Tag Archives: Music

Great Guitarists #6: Django Reinhardt

Today’s instalment features the only artist in this week-long mini series to hail from outside of the USA. But boy, did he leave his mark on jazz, with an influence that stretches far beyond the guitar…

Django Reinhardt

Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt was born in a Romany Gypsy camp in Belgium, 1910, moving to Paris with his family as a youth. He was reportedly something of a child prodigy within his community, capable of playing back melodies flawlessly after only one hearing. He first discovered jazz via a Louis Armstrong recording as a teenager. On hearing the record in question, the young Reinhardt reportedly cried out “my brother!” and thus, it seems he had found his musical path from that day onward.

One amazing thing about Reinhardt is how he relearned his entire fingering technique, following a fire in his caravan when he was eighteen. The blaze left him with a permanently damaged left hand; his ring and little fingers were partially fused together. As a result, Reinhardt’s entire career – all those lightening-fast single note runs – we’re performed using only two fingers (although he would sometimes incorporate his fused ring finger for chords). In overcoming an injury which, for many, would have made guitar playing a write-off, Reinhardt demonstrates the combined power of will, alongside the power of music.

Reinhardt’s most famous music was made the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a five piece band of three guitars (two rhythm, plus Reinhardt on lead), bass and one violin. Three spots the Quintette’s lineup were fairly fluid over the years, but one mainstay was violinist Stéphane Grappelli. It is his duets with Grappelli which have memorised listeners for almost a century. Their style of ‘Gypsy Jazz’ remains synonymous with Paris to this day, although the Quintette were only a working musical entity until between 1934-1938, when World War II put an end to their activities.

After the war, Reinhardt toured the USA and was a featured guest with larger ensembles such as The Duke Ellington Orchestra. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953,at the age of forty-three, leaving behind a vast musical legacy that still influences musicians to this day.

Essential Listening

I’m terms of recordings, anything by the Quintette du Hot Club de France is a great starting point; plenty of reissued albums and compilations exist of this group. However, there aren’t many video recordings of Reinhardt’s playing, so what little footage we do have is worth seeking out. For this post, I shall suggest this short documentary film which features a minute or two highlighting Reinhardt’s unorthodox, yet necessary, technique.

Tomorrow with the final installment of this week-long mini series. As always, do get in touch with your thoughts and suggestions for future posts.

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…

Great Guitarists #4: Kenny Burrell

Today we look at the man behind one of my favourite jazz albums of all time…

Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell, at the Midnight Blue sessions, 1963

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1931, and into a musical family, Burrell has been recording and performing on the guitar since the start of the 1950’s.

Burrell’s recording debut recording was as part of none other than trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1951. He started recording solo records almost immediately after, often working in collaboration with other big names in jazz. His discography as band leader is enormous (well over fifty studio cuts). Yet Burrell still found time to work as a sideman for scores of artists, such as Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and Benny Goodman (taking the chair once held by his hero Charlie Christian), and many, many more.

His main guitar influences are a mix of jazz (Charlie Christian & Django Reinhardt) and blues (T-Bone Walker & BB King). This blurring of the lines between jazz & blues continued throughout his career, in a style known as Hard Bop (or Soul Jazz). This sub-genre of jazz, of which Burrell is considered a key proponent, is considered by some to be a reaction to the Cool Jazz of the West Coast musicians. His warm tone came from his Gibson Super 400 (a fairly large archtop) combined with failing down the treble on his Fender amplifiers for a ‘fatter’ tone.

One of the reasons I really enjoyed listening to Kenny Burrell when I started learning jazz was how accessible he made the genre sound. His more blues-tinged works (see below) provided an aural link I found familiar as a blues player. However, I soon discovered that his phrasing was as sophisticated and intelligent as the other jazz players – he just made it sound effortless. Making such advanced playing appear so effortless, and therefore more listenable, is one if the traits which makes Burrell a great guitarist!

Essential Listening

It can only be Midnight Blue (1963). I’ve linked to the title track here – a masterclass in laid back, bluesy jazz – but do yourself a favour and spare yourself 45 minutes to enjoy the entire album.

