It’s the same blog, but with a new attitude! I’ve learned a whole lot since I began back in 2011, and some of the old was just not working anymore. This new look is cleaner, clearer and the blog is much easier to navigate. The search field in the header works really well and the display by category function in the right sidebar or the tag cloud also bring up a comprehensive list of related subjects. All of the disc reviews and series articles I did throughout the year are up in the header menu. The blog is also responsive now, which means it looks the same from desktop to tablet to phone. I’ve gone over everything I’ve posted here since the beginning and have tried to organize, delete, and retrofit. I took a few things down because they may be part of an upcoming print project. If not, I’ll put them back up later. I’ll still be tweaking off and on, but the site will be able to stay up all of the time. All the heavy, hard work has been done.
Thanks to all of you who come to the site! Especially those of you who have been around for awhile or those of you who have subscribed. Really! I do appreciate it and I look forward to another year of blogging.
While it was inevitable, Glen’s passing is a bummer and very poignant for his family, friends, fans and everyone who was touched by his music. As I wrote last year, I remember his television show because my parents regularly tuned in and for a couple of years it was one of the best musical variety programs in the business. He was a unique talent, a presence on so many pivotal recordings and entertainment spots for decades. He had the whole package and his fans and more than a few guitar players know what a HUGE loss this is. Not only that, he had the courage to go out on tour and take it to the people while he was suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Courage and Kindness! What. A. Guy!
This was an evening to remember! As I mentioned last month, I was psyched for this concert and I can say now that I had a fantastic time at Django a Go Go and saw some GREAT live Gypsy Jazz in one of the best venues in the world (Carnegie Hall)! It seems the accompanying bandcamp and smaller concerts out in Maplewood, New Jersey were also well-attended and a roaring success. While talking about it from the stage, organizer Stephane Wrembel described the whole idea as “CRAZY”, but it worked out beautifully. Stephane has been playing/promoting these concerts since 2004 so he is definitely adept at pulling all of the necessary elements together and had all of the right kind of help. Gypsy Jazz is more popular than ever in New York City!
My girlfriend and I arrived at Carnegie Hall, had a nice glass of wine, checked out some of the history in the place at the museum and then made our way to our seats at about 7:30. Together we have seen some great shows at all of the big venues in New York over the years, but neither of us had ever been to Carnegie Hall. What a great place. So much history and a part of a very different time, yet it remains so functional in the modern era. The view from our seats was awesome — completely unobstructed, which is just what I was going for. While I’ve seen people say that the show was sold out, that isn’t completely true. Our area of the balcony was not, which was GREAT! We could really stretch out and enjoy the show and the others who were around us were cool and likewise had plenty of room. I knew the sound would be amazing. It’s Carnegie Hall! While the above pic might make it seem like the 2nd balcony is too far away, it really wasn’t. As I have mentioned on this blog in the past: it was Django Reinhardt’s 1953 version of Night and Day, this video of Stochelo Rosenberg and seeing Stephane Wrembel live that inspired me to learn Gypsy Jazz. I’ve seen Stephane in many incarnations over the years, but have never seen Stochelo. I have also never seen Al Di Meola live and so this was what I was psyched for going into the concert.
Stephane started the show to great cheers from the hometown crowd and after acknowledging the importance of the night and his thanks to the fans, began the show solo with his sublime version of Django’s Improvisation #1. His band joined him on the next tune, the very kinetic original number, Prometheus. As always, Stephane’s playing was brilliant and his band was great. They totally nailed the tunes and then provided great backup for everything else over the course of the evening. Nick Driscoll joined in on saxophone for a great Coltrane-type version of Django’s Troublant Bolero. Totally cool. There was some singing from David Gastine who did a Jean Sablon tune and then related that his dream had always been to sing Take Me Home, Country Roads at Carnegie Hall. Hmm. Not what one would expect at this show, but he nailed it, had people singing along (including us for a chorus [blame the wine]) and got a big ovation for a job well done. Stephane also played Bistro Fada, his very well-known theme for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris movie. Then they were joined by guitarist Larry Keel who played some serious Doc Watson country style guitar. The show reminded me of an old-time variety show or maybe Prairie Home Companion. Stephane explained that this has always been the theme behind this concert; bring many divergent styles and musicians together and make it happen!
Then it was time for Stochelo Rosenberg and he did not disappoint. He was CHARGED! He explained before starting that he hadn’t been to Carnegie Hall since 1993 when he was invited by the great Stephane Grappelli. Twenty-four years later he returned thanks to another Stephane and completely burned through his original, modern Gypsy Jazz classic, For Sephora. To see and hear him play this song live was an incredible experience. Everything I wrote about in this post regarding Stochelo’s incredible technique; his strength, touch, tone, and articulation was on full display. Even the other musicians onstage were just shaking their heads as he blazed through 4 choruses of the tune. It was brilliant! It was awesome! They followed up with a Django-era classic, Coquette that also sounded great! I could see everything Stochelo was doing and he was very animated and having a good time, which is a bit unusual for him. Usually he lets his hands do all the moving. Al Di Meola came out next and related that he too had played the hall 42 years ago with Chick Corea and also hadn’t been back since. He launched into a very dramatic classically-inspired solo piece that went through many movements before coming to a big climactic ending and then the ensemble finished with a blazing version of Indifference. During this tune, Stochelo, Al, and Stephane did all kinds of tag-team soloing and comping that was a prelude of the great things that awaited us in the second set. It was a pretty amazing first set and the show had already run more than an hour and a half. And it only got better!
After a short intermission, Stephane, Stochelo, and Al came out alone and Stephane related before they began how influential the Friday Night in San Francisco recording of Di Meola, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin from 1981 was to him and to many guitarists he knew. (It was to me too). I was expecting they might do this and as soon as I saw the three of them come out I knew they would! They launched into Mediterranean Sundance and it was EPIC! No, really, it was so good they all hugged at the end of the 12-15 minutes worth of awesome playing. I am not even going to describe how epic it was, but the playing from all three was magnificent! They followed it immediately with a great version of Chick Corea’s Spain joined by Keel and bass player Ari Folman-Cohen. Crazy good. For me everything that had happened between when Stochelo appeared and the end of Spain alone was worth the price of admission. But there was more! A great swinging version of Django-era Georgia on My Mind, with Stochelo playing all of Django’s brilliant lines and chordal fills and It Don’t Mean a Thing with sublime Freddy Taylor-type vocals on both by Ryan Montbleau. Then there was a great guitar hero version of Nuages (with a solo intro by Stochelo to open) that also featured some more great sax from Nick Driscoll. Finally, there was the big rave-up at the end with the Gypsy Jazz anthem, Minor Swing that included the great Paulus Shafer and Stephane’s student, Sara L’Abriola, that succeeded in bringing down the house!
The week after the concert I saw this page of the program (didn’t look at it the night of) and this review from Downbeat and both show a program I totally don’t remember in spots, but I think I’m remembering correctly. I know that Coquette was played because Stephane briefly introduced it as a song Django wrote (which he didn’t) and that had Stochelo shaking his head no (because he didn’t) while if they had played Djangology, that would have been true, since that is a Django Reinhardt composition. Minor Blues was definitely not played and neither was Dark Eyes and if Double Jeu was played it was worked in as a part of Indifference because I know Double Jeu from that awesome Romane/Stochelo Rosenberg DVD that I have raved about on this blog a number of times. Anyhow, I’m sure there had to be some alterations and spontaneity and that is what jazz is all about!
