mates will most likely not appreciate it!

However, I might suggest you start by dialing back the gain a little on your drive channels, pedals, etc, and make better use of volume and tone controls (on the guitar, amp and any stompboxes you are using) to allow the sound of your guitar to ring through.

But what about sustain?

It’s not always possible to turn up loud and play away. I currently gig with a digital amp which is DI’d into my band’s mixing desk, with no output from the amp itself. My main channels are a clean and a slightly overdriven channel, both of which are fairly ‘dry’ signals (not effects except for a very small amount of reverb). My lead sound (for solos) is another version of the overdriven sound, with a slight boost in volume and treble frequencies. Crucially, this sound also includes a fair bit more reverb dialed in, plus a short delay mixed low underneath the original signal. The reverb and delay both act to thicken up the sound, and assist my guitar sound not only through increased sustain, but in helping the sound to cut through the mix.

Another trick to use in the studio is to use two amps when recording; one with an overdriven sound, and another set to an almost clean tone. The cleaner of the two amps can be mixed quite low, but it’s presence will add some clarity of definition which the heavier sound loses. The whole thing makes for a guitar tone which is not only more thick, but more true to the sound of your guitar – try it!

Take away points:

  • Clean up your tone – wind back that gain!
  • Use effects to create the impression of more volume (such as reverb and delay) instead of piling on the distortion

Caveats:

I fully appreciate that everyone’s opinion is bound to differ on subjects as personal as guitar tone. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. It is also worth remembering that certain styles of guitar-based music rely on a super-distorted sound as an integral element to their sound (think of bands like Nirvana and Skunk Anansie, for instance). However, don’t be afraid to try experimenting with a cleaner tone. Be warned though, with a clean sound, there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses in your playing technique!

New Year’s resolutions for guitar players

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, many of us have recently reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’.

Like many bands who find most of their work comes from weddings & function work, 2016 ended for me with a NYE gig. In January, things start to feel a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in 2017:

  • Learn a new style.

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing! 

  • Mix things up.

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

  • Widen your horizons.

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month of 2017. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

  • Get your music ‘out there’.

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs, gig more yourself, especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ (in my case playing in a covers band), and finding it hard to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

Best of luck and wishing you all a very happy new year! Let’s make 2017 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Tim xx

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Don’t forget I’m here to help if you need it! xx