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The Guitarist’s Guide to Composing and Improvising Jon Damian Chapter 1 The Basic Sound Dimensions

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Articulation. So. the master guitarist. Jeronimas Kacinskas. and a screaming (at me) conductor (not to be named here)—who. primarily music and learning the guitar. How long or short the musical idea is. Direction. 2. I gravitated toward the arts. Is the musical idea going up. The manner of attack or articulation of our pick and/or fingers creates the musical idea’s basic shape and tone color.” —Marcel Proust I am sure we all remember math class when the teacher introduced us to geometry. I realized that all those nice chords and licks I was using could be a lot nicer and more powerful if I shaped them with the basic sound dimensions. together. and a respect for silence. awareness of their basic direction relationship is of prime importance. How sharp or how round sounding the musical idea is. When two melodies are sounded in counterpoint. until I realized that the world of music art had its own dimensions of height. 1 . cubes. and a respect for the silence between the ideas. How loud or soft the musical idea is. Dynamics. Let’s look at the dimensions in order of importance (from my present perspective). width. and composing abilities. improvisation. and trapezoids? Figuring out their heights. but the math part of it left me in the dust. or staying the same? The direction dimension creates the height or contour of the musical idea. triangles. Mr. It was a combination of folks—my first art teacher. Barnes. Remember trying to draw all those rectangles. I thought I was safe from the math classes of the world. showed me how a close awareness and control of the basic sound dimensions could inspire my performance. or two players are improvising simultaneously. and depths? The artist in me enjoyed the drawing part of the math class. 1. widths. Rhythm creates the width of the music—its horizontal or time dimension. 3. Jim Hall. Rhythm. This is the sound dimension that creates depth in music—how close the music is to the listener. and depth! I guess that I was so absorbed in learning all those pretty chords and licks that I was blind (and deaf) to how the basic sound dimensions could help my playing and composition. my composition teacher. down. 4.Chapter 1 The Basic Sound Dimensions “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes (and ears).

” Of course. Some of the studies may seem quite unique. This chapter may even improve your math! 2 AR Sh TIC ar U p. It is the delivery of these words—their loudness. how we attack our words.THE GUITARIST’S GUIDE TO COMPOSING AND IMPROVISING CS MI NA . these intellectual ideas are like the “words” of our musical language. When we are speaking.1. But how aware of them are we? And what level of control do we have with them? This chapter presents techniques and pieces of music that will inspire your playing and composing by developing your awareness of the basic sound dimensions. But we all use the same words. it would be a great help in our playing. the words we use are important also. direction. how fast or how slow we talk. shaped by how loud or how soft we talk. This is a good thing. That light of awareness may just pop on. the direction or how we move up and down with our talking. They happen automatically. Of course. Short? . How we use these elements gives us our “talking personality. our articulation. If we could respond as closely in our musical improvisation as we do in our everyday use of language. Far? DY ose Cl Fig. flat nine. the many intellectual and mathematical concepts (such as scales. B¯Maj7. In the study of music improvisation and composition. sharp this. rhythm. Have fun with these ideas. intervals. and of course. Each of us has a unique way of speaking. They are necessary and important to have and understand. We cannot play music without including the basic sound dimensions. sharp that) are enough to drive us crazy. Down? RHYTHM Long. and articulation—that produces the personality of our speaking. thanks to your curiosity. arpeggios. LA Ro TI un ON d? DIRECTION Up. we are improvising and interacting. 1. but they don’t come to musical life without an awareness of the basic sound dimensions. The Basic Sound Dimensions We are already masters of the use of the sound dimensions in our most basic music communication: our spoken language.