Finally, as I wrote here, I lost my mother almost a year ago to the day of this concert. She was always my Number 1 musical supporter and over the years I was able to take her to many different cultural events in NYC, which she always enjoyed. We never saw anything at Carnegie Hall though, but I like to think she was with me for this great night of music. My girlfriend lost her father about six months ago. He lived to the ripe old age of 94 and while that is quite an accomplishment in and of itself, the fact that he was stationed on Iwo Jima with the Japanese army when he was but a lad of 22 makes it all the more amazing. He was wounded in an air raid and was evacuated from the island before the final American assault. One of the bullets that struck him remained in his leg for his entire life. He passed away just after I bought tickets for Django a Go Go and bequeathed the field glasses from the his army days to his daughter to use for the concert. We were able to get up close and personal to some of the action on stage and that was great! After all of these years, and so many miles, they still work and he would’ve appreciated that they were put to such good use. Swords into plowshares and all of that. I felt very fortunate to have been a part of this evening with so much great music and great playing by all of the musicians. Of course, it was a monumental night on a personal level for me to see Stochelo! I am also glad that Stephane took it all on and set up such a great program of events and hope to see more in the future!
So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.
If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.
Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.
Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.
Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:
So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!
There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!
Here is Part 1 of this series.
Wait, what? Christmas is over, right? Well, yes, the holidays have come and gone again. January is always a little bit of a downer, isn’t it? Especially if it was an enjoyable season. The holidays can certainly be a difficult time too, but this year was great for me and I was inspired to write this post and put it up now before I forget or the year gets away from me. You can come back after Thanksgiving and it will be here if you are Holiday-ed out.
As I said in another post, right before Christmas I played a gig, my first in over a year. It was a GypsyJazz/Jazz type holiday gig and it went very well. Playing the gig got me thinking — musicians are expected to play Christmas songs and holiday music during the holidays, and many do. For some, it’s a chore and a real groan-fest, but personally, I’ve always enjoyed it. This year we played 5 songs in our 3 sets: My Favorite Things, Django Reinhardt’s version of Danse Norvegienne, our own arrangement of Let it Snow, a rowdy version of The Ventures Sleigh Ride (a real crowd pleaser) and a loose arrangement of Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here that I have been playing for years. Since we had a clarinet player sitting in with us there was a very classy and Christmas-y vibe to all of these songs, even the ones that aren’t specifically holiday songs. I also heard a whole lot of Christmas music during the season and I’m sure everyone else did as well. So where did these songs come from? What makes a great Christmas carol? As a musician, should you and how can you work some holiday cheer into your repertoire?
Well, some history. The holiday that is Christmas evolved out of pagan, solstice, end of calendar (or seasonal) year celebrations a long, long time ago. The earliest Carols were sung in Europe thousands of years ago and were probably sung in celebration of all four seasons, but it is really the end of year, (Christmas) songs and styles that have survived. As early as 129 AD, Christians began appropriating these songs of praise and celebration and that year a Roman Bishop decreed that a song called the Angel’s Hymn should be sung at Christmas service in Rome. However, Christmas carols didn’t really take off with ordinary people until the Middle Ages when St. Francis of Assisi started staging Nativity Plays in Italy. Music was part of these plays and an important factor that changed the acceptance of the songs was that instead of the music being performed in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, the songs were sung in various native tongues, so the idea spread all over Europe as people were now able to more fully participate in the music and celebrations. This was controversial because in effect it adds an element of showbiz to religious rites, but this made the rites a more integral part of people’s lives, whether in church or not and thus began the Christmas Carol tradition. Or probably begat, if we use the language of the time.
