A few posts ago I recommended Bireli Lagrene’s DVDs Live in Paris and Bireli Lagrene and Friends. These really are essential viewing/listening for any fan of gypsy jazz guitar. In my enthusiasm for more I ordered Django: a jazz tribute starring Bireli Lagrene and Babik Reinhardt. Unfortunately this DVD is not so successful. Its sole stars are Bireli and Babik, i.e. it is a jazz guitar duo, one of my least favourite combinations – even Jim Hall and Pat Metheny didn’t really do it for me. Bireli plays a solid body electric guitar and three of the four tunes on this 26 minute DVD are originals which mainly consist of dominant 7 sus 4 vamps with much mindless widdling up and down the guitar necks, impressive gymnastics but less impressive music. We can’t blame Bireli or Babik – the DVD has few details but it seems to be recorded a long time ago in the afternoon in a cafe with a fairly uninterested audience. We can blame the production company for putting this DVD out in 2005 and trying to cash in on Bireli’s fame and Babik’s heritage.
I’m not sure if the Django ‘shuffle’ is its official name but everyone will have heard it on Django Reinhardt recordings – Django takes a solo and when he has finished he starts playing a rhythm behind the next soloist (often Stephane Grapelli) which lifts the whole band and feels as though the pace has suddenly accelerated though the actual time remains steady.
It has taken me a while, and Robin Nolan’s books, to realise what is happening here. The rhythm is still the straight four beats to the bar with accents on the second and fourth beats but instead of two upstrokes a bar, after the second and fourth beats, there are upstrokes after every beat. The difficulty of playing this rhthym, and it does seem very difficult, is to keep the upstrokes light on damped strings whilst letting the notes ring a bit on the first and third beats and whilst putting a strong accent on the second and fourth beats. If any of these elements goes awry, especially if you lose the emphasis on the second and fourth beats, all the swing is lost and it sounds dreadful.
I have found it a little like the patting your head whilst making circles on your tummy type of activity – I can hold it together for a while but then it unravels and is hard to get back again without stopping. I have found that switching my attention between the three elements, focussing on one element at a time, helps to keep it together but it is going to need a lot more practice. One problem I have encountered is the plectrum moving around and being unable to correct this. I use the fabulous Wegen picks favoured by many gypsy jazz guitarists which have a depression for the thumb and deep ridges on either side so there shouldn’t be too much problem with grip. What I think happens with almost all players is that the plectrum is always moving around but we unconsciously rearrange it in our fingers, however the only usual gaps in gypsy jazz rhythm are the two spaces a bar where there aren’t upstrokes and these disappear in the Django shuffle.
One unexpected benefit of practising this rhythm is that when I switch back to standard rhythm it all sounds more swingy than before.
Still following the trail of gyspy jazz guitarists that I have not yet heard I came across Romane, doubtless a well-known musician in France but very few people have heard of him in the UK. I discovered him because he persuaded Tchavolo Schmitt to record his solo CD Alors Voila and played rhythm guitar on it. I have mentioned before their excellent duet which is included as a bonus video clip. I have since bought a few Romane CDs and have been listening to his French Guitar a lot recently.
This CD features an all acoustic line-up with two rhythm guitars, double bass, Romane and a superb young pianist/violinist – Christophe Cravero. What is interesting is the variety of music that can be played with such a band – there is everything from fast bebop heads through to slow ballads and, more surprisingly, funk tunes with the backing guitars playing pitchless rhythms imitating snare drums. It all works very well despite its electicism and many of the tunes are Romane originals.
Today I was practising rhythm guitar with some of Robin Nolan’s playalongs. I was looking at a different harmonisation of Dark Eyes. The chord shapes that I have been using have an A on the 6th string for both the A7 and Dm chords which inadvertently creates a dominant pedal over the first six bars of every chorus whereas we would prefer to reserve such a pedal for occasional use near the climax of a solo. The chord shapes in Robin Nolan’s book are musically much better and also have less of a finger stretch so I won’t wear my left hand out so much during a gig.
The playalong has two Dark Eyes tracks – one at 194 beats per minute and the other at 240 beats per minute. I could manage to play in tempo with both but I noticed that there was a clear threshold between the two. At 194 bpm I could keep in tempo very easily, even with some loose technique such as elbow movement of the right arm. At 240 bpm I could only keep in tempo by using the best technique I have – all movement from the right wrist, no unnecessary movement outside the range of the strings etc. I don’t know whether everyone finds the same thing at around these tempos or whether everyone has a different tempo threshold – what is important is that everyone should find their threshold and practice a lot above it to keep their technique tight and gig-ready.
Now we know how many times during a gig we rhythm guitarists have to tense and release our fretting hand it makes sense to do this with as little effort as possible, so we can still be fresh at the end of the evening and not drag the tempos down. Sometimes, especially on high profile gigs, I find that my left hand is beginning to form a death grip around the guitar neck and the bounce is disappearing from my rhythm. I have now developed a warm-up exercise that gives me great feedback about how much (or little) pressure I do need to exert on the fretboard to play the notes.
I start off by fingering a chord around the fifth or sixth fret (such a Bb maj6/9) but I don’t press down hard enough to make contact with the fretboard. I then start playing a regular four to the bar rhythm pattern with my right hand to produce a rhythmic sound without any pitch. I then slowly increase the presure in my fretting fingers until notes begin to sound on the first and third beat of each bar. I don’t mind if this is rather irregular at first because I am trying to find the minimal amount of pressure that will sound each note in the chord so I will oscillate around the sounding/non-sounding threshold initially. Once I have the first and third beats sounding then I add the shorter louder second and fourth beats. This gives my fingers the feedback they need to know what is the minimal amount of pressure required to produce the sound of the chord.
Of course this pressure varies at different points along the fretboard so you might want to try it at lower and higher frets. I also stop during practice to do this exercise again to make sure that tensions in my left hand haven’t crept up without my notice. Obviously one can’t do that on a gig but my alternative strategy for that environment is to focus on listening to the upstrokes and make sure that they don’t have any musical pitch – indicating that I have released the tension enough at that point.