What Is The Magic of Wes and Benson?
I am pretty sure that you have listened to Wes Montgomery or George Benson playing a solo and thought “I wish I could sound like that”, but when you are playing Jazz then you are busy with scales and arpeggios and getting the lines to fit together without losing the form.
But scales and arpeggios will make you sound more like Wes, ot is something else that makes him sound like that, and you are not working on that side of your playing. Let me show you how to fix that!
If you are starting out learning Jazz guitar, you often get stuck with the first problem that you run into: What notes go where? That is not so strange because it is difficult to navigate a Jazz song and play the right notes in the right place, but once you start to be able to do that, then you need to also start developing other things, and especially rhythm and phrasing, because if you let the notes and the harmony dictate your phrasing then you won’t sound like Jazz:
A Method For Magic
You probably check out licks and solos and try to figure out how they work in terms of what scale, arpeggio, or chromatic thing is used so that you can use that in your playing as well:
This is something you want to do with rhythm and phrasing as well, and the important part is that you start with something you hear and then use that to create your own material,
mainly because we don’t have as many terms for those rhythmical building blocks.
Let me show you what you can do with a simple and short Wes Montgomery phrase to start opening up your own playing. Check out this short but amazing phrase from the 2nd chorus of his solo on “No Blues” off the “Smokin’ at the Half-note” album.
Obviously, we could focus on what notes he uses, and that IS interesting but let’s try and see if there is something to be learned from the rhythm and the phrasing, because Wes is one of the greatest improvisers when it comes to really making strong and clear phrases also in terms of rhythm, and that part of it will already make you sound 10 times better!
To keep it simple, I am going to cut off the pick-up, but I will talk about adding that back in later in the video, also because that is part of another very important thing to develop and ties into something that I talk about very often as well.
Removing the pickup leaves us with this:
I picked a phrase where I like the rhythm, and maybe also because I like the shape of the phrase, so how the melody flows.
I will start by keeping that in there, but you don’t have to of course.
First, you just want to hear the phrase, so sing it, you can probably hear that I am still hearing the flow of the melody. “Rhythm”
In the way that I sing it, you can also hear where I have accents “rhythm”
Make It Your Own
A side note on learning by ear: One of the ways that I trained this and I think also what is the traditional approach to teaching this is learning solos. When you learn solos by ear you want to keep playing them with the track for a long time after figuring them out. In that way, you get the phrases and the rhythms into your system, and that is useful for a lot of things, so you want to keep doing that, but what I cover here is a more focused way to develop your rhythm and phrasing vocabulary. Both approaches are worth exploring.
The goal now is to start hearing phrases with this rhythm, and the easiest way to start is to stick with the shape of the melody. Later I will expand this so that you can start hearing other phrases as well coming out of this example. When you start working on this there is one thing that might demotivate you but I’ll get to that. Here’s a simple version using the Wes rhythm and flow on a Gmaj7:
or maybe something like this, try to recognize the flow in there and judge for yourself if it works as a line.
What you want to do is to create lines over a different chord with the same rhythm and a similar phrasing, and keep in mind that this is to get you out of always playing:
An important thing to keep in mind is that you probably start doing this with a phrase that you consider perfect and doing this exercise will not only give you 150 perfect jazz licks that are going to blow everyone’s mind. It is not so much about the licks as it is about the process, because what you are training is hearing phrases with that melody.
You should only check if the lick does actually work, and it is fine if some of them don’t, you learn from that as well.
Letting Go Of The Flow
I remember when I was just getting into Jazz and I came across this very solid Bebop line or cliche, which is an example of octave displacement, and could probably be taken out of a Bach piece as well, but it works amazingly as a Jazz lick:
And because I didn’t understand octave displacement and the direction of melody I spent a long time coming up with one failed phrase after another. At the time I could hear that it didn’t work, but I could not figure out why or how to fix it in a consistent way. That came much later.
That is why, In the beginning, you want to stick close to the original phrase.
Because then there is a bigger chance that you will write lines that make sense, but after some time it also makes sense to explore if you can let that go and just use the rhythm without the phrasing, check this out then I’ll explain:
So now I am not trying to keep the direction of the melody but just using the rhythm to make a new line and listening for how it should be phrased which in this case gives a few different accents (show sheet music comparing accents between ex 4 and ex😎
If you forgot then often Bop lines sound great if you give an accent to a high note which is not on the beat. It is not a rule, so you will find exceptions all over the place, but that is what I am doing here, and it does make it sound better.
Here’s another example:
Of course, you can repeat this process with other lines and in that way expand your vocabulary, but what you can also do to open up this phrase even more is to use it while improvising like this.
Training Your Creativity
Let’s say that you can come up with some phrases using the rhythm that we got from Wes so what you can try now is to play some call-response soloing using those phrases and see what you hear afterward. I’ll do this on a Gmaj7 chord, think of it as a never-ending loop of the first part of I’ll Remember April:
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do this in time, and if you have a line that you like then it can be really useful to play it several times and come up with different responses to it. This is all about starting to place it in your vocabulary and making it work in your solos.
Of course, from working on it rubato you can level it up to using it on a song that you know well and get it into your playing.
I also want to talk about another way that you can open up your playing and not get stuck on the barlines too much.
Breaking Free of the Barlines
This could almost be an independent video, but one of the problems you run into when you are learning to spell out chord changes in your solos is that you want to play clear notes on beat 1 when the chord changes. This is not a bad habit, but you do need to move beyond that if you don’t want to sound boxed in by the barlines, your melodies should be more free on top of the song. Luckily, if you are used to playing toward target notes then you can easily start to practice playing into the chord with a pickup like this:
And another thing that you also want to start exploring is not ending lines on the target note, but instead continuing into the bar like this:
The Right Melodies With The Right Phrasing
But when you are making lines using rhythms and phrasing then you do need to understand Jazz how to create jazz lines that work otherwise there is nothing to phrase or add rhythm to. Check out this video, If you want to explore how to develop this and learn the essential building blocks that make up Jazz lines.
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