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Valuable Player Tips… From a Drummer’s Perspective



Jazz Guitar Today welcomes guest author Justin Varnes.  Justin provides advice for guitarists from a drummer’s perspective. 

Through the strange journey of gigs…

…that have comprised my career so far as a drummer, I’ve played with a quirky array of jazz/blues guitarists – icons like Earl Klugh and Stanley Jordan. From chops-blazers like Ron Affif and Barry Greene to the economical Peter Bernstein (who as of this writing has yet to waste a note). From Blues master Jimmy Vivino, to a Blues master of a different kind in Doug Wamble (I remember him playing slide guitar on an old Kay that he mic’d as if it were an upright bass). From the father of jazz guitar education Jack Peterson, to cutting edge players like Rez Abbasi and Mike Moreno.

And despite their wildly varying genres and approaches, they all shared a few things in common that I love about guitarists.

Let’s see, I got music, I got my gal…

Forgive me for paraphrasing one of my favorite Far Side cartoons (did you know that creator Gary Larson is a jazz guitarist?), but I’ve never understood why so many guitarists don’t focus on connecting with the rhythm section more. The bassist and drummer can instantly tell when a guitarist is too caught up in their voicings and harmonic maneuvering to help us with the pocket. I don’t mean they have no rhythm. I mean they are not actively involved in making the music feel good through rhythm. The guitarists above all are heavily invested in pocket. Whether they lean toward the sweet side or the dirty side, the Indy 500 or the top-down Ma in Street crawl, they all use rhythm as a driving force in their playing. That instantly connects not only with the “rhythm” section (with or without a pianist), but also everyone in the room. You don’t have to know what constant-structure chordal movement is to notice that it feels good.

I’ve had multiple conversations with some of these badasses about how drummers comp. What rhythms work well in a Brazilian style. They want to sit behind my kit and show me they’ve learned a 6/8 Bembe groove. It’s awful, and they almost fall off the drum stool, but I gotta tip my cap to them for understanding rhythm and groove from a drummer’s perspective.

Drummers can’t play a B diminished chord. (Well, we can if we tune the kit a certain way, but that’s for an article in Drum Tuning Monthly.) But we still wanna converse. And guitarists (like the ones mentioned above) who speak fluent rhythm sure make it more fun for their pitch-less bandmates.


Guitarists share a special trait with pianists. They can be the entire orchestra if they want. They can play the melody, the changes, and the groove all at once. They can be Ella Fitzgerald singing I’m Beginning to See the Lightor the background riffs Duke wrote behind her. They can play shout choruses, unaccompanied intros, and two-voice guide tones. They can essentially do it all. Which means they have to know it all. Playing a gig with a guitarist who can play ethereal pads behind one soloist, then play background riffs behind the next can make a four-hour gig fly by.

You may think of some of the names above as a certain type of player, but these dudes are know-it-alls of the highest order. When combined with a pianist who can just as deftly move from role to role, each chorus creates a new opportunity to re-orchestrate with seemingly endless possibilities. They’ve studied piano intros, B3 organ riffs, and Billie Holiday’s melodic phrasing. Not many instruments can cover all that ground, but guitarists can. And it’s exhilarating to play with a guitarist who can cover all that ground.

Tone in Space?

It’s fairly accurate to say that guitarist’s pride themselves on their tone. I think it’s the most used word in the guitarist’s vocabulary. When guitarists start speaking to each other about their gear, I often forget they aren’t describing wine. Oh, that’s a vintage archtop with an oaky flavor? Do you pair it with a nice humbucker? Granted, they have nothing on us drummers when it comes to gear talk. Sheesh. I once had an earnest conversation about cymbal stands that lasted almost an hour. Yes, those metal things we hang other metal things on so that when we smash them with big wooden sticks, they don’t fall down.

I digress. Oh yes! Tone…

The thing is, tone doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Once you rub your frequencies up against the bass, and the piano, and the bass drum, and the ride cymbal (mmm, a metal thing we like to hit!), not to mention the room itself, it all changes. And I’ve seen so many guitarists fail to compensate for whatever is harshing their tone, which can turn the stage into a low-mid soup that resembles the din of a big box store on Black Friday. Or they spend the whole gig turning knobs and clicking pedals until they can’t concentrate on even the simplest of tasks, like ordering a drink that will surely help them relax a little bit and remember they’re here to play music. My sonic nightmare (which occurs all too often) is when a guitarist, an amplified bass, and a keyboard all occupy the same small space. That’s a lot of amplification pumping out the same frequencies. All in the name of “jazz.” But some guitarists can see it coming. We’re setting up, and they’re surveying the other instruments, they’re listening to me warm up, looking carefully at my cymbals. They’re plotting the right spot for their amp, and they almost all ask the same question: “Am I too loud?”

Which brings me to a lesson I learned a long time ago from the great drummer Vernel Fournier (he’s on all those perfect Ahmad Jamal records):

If the sound isn’t right, it’s probably too loud. And if you’re on a gig with a drummer who’s the guilty party in the “why is it so loud on stage?” episode, you have my permission – on behalf of all jazz drummers – to tell them to play softer. And if they complain, send them my way. In the battle of volume on a jazz gig, there are no winners. There’s only soup.

I know, I know. Why is a drummer ranting about amp volume and tone?

Because so many of the best aspects of jazz – the colorful harmonies, the subtle interaction, the intimate setting – is at the mercy of our understanding of how tone and volume work best on a small stage. And even the people who smash metal with wood can tell when it sounds great. After all, I didn’t spend $1,000 on this oaky cymbal made in a mystic foreign land for nothing! Wanna hear about how I hold it up with a $50 tripod?

Justin Varnes is a drummer, a father, and composer.  He is currently working on a non-profit project inspired by recent life events.

Survival Instinct

Survival Instinct: the Evilution of the Pack is a collection of songs written partly in support of groups that have been attacked in recent years, and partly to highlight a way to prevent this kind of violence in the future. The music will not be sold, so this will not be a for-profit recording. Justin is raising funds to get this project recorded and distributed.  

Top Feature Photo Credit:  Josh Sorenson


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