The earliest English Carol was written in 1410 and reads and sounds more like a poem or lullaby than what we would commonly think of as a Christmas carol. There were many other similar type verses written during this time. In 1454, with the invention of the Gutenburg printing press, carols could be printed and distributed but, believe or not, severe factions within churches did not encourage such vocal celebrations. Oliver Cromwell actually banned Christmas Carols in England during the mid-1600s. And you thought The Grinch was bad! The first American Christmas Carol was written sometime in the 1640s by a man named John de Brebeurf and was called Jesus is Born (The Huron Carol). Though many churches in Europe would refuse to make carols a part of their celebration well into the 19th century, this was not true of ALL churches and the songs were composed and performed by theater companies, musicians, troubadours, and, of course, by great composers like George Frideric Handel and his very grand and famous Messiah, which was first performed in 1742. Or, from much simpler beginnings came arguably, the most famous Christmas carol of all, Silent Night. In 1818 an Austrian assistant priest named Joseph Mohr composed this three stanza ditty to be sung chorally at Christmas mass because the church organ was broken and could not be repaired in time for the holiday celebration. The first time the song was played the congregation heard the priest and choir director Franz Xaver Gruber sing accompanied by Fr. Mohr’s guitar. As it turns out, the guitar was Fr. Mohr’s favorite instrument! Silent Night would, spread across the world as a great song and would be the central carol to the 1914 spontaneous Christmas Truce between warring factions on the Western Front during World War 1. And it all started basically as a religious singer-songwriter guitar tune. Pretty cool, eh?
Over the course of the last 150 years Christmas carols became an integral part of the Christmas and holiday celebrations and they became ever more popular (and big business too!). Bing Crosby‘s version of White Christmas is the best-selling single of all time according to various sources, with sales in excess of 100 million. Wow! Amazing what grows from such humble beginnings? Can you imagine the holiday season without the music we all know so well? In many ways, on a very emotional level, the music defines what we know and feel about the holiday season; the services, the memories, the presents, the dinners, the parties, the decorations, the celebrations, the stories, in sacred and secular manner. In the realm of modern discourse and pop culture it is no longer necessary or possible to separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the Christmas tree or Santa Claus. Over the years music has helped meld all of these elements together into this one big event that everyone recognizes. This is probably what terrified those early church leaders and why they tried so hard to prevent the secular carols from becoming a part of religious celebrations.
Nothing illustrates the Christmas package better than The Charlie Brown Christmas Special with the accompanying soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This classic from 1965 has entertained millions of children and adults for more than 50 years. Elements of the show include Charlie Brown bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, Snoopy winning a best decoration competition, Linus reciting the appropriate Biblical canon concerning the birth of Jesus Christ and a very unimpressive tree turned into the season’s most important symbol. It has been televised every year since it debuted and even today ABC currently holds the rights and broadcasts the Special twice in the weeks before Christmas. Guaraldi’s soundtrack has also sold well; over 4 million copies! While most of the people involved thought the show would be a disaster due to it’s slow pacing, simple animation, and weird mix of jazz and sacred (choir) music, it was a hit from the first broadcast. The show and the soundtrack are among the most loved holiday entertainment in the United States and you can check out the rankings HERE if you are interested. As with the Peanuts crew or St. Francis of Assisi’s church, the first few years I was in school we had an annual Christmas pageant. Two of the years I even had speaking roles and this was my first taste of performing. I’m sure this is true for many of you out there and this is what tradition is all about!
The 1950s and 1960s was a very classic time for a certain type of holiday music and nothing better represents this time than this album by Fred Waring and The Pennsylvanians — The Sounds of Christmas. Known during his lifetime as America’s Singing Master or The Man Who Taught America to Sing, Fred began with a self-created banjo orchestra that, over time, blossomed into one of mid-20th century America’s great Arts institutions. He also…wait for it, invented the Waring Blender. Because he came from the jazz background of the great bandleaders, there was always a whole lot of SWING and a fair amount of BLUES in the choral presentations, so in addition to perfect vocalizations there is also a whole lot of HIP Daddy-o! While he released many albums and was on television frequently during the late 40s and 50s, that was all way before my time. However, my parents had this record and hearing it instantly takes me back to holidays of yore. Fred Waring was described as a perfectionist and a taskmaster and the performances on this album are flawless. There are many examples of different groups trying to do the same arrangements on YouTube and I haven’t found one yet that is quite as sharp.
