Play Like Other Instruments

January 30, 2014

And now for something completely different. Okay, maybe not playing like a guitar doesn’t seem very revolutionary by today’s standards considering the wealth of guitarists who fit this bill by regularly venturing far beyond the commonly perceived limitations of the instrument. Jeff Beck’s faux blues-harp wails, bleating car horns, and uncanny “vocalizations;” Adrian Belew’s musical menagerie of seagulls, jungle insects, elephants, rhinos, and modulated feedback solos; David Torn’s SPLaTTeRCeLL sonic soundscapes and microtonal excursions; Steve Vai’s stunt- and speech-guitar antics; the unclassifiable Allan Holdsworth; and, of course, spaceman Jimi Hendrix immediately come to mind. But these are guitar players, and today we’re on the pick for farm-fresh ideas from other instruments.

I was initially drawn to learning stuff from instruments I didn’t really play out of both curiosity and necessity. Back in the days before synths, computers, and sample libraries, cover bands rarely possessed all of the instruments or players needed to recreate every part of a record, so we adapted. Organ and piano players routinely covered horn and string parts as well as keyboard duties, and guitarists were often called on to do the same. This requirement soon led to my studying, performing, and eventually transcribing songs by Todd Rundgren, Gentle Giant, Tower of Power, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and scores of others, all of which spawned not only an obsession, but also a secondary career that has continued to date. Currently, I’d guesstimate that at least 40 to 50 percent of my guitar playing involves adapting parts and techniques from other instruments. In fact, GP editor Mike Molenda once commented after witnessing a Todd Rundgren show that I didn’t play a barre chord all night. That’s not entirely true, but it’s close enough to the point: Why limit one’s musical vocabulary by learning to play music only from guitarists when there’s a whole other world of instruments out there?

Jesse Gress (left) onstage with Todd Rundgren. Note Rundgren’s “Fool” replica SG copy at right.
All of the following examples have been culled from over 40 years of personal experience in almost every imaginable musical setting, including countless past gigs with a slew of hip (and not-so-hip) cover bands and songwriters, more recent shows with Jim Weider’s Project Percolator, Gregg Bendian’s Mahavishnu Project, Jim McCarty, and multiple world tours with Todd Rundgren and the Tony Levin Band, so I can definitely attest that this stuff works. (Plus, I’ve been looking for a way to get Jan Hammer into GP for nearly two decades!) The emphasis here is on playing like other instruments— copping ideas from drum and percussion patterns, saxophone phrasing, tight horn sections, piano-based chord progressions, atmospheric synth pads and ripping leadsynth licks, and singers—without necessarily trying to sound like them.

There are no rules-of-gear this month—no necessary special effects other than a floating tremolo system for one example—just pure playing techniques derived from the aforementioned instruments, so pick up your guitar, plug in to whatever you’ve got handy, and go nuts with every effect you own as we pilfer (err...), plunder (arr!), I mean explore (that’s the ticket!) the vast riches of this brave new world of other instruments and discover what they’ve got to offer us guitarists. First, you’ve gotta...

Time is king. It rules every aspect of our daily lives, and all of the music we learn to play is subject to its laws. Rhythm is time organized by division. It is the glue that binds and shapes melody and harmony and holds together ensembles. Hence, an impeccable sense of time and rhythm is essential for any successful musician. Fortunately, we guitarists have chosen an instrument that puts at our disposal a wide array of percussive sounds that can be used not only in almost any musical context, but also to drill and improve our own rhythmic skills. We’ve all done the wacka-wacka on our muted strings, but have you ever considered utilizing the lower- and upper-register string groups on your ax as a stripped-down, bass-and-snare drum kit? Ex. 1a, which uses “x”-headed C octaves to notate these groupings of approximately three muted strings each, manifests the concept with a funky, one-bar rhythm figure suitable for a wide range of tempos. Use alternating down and upstrokes, keep your wrist loose, accent those backbeats, and get in the groove. (Tip: Try it with a swing-sixteenth feel and add wah to taste.) Ex. 1b shows what happens when you apply the same concept to Hendrix’s choppy “Machine Gun” intro. And speaking of Jimi, Ex. 1c reveals one way the master of time and space locked in his alternating bass notes and signature 7#9 chords with the drums on classics like “Foxy Lady.” Moving into the stratosphere, Ex. 1d simulates a high-pitched Latin percussion part with a reverse clave rhythm played off the fretboard on the high E string. Muting the string anywhere around the virtual 36th fret works fine, but be sure to avoid ringing harmonic nodes. Want to make sax-y time? Then you’ve gotta…

If you’ve ever copped any saxophone licks, you may have discovered how well many of them translate to the guitar. Let’s start with some bebop phrasing à la Charlie “Bird” Parker. When I attended GIT in 1978, the great Joe Diorio taught a Parker bebop class, and the one thing he constantly stressed about phrasing like a sax was the importance of slurring, which includes hammer- ons, pull-offs, slides, and sweep picking. The trick is to find fingerings that organically accommodate these techniques. