Guitar versus clarinet part 2

September 22, 2006

In my first discussion of the differences between playing the guitar and clarinet my conclusions seemed to be that in many ways the guitar was physically easier to play but more difficult to produce coherent improvisations simply because it was easier to play, for example semitone modulations in a tune could be accommodated with no more consideration than sliding up or down a fret. Some further time playing the clarinet has made me revise this assessment to conclude that it is more difficult to play inventive and well-structured improvisations on the guitar simply because it is more difficult to play.

The reason for this difficulty is the duplication of notes on the guitar fretboard. On a clarinet if I want to play a middle C there is only one possible fingering so there is an indivisible link between the sound of middle C and that fingering, and this can be reinforced by many different practice techniques. If I had perfect pitch (which I don’t have by a distance of many light years) then with some practice I could play any note on the clarinet that I heard without having to worry about the fingerings (there are a few alternative fingerings on the bottom keys but we can ignore that for the moment).

On a guitar there are many ways to play a middle C. 1st fret on the B string, 5th fret on the G string, 10th fret on the D string and 15th fret on the A string. Each of those notes could be fretted using one of four left hand fingers giving a total of 16 different fingerings! Mick Goodrick, in his thoughtful book The Advancing Guitarist, has likened playing the guitar to playing 6 chromatic keyboards offset to each other by intervals of a fifth except of course between the G and B string when it is a fourth. This makes it very difficult to establish any clear link between the pitch of a note and its fingering on the guitar and may account for much of the mind-numbingly boring jazz guitar that is played using a limited repertoire of licks in fixed patterns based on strict positional (i.e. across the fretboard rather than up and down it) playing.

Interestingly the techniques used in gypsy jazz guitar seem to get round this problem by using a limited range of strings and fingerings because the techniques are much more based on movement up and down the fretboard rather than across it. We know that Django could only use two of his left hand fingers and most current players seem to use only three for the vast majority of time so that immediately reduces the fingering possibilities by at least 25%. On the acoustic gypsy jazz guitar many notes, though theoretically possible such as a middle C on the 15th fret of the A string, are not practical either through lack of access to the fretboard or more likely insufficient volume to cut through the sound of the rhythm guitar. This has lead to techniques with big movements up and down the fretboard using usually the highest available string for the note required which gives far more chance of establishing a firm relationship between that note and its fingering. Perhaps this is why much gypsy jazz guitar sounds so much more structured and purposeful than many fully electric jazz guitar recordings?

One area where the guitar holds a massive advantage over the clarinet, or any other wind instrument, is the relationship between relative pitch of notes and their fingering. On the guitar I know that if I play one note on any string and another note two frets higher on the string above (with the exception of the G/B string combination) then those notes will produce an interval of a perfect fifth. On the clarinet there is no clear relationship between fingering and interval, especially when moving between the upper and lower registers which overblows by a twelfth rather than the octave that saxophones and flutes do. I am not sure of guitarists can take full advantage of this property when playing at fast tempos but when listening to gypsy jazz guitarists playing ballads you can often hear them ‘stretching’ for a note which they know is there to be played but which lies outside any usual pattern that they use. A great example of this is the beginning of Lolo Meier’s solo on ‘I surrender dear’ where he takes a little motif and shifts the second note of the repetition of the motif up to accommodate the underlying chord change and to construct a very melodic phrase.


Playing the clarinet and guitar – analogies and differences

September 22, 2006

We are on holiday in France for a couple of weeks and there wasn’t room to bring a guitar (nor any necessity since I don’t have a gig immediately on our return) so I brought my clarinet instead. I had some classical training on the clarinet as a teenager but have not played it consistently since, a period of some 30 years, and have never developed a jazz vocabulary on it. Although I haven’t made much progress during this short holiday the process has revealed some interesting analogies and differences with playing guitar.

The first and most obvious difference is the sheer physicality of playing a wind instrument. Picking up the clarinet again after such a long absence revealed the effort of making any sound apart from a squeak or a wheeze. Even with weak reeds I can only play it for a maximum of 15 minutes without my lip and palatal muscles reaching overload failure, and of course the length of every phrase is dependent on the amount of breath I have. This contrasts strongly with the relative ease that sound can be produced from a guitar, the length of time it can be played and the lack of any physical restraint on the length of phrase. This difference can produce some musical deficiencies in guitarists – because they don’t have to work hard for every note they can sometimes play too many notes without much musical direction. Glaring examples of this occurred when guitarists translated bebop phrases onto the fully electric guitar with its relatively flat sound due to lack of upper harmonics (a function of flat wound strings and amplifiers with a mid-range bias). There are many very dull recordings of guitarists running through endless bebop licks with no breaks between them, I won’t name the culprits as 75% of jazz guitar CDs exhibit this. I think that gypsy jazz guitar playing has less tendency to this because the acoustic nature of the instruments, with relatively high string action and thick heavy plectra, do make it more of a physical effort to play, and the arpeggiated nature of many gypsy jazz phrases ensures a rapid movement up and down the fretboard and a phrase has to end due to the lack of any further higher or lower notes.

I have been learning the Django tune ‘Daphne’ on the clarinet which has an A section in the key of E major (when transposed for a Bb instrument such as the clarinet) and a B section a semitone higher in F major. On the guitar the transition between the A and B sections can be very simple – just slide up a fret with the same fingering for most of the tune and any improvisation. On the clarinet it is very different, only two notes are common to both scales (E and A) so the fingering of five notes in the scale have to change with the transition. The E major and F major scales feel completely different to play, the E major scale uses lots of side keys to sharpen the notes whereas the F major scale is the ‘natural’ scale of the Bb clarinet so doesn’t use any side keys, just the open fingerholes. The semitone shift upwards or downwards is a powerful musical device which can be readily perceived by almost any listener whether they have any musical training or not, it give the music a real lift. However the difference in feel on the guitar is not very great if one just shifts up a fret. Perhaps a better way to approach fingering these sections would be to use the same finger on the same fret for the common notes E and A and move the other notes. This should produce the same sensation as the clarinet fingering – I will try it out when I next have a guitar in my hands.

My final observation, at the moment, is the way in which one’s listening focus changes when playing a different instrument. One might imagine that one would listen to music in an even-handed sort of way giving equal attention to all the instruments, or the ensemble as a whole. In reality this is very rarely the case and each listener will have a very different focus when listening to music. For people who don’t play instruments this focus will presumably be selected by sounds that they have found to be to their liking in the past. In many ways the best way to listen to a piece of music might be as a completely naïve listener who cannot even distinguish between the sounds of different instruments – in that way the whole ensemble could be appreciated without any preconceived focus. Unfortunately for instrumentalists listening to music often occurs in a highly focussed and rather conscious manner listening to the instrument which one plays to see what the player is ‘doing’. It was very interesting for me to see how quickly this focus can shift. When listening to gypsy jazz recordings I generally focus on the guitars, and often the rhythm guitar since that is my predominant mode of playing. After only 2 days of playing scales on the clarinet I found myself picking out the clarinet on any gypsy jazz recording on which it is present and hearing nuances of phrasing and tone that I hadn’t perceived before. It has made me even more impressed by some modern gypsy jazz clarinettists especially Andre Donni on Lolo Meier’s Hondarribia recording.