Maximizing The Potential of Your Young Jazz Guitarists

By Luke Saunders

Question: How do you get young guitarists to stop playing?
Answer: Put sheet music in front of them.

While a comedic generalization, this jab often holds true. However, it does not have to be that way! Young guitarists bring plenty of useful skills into your jazz band, and you do not need a background in the instrument to capitalize on them. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the following practical suggestions and implement them into your teaching.

Chord Charts/ Chord Diagrams:
Chord charts are a familiar tool that young guitarists can quickly learn to use. You often receive a sheet of common voicings with new charts you purchase. While the chord diagram sheet can be a useful starting place, there is often too much information on the page. Voicings included may illustrate five- or six-note voicings which can be intimidating for a young player. By contrast, look at this excerpt from the guitar part of Dr. Steve Shanley’s new JEI commission, “Coronacation,” for which I provided voicings:

While the chords extend past a triad, none of the voicings include more than four notes. In addition, the ascending whole step progression in the second and third measures all use the same shape. This might seem redundant, but the repetition will aid your guitarist in memorizing common shapes. Consider simplifying voicings in chord charts by omitting one or more notes. Your musicians will find greater success in these voicings, and you will probably appreciate not hearing thick barre chords over your swing pieces.

Tablature (TAB):
Young guitarists are often more familiar with TAB than standard notation. TAB is a graphic representation of the strings and frets and while it might seem like a crutch, using TAB will build upon skills your students already have. Guitarists can add to their knowledge of TAB with common scale shapes. Check out this scale shape resource: Most middle school jazz literature utilizes major, minor or blues tonalities, and knowing how to play a few of these scale shapes may help guitarists draw connections to note location on the fretboard. While Sibelius and Finale can generate TAB from standard notation, the product is often flawed. I encourage you to reach out to myself or another trusted guitarist to help create TAB resources if your student requires them.

Freddie Green Style:
“Freddie Green” style comping (named after Count Basie’s legendary guitarist) is second nature to any seasoned jazz guitarist yet is easy enough to learn for young guitarists. This style refers to the staccato quarter note strum pattern that Freddie Green would use to match the walking bass line. Consider having your guitar players comp Freddie Green style on an acoustic guitar. Playing Freddie Green style on an acoustic will sound authentic and is easy to balance with your big band. Additionally, your students can omit the two highest strings or play chordal thirds and sevenths on strings three and four to better replicate authentic Freddie Green timbre. Charlton Johnson’s book, Swing and Big Band Guitar, provides additional authentic Freddie Green voicings.

Bad tone is the most common guitar issue I address when I work with groups. Fortunately, it is also incredibly quick to troubleshoot for any teacher. First, make sure the pickup switch is always on the neck pickup. Generally, to activate the neck pickup, the tone switch will either point up at the player or towards the neck of guitar (this can vary depending on pickup configuration, brand, and model of guitar). Utilizing the neck pickup will amplify lower frequencies and allow for a darker timbre. Additionally, the volume knob on the guitar should be turned all the way up! You can change the master volume on the amp to be balanced with your ensemble but having the volume knob on your student’s guitar cranked up will yield the best possible tone out of the activated pickups. You can fiddle with tone knob settings on the guitar to taste, however, there’s often more variance between different makes and models of guitar and the guidelines are not as consistent.
On the amplifier, turn all the equalization settings (bass, mid, treble, etc.) to the 12 O’clock position. This is a starting point, and you can experiment with magnifying various frequencies once you have your tonal baseline. I prefer a very slight amount of reverb when I play in the swing style, so if your amplifier has built in reverb, try incorporating it. These tone considerations will have your guitarists sounding more like Wes Montgomery than Jimi Hendrix.

While this is not an exhaustive list, utilizing these strategies will improve your guitarist’s technique, tone, musical understanding, and literacy skills. Thank you for taking the time to gain insight on how to best help your big band guitarists. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you have!

Luke Sanders currently resides in Cedar Falls where he is pursuing a master’s degree in jazz pedagogy at the University of Northern Iowa and is a student of Bob Dunn, Chris Merz, Dr. Michael Conrad, and Dr. Bob Washut. In addition to UNI, Luke is the adjunct guitar instructor at Warburg College in Waverly where he leads the guitar studio and teaches guitar coursework in the music therapy program. Prior to his time at UNI and Wartburg, Luke was a student of Dr. Steve Shanley at Coe College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education. Previously, Luke was an assistant band director for three years at Waterloo West High School where he taught 9th grade band, assisted with marching band, and led the jazz program.

Published by Dennis Green

Middle-aged public radio manager, occasional writer and stage performer. You can find me at the Washington H.S. pool many mornings at 5:30am.

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