The album covers a wide range of styles: Swing (Ring Those Christmas Bells, Santa Claus is Coming To Town); nostalgia (Opening, Carol Brothers Carol [written by W.A. Muhlenberg, who founded St. Lukes Hospital in New York City and was very influential in the development of early American Education]); Porgy and Bess style blues (Rise Up Shepherd an’ Foller, Go Where I Send Thee); the classics (Silent Night, O Holy Night) and six songs that were written by another jazz musician, unknown at the time, by the name of Alfred Burt. His carols began as a family tradition to accompany the yearly Christmas card to friends and relatives and were first heard outside the family circle in the early 1950s. He composed all of the music for these carols and family friend Wilha Hutson wrote the lyrics and they were a hit with choir groups that heard them. Hollywood recordings quickly commenced, but unfortunately, Burt did not live to see his creations sung and popularized by the likes of Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Fred Waring. They were very popular at the time and since then the carols have entered the popular Christmas music lexicon and there they have remained. This album contains: Caroling, Caroling, O Hearken Ye, Jesu Parvule, The Star Carol, Come Dear Children, and This Is Christmas.
While many of these carols, like all carols, are very simple in structure, Waring’s arrangements take them to interesting places and the talent assembled to perform them was obviously top-notch. They do not make albums like this anymore! The Sounds of Christmas is available again so either relive the magic (if you grew up with it like I did) or check it out for yourself! It gets a 5-star rating on Amazon so I obviously know what I’m talking about *wink*!
Okay! Look for the conclusion to follow next week. Like a ride through the woods to Grandma’s house the posts will lead back to the guitar and how you can make Christmas songs your own!
Here is Part 2 of this series.
I hope everyone had a great holiday season and is looking forward to the New Year! It will definitely be one full of many challenges. I think we can agree on that, yes? No matter what comes along, music will help with anything the universe has in store. We’ve all seen how powerful the effects of music are on people in all kinds of situations and certainly I make it a point to never forget how healing the ability to play, listen and appreciate music is. Definitely one of the major joys of our existence on this planet. Never forget or take for granted!
Also, in the spirit of new beginnings, I am rolling out another type of Dispatch, one that will allow me to cover an assortment of small items within one post. It’s the same kind of formula as the GuitarSongs series, which I was really enjoying and will pick up again in a few weeks. ShortRiffs will cover everything going on in my life, music-related and not. The Gimme Shelter and Vital Van posts, which are full of music, but also full of other stuff, are two of the most popular posts I’ve done and I want to do more of that kind of writing. The name is a word play on the (guitar) riffs we all play combined with the old slang of “riffing”: a short piece of speech or writing that develops a particular theme or idea. Ideally, that is what I will attempt to do and maybe even have a thread that will snake through a few or several of these posts; like an old-time serial.
As always: I totally appreciate everyone who reads, comments, and sends notes. This blog is almost 6 years old with 116 posts and 50,000 visitors. I never thought it would be the thing it is today and I have only my awesome readers to thank for that! Take care and keep playing!
How to sound like Jimi Hendrix? That’s a loaded question and one people have been trying to answer for many years, obviously. I feel I am qualified to talk about it since I have played a bunch of Jimi over the years in various settings. There are a few tips and tricks I can offer and the first is always try to watch someone play live or video. Nothing beats seeing Jimi or one of the true masters play his stuff and there’s plenty to be found online. Definitely start there.
play the blues
Before one dives into the details, probably the most important and obvious thing to realize is that Jimi achieved his excellent sound and style on guitar by learning and playing blues, early rock and roll/rhythm and blues guitar. Take apart almost every song, every jam that features Jimi Hendrix and you will find the structure and sound of the blues underneath, no matter how FAR OUT the song is. Blues playing is primarily intuitive and feel-based. Jimi’s knowledge of music theory, best described by Miles Davis is his autobiography, was limited, but his ear was finely developed and he had a great musician’s instinct. According to Miles (via Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy page 399): “When Miles attempted to explain musical theory, Jimi just looked blank, but once Miles played the piece, however complex it was, Jimi picked it up immediately.” Having a background in the blues enables you to comfortably navigate many styles of music. If you can’t play a half decent blues solo or are not happy with your knowledge of the blues and pentatonic scales and blues phrasing, work on that first. Definitely make sure you can navigate the fretboard in all positions. You can base the above scales or arpeggios off of the chords you are playing. Many of Jimi’s best riffs and solos come from this way of doing things. Also, make sure your bends, slurs and hammer-ons/pull-offs are as accurate and clean as you can make them. These techniques must be practiced slowly and carefully to get them right. There are many blues guitar lessons on YouTube. Look around and find ones that will help you with areas you are having trouble and practice until you have it down.
