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Why It’s Important To Focus On Ensemble Skills

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Guitarist Joe Finn explains why nothing is more important than your ensemble skills and the time you spend rehearsing and performing in various bands.

In the previous article I used the importance of studying scales as a point of departure to review some of the other aspects of musicianship that are of equal or even greater importance. In jazz your listening skills are paramount  so I wrote a little bit about ear training in the last piece. As important as these listening skills are, they do not exist in a vacuum. They are very closely integrated with the rest of your skill set and especially your ensemble skills. 

Music is a team sport.

Even though as guitarists we will sometimes play solo gigs, most of what we do will be in some sort of ensemble setting. So developing jazz guitarists need to find other musicians to play with. Join a band or two. Organize a jam session schedule. Find other guitarists to practice with regularly. Remember that an hour on the bandstand is worth three hours in the woodshed practicing alone. 

In jazz, the guitar is part of the rhythm section with the piano, string bass and drums. It is here that you will be putting your listening skills into practice. Try to achieve a good dynamic balance with the rest of the section. Play loud enough to hear yourself but still be able to hear the piano, bass and drums. Maintain eye contact with the other players as you listen to what they are playing. As a guitarist, try to lock in with what the drummer is doing on his ride cymbal. That typical quarter note pattern will be shared between the ride cymbal, the guitar and the bass. And although all the quarter notes are even there will be differences in emphasis, inflection, coloration, and of course in the notes and chords themselves. Be sensitive to this and keep your eyes and ears open.

On a medium swing groove in 4/4 the bass will typically play on one and three especially behind the melody. The guitar will emphasize the two and the four. The guitar may play all four quarter notes as well but bringing out the two and the four gives you a nice counterpoint with what the bass is doing. This “four chords to the bar” technique is known as “Freddie Green style” because this was the way Green played the guitar as a long time member of The Count Basie Orchestra.  

Within the rhythm section the piano will have  a little more freedom than the guitar both rhythmically and harmonically. The piano may play on any beat or lay out altogether for a bar or two. The piano will play various improvised rhythm figures that will start and end pretty much anywhere in the bar or over a couple of bars. This is referred to as “comping” and sets up a  contrast to the steady pulse being provided by the bass, drums and guitar. What the drummer would typically be doing would be called a swing or shuffle pattern. The drummer has the primary responsibility for keeping the tempo steady and controlling the overall dynamic level of the rhythm section; but everyone in the rhythm section has a shared responsibility for playing time together.  

The harmonies played by the piano will be a little more complicated than what the guitar will be doing. The piano will play the upper chord voices like 9ths, 11ths and 13ths while the guitar will take the lower voices: root, 3rd, 5th and 7th. This helps to avoid harmonic clashes between the two chordal instruments. The guitarist should also always know the basic function of the harmony on any given beat: major, minor, dominant, augmented, or diminished. Whether you know it by heart or are reading it off the page is not important, but always make sure you get the chord function correct.  

Playing guitar in a jazz rhythm section like this is where you will be applying the things you learned from your instructors, in the classroom and independently. This is where we put it all into practice. We spend years or individual effort mastering our instruments but the best memories we have in music are those in which we performed with others. Being part of a band is a great experience for which there is no substitute. The experiential learning and peer to peer instruction that happens is invaluable. You will also be making a lot of contacts and lasting friendships as a part of the broader community of musicians. 

The ability to play a 4/4 medium swing groove is just one of the styles a jazz rhythm section will be called upon to perform. There will also be ballads, various latin styles and more modern straight eighth note jazz styles. And the guitar/piano/bass/drums configuration is just one of several typical jazz rhythm section instrumentations. So the example I am using here is only scratching the surface. In your listening you will be hearing the full range of jazz styles that a rhythm section will be expected to be able to perform. 

So while I would like to emphasize once again the importance of knowing and practicing your scales and related patterns; there are several other facets of your musical development that are actually deserving of more attention and emphasis.

Nothing is more important than your ensemble skills and the time you spend rehearsing and performing in various bands. These are really the golden, memorable moments in the life of a musician. This is what we live for.

Watch out for the other topics in this Jazz Guitar Today series.


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