if you wish. Then. make it roar. Try scatting also. you’re too loud. and thankfully not many. Not withstanding circular breathing (a difficult technique in which some wind players. Play something you have played hundreds of times. Singing while you play (a la Keith Jarrett. Find all the dynamic points in between. let’s try something. and sometimes.” —Miles Davis Dynamics: How Loud. The silences created as you breathe give your ideas clear beginnings and endings. Add a third note. These teaching moments can happen at any time. but when you have to take a breath. but as you are playing. How Soft. breathe in. George Benson. Play anything you wish. Play as long an idea as you wish. Once. In saxophones. Awareness and respect for silence is a hard lesson for guitarists because breathing—such an important factor for other instrumentalists—is not an issue. You’ll need your guitar for this. but I learned an important lesson: Playing the “right notes” means playing the correct dynamic level. Our dynamic range—how soft to how loud we can play—is incredibly wide. “Guitar player. it can roar. they can be painful. play what’s not there.Chapter 1 The Basic Sound Dimensions “Don’t play what’s there. How Close? Our greatest teachers seem to appear from anywhere. Slowly bring it down to silence. Continue for a while. The guitar can whisper. exhale as if you were producing the sounds with your mouth. Do you find that you are using silence in places you had never thought of before? Good. there is a built in silence producer: having to take a breath. at a rehearsal. They are the folks who bring about an awareness of the musical areas that need our attention. Play any one note on the guitar. but now explore it with your new dynamic range. trumpets. How Silent. Endless chatter would take on new dimensions. Exploring Dynamic Range Guitarists are actually more fortunate then most wind players when it comes to the power of dynamics. Turn down!” I was very embarrassed. can play an unbroken length of sound by sneaking in a breath somehow). as well. The Wind Guitar Imagine that you are a wind player needing to breathe for survival. Just think what our spoken language would be like if we had no need to breathe. Make it whisper. a conductor let me have it. Explore how many ways you can explore dynamics with these two notes. helping the listener follow them better. add a second note. If you stop playing. stop playing. With wind instruments in mind. Get dramatic! 3 . flutes. et al) is a technique that emulates a wind player’s phrasing. and all the other wind instruments in the world. wind players have a natural respect for silence.

Also try Fireworks! with one of those tired licks of yours. 4 . Repeat this routine. It could also be used to extend a new idea. Then replace Mi with silence. Play or sing any simple musical idea. Here is a simple 4-bar example that passes twice through “Do Re Mi. Notes will be the fireworks. Now.” I beefed up the line with some double stops (two notes played at the same time) and a chord (3-note voicing). You can develop new licks from the old by tapping into the power of silence. Fig. Do Re Mi with Fireworks! As you can see. There is a brilliant spray of colors. 1. letting it flow with no apparent seams in the “Do Re Mi” idea. Fireworks! is a fun way to create new ideas from old ones. I call this next technique Fireworks! Fireworks! Picture a fireworks display. Generally. leaving the black sky ready for another splash of excitement. Play or sing it again but replace Re with silence. Do Re Re Mi Mi Mi Play or sing this again but replace Do with silence. development is thought of as an additive process. try Fireworks! using any musical idea you wish. œ œ œ Œ œ œ ‰ # œ œ œ œ J V First two notes removed œ ‰œœ œ Œ œ œ œ 1 3 1 A _7 3 œ œ‰ œ w œ œ #œ w œ w 1 2 1 D9 . Later. For now.2. using the development process called extraction (adding silence). let’s create a musical fireworks display. Light Rock (Straight Eighth Note Groove) A _ 7 First note removed D9 1 3 1 3 1 2 1 2 œ œ œ œ œ œ œ & c . Try other variations as well. use three notes of a major scale (use any rhythm). and see what happens.THE GUITARIST’S GUIDE TO COMPOSING AND IMPROVISING Let’s put silence to work for us in another way: as an improvisational and compositional tool. but extraction also works great. and silences will be the black sky. Expand Fireworks! to include more notes. the colors fall and fade. bit by bit. Then... Challenge yourself.

Try to keep it going.4. Fireworks! with a Bebop Motif As this example shows. 1. Here is an example of a 1-bar chord comping (accompaniment) idea followed by Fireworks! variations of the first bar. some notes are extracted (replaced with silence). The motif is expanded into an 8-bar phrase by repeating it three times. 5 Fig. Fireworks! and Comping . 2 Fig. 1.Chapter 1 The Basic Sound Dimensions Here is an example that takes a 2-bar motif (idea) from the bebop language. On each repetition. œ &c œ œ œ 3 4 1 2 j j œ ‰ œ ‰ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ * j j j œ ‰ œ ‰ œ œ ‰ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ œ * j * j œ ‰ ‰ œ Œ œ œ œ œ œ œ * œ œ œ œ œ & œ œ œ œ Œ œ œ œ j * œ Œ ‰ œ œ œ Write and play your own variations. you can add silence wherever you wish. I removed up to three notes on some bars. 3 Medium Swing FMaj7 Fireworks! With a Bebop Motif Over Rhythm Changes in F D7( b9) G _7 1 C7 & c . A Funky Samba Original Statement Asterisks indicate original notes replaced by silence.. œ 2 4 œ œ 2 œ 2 œ Œ F7 Œ œ bœ 2 1 œ 2 œ œ ‰ ‰ 1 j œ œ * j Œ œ B b-6 C7 4 œ 2 œ 1 œ œ A-7 &‰ &Œ * C-7 * 4 j œ œ D7( b9) 2 G _7 2 œ Œ Œ ‰ ‰ ‰ * * 2 bœ J 1 1 œ 2 ‰ 1 2 œ 1 2 2 œ j œ 2 bœ J 1 B b Maj7 œ * 1 j œ Œ 2 j œ ‰ * ‰ FMaj7 D7( b9) &Œ * ‰ j œ G _7 * Œ ‰ 1 j œ C7 Œ 2 j œ . Write in some more variations.” Asterisks (*) indicate extracted notes. “I Got Rhythm.3.. It plays over “rhythm changes”—the standard jazz chord progression drawn from George Gershwin’s classic.