spice it up with some jazz
Though Jimi wasn’t thought of as a jazz musician by most people of his time, he was influenced very heavily by jazz icons like Wes Montgomery and, especially, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was instrumental in Jimi’s approach to sound collages like Third Stone From the Sun. Jazz does figure in some of the rhythmic patterns that Mitch Mitchell developed and used in songs like Manic Depression, the middle of If 6 Was 9 and very obviously the brush work (actually suggested by Noel Redding) in Up From the Skies. (Mitch had actually played in jazz bands prior to joining The Experience). Jimi rarely played the standard power chord shapes, opting instead for variations that allowed him to use his thumb to cover the bass notes. He also used very jazzy 6, 9, maj, and sus chords on songs like If 6 Was 9, Third Stone From the Sun, Love or Confusion, Angel and many others. Jimi also regularly used partial chords as runs or lead lines. This chord melody type of playing is common in jazz and is also used in rhythm and blues/Stax playing as well. There are many jazz/rock lessons as well as chord melody lessons on YouTube. Not only will this knowledge help with Jimi Hendrix tunes, but it will also expand other areas of your playing.
Jimi’s technique, which was developed from constant playing and a whole lot of roadwork with bands like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, made use primarily of Fender instruments, Stratocasters especially. Jimi would restring a right-handed guitar and play it lefty, which meant that the volume and tone controls, pickup switch and whammy bar were in a different position than would be typical for a player no matter they were right or left handed (if they were playing the appropriate guitar). According to the book Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, he would bend the whammy arms by hand to allow him “to tap each string with the bar” (?) but the book Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy disputes this saying he bent the arms to allow the bar to line up with the high E string. I wouldn’t be surprised if both of these theories are wrong and he bent the arms to allow for further depression of the tremelo unit, resulting in much wider and deeper bends. From reading guitar magazines I know that Jimi favored using 4 springs for the whammy unit and used custom light strings. According to Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy from September of 1966 through June of 1967 Jimi played tuned to regular concert C or E, if you prefer. (This time period would’ve included the recording of Are You Experienced?) The sessions for Experienced and the 2nd album, Axis: Bold as Love were almost back-to-back but most of the Axis album is tuned to Eb. From hereon Jimi would tune down (sometimes as low as D) and while this did allow for a “heavier”, darker guitar tone and ease of string bending, the primary reason was it was “less strain on Jimi’s voice”. He favored Marshall amps and turned everything way up, full blast! His outstanding control of his instrument and his ability to turn the sounds, noises and feedback into either vocal-quality sounds, sound effects or music was legendary (The Star Spangled Banner, Third Stones From the Sun, I Don’t Live Today). Randy Hansen, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan have all approached the level that Jimi had with this kind of manipulation of the instrument. He would frequently introduce himself to the audience as playing “public saxophone” and I think this illustrates that he looked at the guitar as “more than a guitar”, primarily dealt in SOUND more than TECHNIQUE or NOTES and was inspired and influenced by much more than other guitar music. Unfortunately there is no substitute for constant tweaking of one’s gear and sound to be able to replicate either Jimi’s sounds or the ones you hear in your head. Listening to and trying to replicate sounds that aren’t “music” can also broaden your approach. A major thing to understand is that these components are never the same in different rooms or situations. A player must constantly readjust as the gig goes along. Eric Johnson does this all the time. Watch him closely in these videos.
