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Bach to the Future

Wes RD Wraggett

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In this exclusive JGT Series, jazz guitarist Wes RD Wraggett discusses the techniques used by J.S.Bach and how they can be applied to jazz guitar. Welcome to Part 1 (of 5).

This series will discuss the techniques used by J.S.Bach and how they can be applied to jazz guitar. For sure many jazz musicians have done arrangements of Bach’s work throughout the years out of love and respect for his music. Bach and his contemporaries were the first western ‘jazz’ musicians in those Church organists of the time were expected to be able to improvise when needed, and of course, J.S.Bach gained his fame for his improvisatory prowess. Many associate him with remarkable contrapuntal technique but very often overlook is his mastery of harmony and the use of non-chord tones in establishing remarkable tapestries of interlocking lines. 

Ex.1: ‘O liebe Seele, zieh die Sinnen’ (J.S.Bach)_Baroque ‘Jazz’ Chart

While harmonically he was compelled by the traditions and tunings of the times to stay in closely related keys his use of chromaticism can still be surprising even today. Staples of the jazz ‘canon’ which rely on the foundational Cycle of 5ths/4ths motion, more appropriately called the cycle of dominants, such as: Diatonic Major-iii, vi, ii, V, I or Chromatic ‘Major’- III (V/vi) VI (V/ii), II (V/V), V, I were a standard feature in Bach’s music. Of course, Bach used tried and true techniques that came from common practice but in many ways, he refined them to the highest order.

For jazz guitar players, particularly those of us doing solo work, we need a tool-kit of techniques and devices to not only make the music interesting but take it to the next level. Perhaps in the following examples you will find something useful for your own playing.

Imitation; if imitation is the highest form of flattery then our job will be to use it to flatter the music in ways that give it both depth and sheen.

The use of this technique is ubiquitous throughout all of Bach’s writing and while we won’t go into specifics like Canon or Fugue we can adopt some of the techniques for use.

Most obviously this will be based on the melody at hand and just how much leeway we have in musical time to work with. It can be said that even a very little imitation can go along way in adding some action into our texture.

The first type of imitation is one that players use quite often in solos which is ‘Sequence’. 

Bach was very fond of this technique as it tended to not only extend a line but connect a small ‘motivic’ cell into a larger framework. Most often these sequences were diatonic in nature, staying within the key of the area but they are highly useful as modulatory devices as well. Generally, sequences are fairly short in order to let the ear easily grasp the model and hear the sequences however, in song structure sequences can be a number of bars long.  A prerequisite is that the ‘model’ or pattern if you like that is to be sequenced, should have some easily identified quality that is then continually pitched up or down by each sequence.

This handy little device is one that can be used just about anywhere, anytime. The ‘model’ or pattern to be sequenced can be melodic or harmonic and each sequence can be in stepwise ascent or descent or at any interval relationship that will work in the situation. If the song begins and/or has a predominant interval to distinguish the melody then that interval can be used in sequence to tie your solo in very strongly with the tune. 

Ex.2: A simple diatonic model and sequences by step.


Ex.3: A simple diatonic model and sequences by leap.


Ex.4: Outlining a chord with a model and sequences. 


Ex.5: Prime interval model and sequence. This is soloing over the first two bars of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ (A.Jobim) using the predominant interval of the descending third used in the tune.


Ex.6: This example is short and shows the beginning to ‘Invention 1’ from J.S. Bach’s ’Two-Part Inventions’ of 1723. You will see that he begins with a 1 bar model which is then followed (diatonically) up a fifth in the next bar by a sequence, also note too that the left hand imitates this an octave lower at a two-beat lag.


Ex.7: Taking the standard ‘A Foggy Day’ (G.Gershwin) we can readily see that the A section begins with a 4 bar model which is followed by its sequence a fourth up and then later it completes that section with a repeat of the beginning or, as many charts show it, the B section begins with the same A section material then veers off to give us the equivalent of a B section.


Ex.8: Next on our list is ‘Afternoon In Paris’ (J.Lewis) and again in the A we get a model, this time 2 bars long and a sequence in a key one tone down, then there is a modified sequence starting a tone lower right after that.


Ex.9: ‘All The Things You Are’ (O.Hammerstein/J.Kern) gives us yet another A section, this time almost entirely built on an 8 bar model and an 8 bar sequence with a small amount of modification. 

I could go on but hopefully the point is made just how important this particular technique is not only for soloing but actual tune writing.

Even if the tune itself does not contain sequences your solos will sound much more cohesive if this technique is used within moderation. Bach had a rule that once he gave you the model he never went beyond a maximum of 3 sequences, so in total, you would hear this pattern no more than four times. Very often the last sequence was modified in some way as well. Just for clarification, a repeat is not a sequence.

Let’s apply this technique to a solo over the beginning changes to ‘Blue Bossa’ (K.Dorham) whose tune, coincidentally, is also based on a model and two sequences. I have deliberately stuck to the model-sequence device and slightly exaggerated the technique here to show how it can lend cohesion to the solo, in this case by mirroring the actual melody and then continuing it via sequence.


In this example, ‘Blue Monk’ (T.Monk) which is a basic blues (with sequential aspects as well), I use the technique with smaller ‘cells’ which are much more manageable in just about any situation whether the tune is based on sequences or not.


As mentioned before for modulation the use of chromatic sequences can literally take you anywhere or at least add some spice with secondary dominants. Let’s take a standard dominant cycle pattern (eg.V/vi, V/ii, V/V, I and apply it to a turnaround, arriving back at the home key.


Now lets use sequencing to take us to a brand new key via chromatic shifting.

Here we take two bars to go from Eb+ to A+ (enharmonic flat-five equivalent of Eb+)


I will conclude the sequence portion of this expose by reaffirming how useful the technique is and the mastery of it can prevent those meandering solos that never quite find a direction or cohesion which many of us know so well.

That’s all for now…in the upcoming sections, Wes will go into Canon, Pedal, Bi-part Counterpoints, etc. Stay tuned.

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