” I realized that Miles was in sensitive touch not only with the melody he was producing (positive space). A combination of writing out and improvising Fireworks! ideas will eventually help this technique to become a natural (and powerful) part of your improvisation and writing. AND TRY TRY TRY TRY TRY IT IT WITH WITH WITH WORDS WORDS WORDS WORDS You don’t have to be mechanically perfect in adding silence—especially when improvising.” I murmured. and how you can change this shape when you move your fingers?” “Wow. “Do you see the shape of your hand?” “Of course. Mr. A similar light turned on later that day. but also the negative space (piano accompaniment) between the melody notes. the positive space. absorbed in the live model who was our subject that day. I was sketching away on a large sheet of newsprint paper. “Do you also see the shape between and around your fingers. One day in a life-drawing class. Barnes introduced a technique to help us become more visually sensitive to the positive and negative space in our work. Use your voice as an instrument. He asked me. Damian. Everyone feels their own manner of adding silence.” Mr. I realized I had been “composing” and balancing with sound and silence all my spoken life. taught me another important lesson about silence. whenever I communicated with others. In art class the next day. The visual art technique is called “scratchboard.THE GUITARIST’S GUIDE TO COMPOSING AND IMPROVISING Try Fireworks! without your guitar. a 6 . be aware of the shape of the image itself. I began to notice positive space and its “accompanying” negative space everywhere. while I was listening to Miles Davis playing “My Funny Valentine. My favorite art teacher. I heard the balance Mr. Mr. Barnes then had me hold up my right hand. As an artist you must be in touch with both spaces to create a balance in your compositions.” I responded. why is your drawing so small? Do you realize that your drawing is becoming lost on the paper? When you produce an image. Barnes talked about earlier in the day. Be patient. Mr. In the way I talked and spaced my words. feeling the silence between the words and sentences. with my fingers spread.” In scratchboard. Barnes. “Mr. as I felt a light turn on inside my head. which helped him improvise his statement of the melody. but also the shape that surrounds the image—the white space or negative space. Barnes interrupted me.

Fig.6. When you are finished singing. Eventually. Barnes. Do you feel the power and presence of the silence space? Continue until you do.” —Zen saying A Sound Scratchboard In the spirit of Mr. we will use our guitars and “etch” our sounds into the silence. See if you have an enhanced sensitivity to the silence space (negative space) that you are creating. removing the black ink and exposing the brightness of the paper under the ink. using a chord. close your mouth. First. when you dampen the chord.5. and then begin to make your silent singing more active. open your mouth and silently sing something for a bit.” Then. This was the reverse of our sketching technique. let’s “ink” our musical canvas (cover our silence) with a sustained sound. and resume playing the chord. It was a challenge. We had to scratch away the negative space to produce our snowflakes. Then. 1. Mr. don’t use your mouth. This openstring AMaj7(9) chord will work nicely. Scratchboard One day a student asked Taiga. Create a nice “covered silence. when you wish. “The part of the paper where nothing is painted is the most difficult. Barnes made his point that day. let’s create a sound scratchboard to help us become more aware of music’s negative space: silence.” dampen (stop) the chord from sounding. which produced dark image on white paper. for example—the surface is scratched. and set to dry. 7 . And Mr. &c 3 2 w w # # ww w AMaj7(9) Frets: AMaj7(9) 5 6 7 Fig. While you “sing the silence. with a sharp object—a pin.Chapter 1 The Basic Sound Dimensions white paper with a smooth polished surface is blackened with brush and ink. Barnes then gave us a scratchboard assignment: create a black delicate snowflake. AMaj7(9) chord Play the chord for a while. smoothly and evenly. steadily and evenly strummed or plucked. “What is the most difficult part of painting?” Taiga answered. Instead of using ink and paper. 1.

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