While Jimi certainly made use of many different effects over the years, I’m not one of those people that believes you need to have expensive or even authentic pedals to get a sound that will reproduce a Jimi number well. I’ve certainly done without. All of those pedals are available though if you wish to go that route. Back in the late 80s I was at a jam in Brooklyn and after covering All Along the Watchtower 3 guys who had been hanging out in the lobby, including the guy who was running the studio came in and looked at my pedals. All I had was a Tube Screamer, an MXR Envelope Filter (for the wah sound) and a Boss digital delay. Without saying a word they looked at me, looked at the pedals, shook their heads and walked out. I had certainly done my homework on the solo parts of Watchtower and could play it well. I had also found some settings that really approximated the sound of the original and that night hit it perfectly right. I had a Crybaby wah-wah but did not always carry it around on the subway so that’s why I had the envelope filter instead. Worked out just fine. You would be amazed how much your hands and attitude affect how you sound. I was reading a discussion on Gearslutz the other day from people who were talking about recreating the sound of Van Halen 1. I know, guitar players can be geeks, nerds, whatever and just like to think and talk about different equipment, but you could easily sink $50,000 into a project like that, have all of the guitar and studio equipment that may or may not have been used back in 1978 and come up lacking, so keep that in mind.
putting it all together
A band I was in for a few years covered Love or Confusion live many times. By this time I no longer used a distortion pedal. I had a Mesa Boogie head and two 4×12 cabinets and just played loud using the gain from the amp. I also used a Phase 90 and an MXR Flanger and sometimes the Crybaby Wah. I never worried about playing the solo exact (and never do-just go for it!). The sound IS the thing. If you play in tune and in time and have the sound of this music (or any music) you are more than halfway there. I liked to concentrate on how the chords rang against the rhythm and the overtones at the end of each verse (and the end of the song). Eric Johnson covers this song nicely. I remember EJ said in an interview that some of the sounds Jimi got on those last stop chords reminded him of a vacuum cleaner. That’s why I spent a lot of time coming up with slightly different fingerings every time the G chords come around. I was always amazed how those parts sounded too! How did he do that? Sometimes the right amount of fuzz, vibrato and open-string overtones produced exactly what I was going for. The trick with these sus chords is to get that major/minor ambivalence thing between the strings you fret versus the strings that are ringing open. That’s how some of those cool combinations happen. I also tried do what Eric does — actually meld both of Jimi’s guitar tracks into 1! Good Times!
In the old days these books were like the best thing, and in some ways still are. Meticulously notated for guitar, bass and drums — your whole band can look over the music and get down. You still have to bring the feel in for a lot of what you will be trying to do, but that’s where the fun is. Just like what I was talking about in the last paragraph. All of these books have tab and performance notes and I used them a bunch back in the day for songs that I hadn’t been able to pick up just by listening. All of the transcriptions were done by Andy Aledort and the performance notes and general supervision was done by Dave Whitehill and they are both giants in the guitar biz. Usually associated with Guitar World Magazine, I’m sure their names are familiar to anyone who has been around the biz for awhile. Because they are are total pros you know there aren’t any mistakes. While I regularly find mistakes in tabs I find online or in some of the YouTube tutorials, I have never encountered one in these books. They are still very affordable and I would recommend if you are looking for accurate reproductions of Jimi’s music.
For those who don’t want to go the book route, there are, of course, many online resources for Jimi Hendrix material. As I said in the last paragraph, however, be careful that it is a good tab or lesson or you’ll be wasting your time. I recommend watching any live Jimi you can find. Then check out Randy Hansen(!), Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, or some of the stuff from the Experience Hendrix tour. For lessons, here’s a series that walks you through most of the songs on the first side of Are You Experienced?. Here’s Joe Satriani showing how he plays like Jimi and here’s an interesting video on getting a sound in the vein of Jimi. YouTube is FULL of many interesting videos on playing like Jimi Hendrix so strap in, strap on the guitar and get cracking! You’ll be wowing your friends with stunning versions of his best songs in no time at all!