To hear a different side to Burrell’s playing, try Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, also from 1963. Bebop plays more prominent on this album although Burrell’s tasteful restraint still shines through,and hearing him trade solos with Coltrane feels genuinely seminal. This LP is an underrated album which deserves more attention and acclaim.

I’ll be back with another Great Guitarist tomorrow. Until then, don’t be shy about getting in touch with your thoughts on the series so far, as well as your suggestions for future features. Bye for now!

Great Guitarists #3: George Benson

We’ve already reached the third installment in this week-long special celebrating Great Guitarists. Today’s player has a connection to my first featured player, Earl Klugh, and is another guitarist influenced by Wes Montgomery. Any guesses? Read on…

George Benson

Born in 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Benson started performing at the age if eight, and recorded his first single a year later, although it did not garner much success for him at the time. After graduating high school, Benson found work as a sideman, and recorded his first record as band leader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson in 1964, aged just twenty-one. Amazingly, his guitar during these early years was hand-built for him by his stepfather!

Benson continued a prolific run of albums throughout the sixties & seventies, often with some big jazz names guesting (Earl Klugh played guitar in his band for two albums and tours in 1972-73). He even found time to perform on the Miles Davis track ‘Paraphernalia’ from Miles In The Sky (1968). To date, Benson has released thirty-six albums across the last six decades and still tours regularly, which certainly puts plenty other musicians to shame!

Guitar Style

A lifelong user of archtop guitars, such as his signature Ibanez models, Benson’s playing style comes directly from his hero and number one influence, Wes Montgomery. Like Montgomery (and Klugh), Benson doesn’t use a guitar pick, nor does he employ the conventional classical method in his fingerpickng. Instead, all three make extensive use of their thumbs. When using his other right hand fingers, Benson seems to use the rest stroke style of Django Reinhardt.

What sets Benson apart is his speed, all while remaining fluid and innately soulful. It’s hard to maintain a melodic heart during such fast runs, although Benson’s habit if singing/scatting his guitar lines while improvising them probably helps!

Essential listening

To be honest, Benson’s back catalogue is chock full of amazing guitar work. However, if you’d prefer to stay away from the singing, anything before the 1976 album/hit instrumental Breezin’ is your best bet. Personally, I’d recommend White Rabbit (1972) and the wonderfully titled Giblet Gravy from 1968 (featuring fellow jazz legends Herbie Hancock & Billy Cobham, among others) for starters.

Good King Bad (1976) shows where Benson’s style was heading, with a tighter, funkier backline, which some critics believe led to more focused phrasing in his guitar playing. The title track from this album, Theme from Good King Bad, demonstrates Benson’s soloing prowess wonderfully. Yes, the main theme might sound a little dated to our ears, but stick with it. The guitar solo (over the song’s B section) starts with octave melodies, then three notes at once, moving as melody chords, before Benson really starts to cut loose with some dazzling – yet tasteful – single note phrases.

One of the things that I love about this solo in particular is Benson’s choice of landing note. Namely, where he ends his phrases, and how they relate to the chords underneath. This is something I plan on exploring deeper in a future post, but it’s worth summarising here: with a strong opening and a tight landing will make almost all solos (or the phrases they are made up of) sound great. This is something Benson has done throughout his career, and he still seems to be going strong, continuing to record and perform through his eightieth decade…

Meet me back here tomorrow, for Day Four in this mini series. As always, let me know what you think. I’d especially love to hear your suggestions for future players to feature, as I plan to continue adding to this series as a semi-regular theme from time to time. Make your voice heard!

Fender fined £4.5m for price-fixing in the UK

Some breaking news for guitar fans regarding one of the most famous brands (my personal favourite), Fender.

The company’s European division has been fined £4.5 million by the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) for pressuring retailers not to reduce the price of Fender stock. This means prospective buyers of Fender (and their budget subsidiary Squier) will have generally found the cost of Stratocasters, Telecasters, Jazzmasters, and all the other available guitar models, all going for more or less the same price.

Image courtesy of Trevor Davies Music

The CMA’s investigation started in 2018, and Fender had already been fined £25,000 for consealing notebook at their European headquarters. The final fine, announced today, could have been as high as £14.2 million. However, the CMA’s leniency and settlement procedures mean that Fender’s penalty was reduced because they (finally) admitted fault.

What does this mean for the future?

For one thing, Fender won’t be able to lean on retailers, effectively forcing them to keep their preferred minimum price. That means you might find the price of a Fender guitar drops slightly, as rival musical instrument suppliers try to offer the best deal to the future.

To be completely honest, I’m more likely to buy another Fender (or Squier) guitar, if the prices start to come down. This might actually be a good thing for Fender!

What do you guys think? Let me know!

You can read a little more by viewing this Guardian news story.

Great Guitarists #2: Barney Kessel

Welcome back to my Great Guitarists mini series (you can read Day One’s piece on Earl Klugh here). Today, allow me to introduce you to my favourite guitar player of all time…

Barney Kessel

While Kessel might not be the most recognisable face or name to many, his prolific session work over several decades means you are guaranteed to have heard his guitar playing. Early gigs for Kessel included the bands of Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Oscar Peterson.

Later, he was one of the regular LA session players known collectively (and famously) as The Wrecking Crew. Around the same time, Kessel found ample work as an accompanist. His most recognisable song is Julie London’s definitive version of ‘Cry Me A River’ (from her 1955 album Julie Is Her Name – worth checking out for Kessel’s guitar arrangements alone). He also provided similar guitar backing for several other great jazz singers, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day.

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1923, Kessel was known by early bandmates for practising up to 16 hours a day. Judging by the amount of work he had, those hours of practice clearly paid off – and I haven’t even touched upon the countless records he released under his own name, not to mention his film scores, world tours with other legendary jazz guitarists or his regular guitar advice column!

In terms of a definitive track, where do I start? Pick up any album by him and you’ll be rewarded with his amazing guitar playing, from choral soloing through to wonderfully fluid single note lines. Kessel played hollowbody electrics almost exclusively, and although he moved around from various Gibsons to Kay models and back again, his thick tone with a piano-like clarity rings through. Perhaps we should begin with his beautiful version of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves, performed live in this video from 1979. Enjoy!

As always, do tell me what you think. The full list of guitar players featured in this week’s series aren’t set in stone yet, so if you have any suggestions (ideally with a jazz bent for this week’s run), please do get in touch. I love hearing what you guys think!

Until tomorrow…

Why practice should NOT make perfect

Does practice make perfect?

It’s undoubtedly true that the more you focus on doing something, the better you become at its accomplishment. However, as this Guardian news story from 2019 highlights, the modern convention of ‘the 10,000 hour practice rule’ may not be quite the guarantee some people have sold it as. Personal improvement, in any sphere of one’s life is never so cut-and-dry, nor can the same methods work for every individual.

The key question is why do you practice, or rather, what are you practicing for?

For instance, is it to sound like a particular musician? And if so, why?

Take this example: I love BB King, and have listened to his music for over two decades to date; I’ve learned some of his key phrases, his recognisable musical characteristics such as his blues box, vibrato technique and the space he’s leave between notes, etc. And despite learning & digesting all of this information – heck, I used to teach these techniques at specialist masterclasses focusing on the blues master – I still sound nothing like him when I play guitar.

That’s not a bad thing, either. It doesn’t represent a failure on my part. If anything, bring able to incorporate so many elements of a player who got so much right, while still retaining my own musical voice, has to be an achievement worth celebrating in some small way. Of course, a large part of a guitar player’s sound comes from their fingers, so I’d never have been able to completely obscure who I was, even if I wanted to.

Perhaps you simply wish you could execute certain techniques as well as the great masters of your chosen instrument? Read that Guardian article again, then learn to measure success by your own improvement, in comparison to your past self only.

It almost sounds trite, but you can’t stop being you, so be the best you possible

So how should you practice? This interesting article from Bulletproof Musician offers some insights into what you should be looking for, and offering the term deliberate practice instead.

For further reading, feel free to peruse my older blogs & reblogs on the subject of practice, such as my warm-up and practice recommendations, and this reblogged article from Nicole Rogers on how to practice effectively.

…Just remember, perfection is an illusion, and no amount of practice will stop you from being you. Perhaps we should all embrace that.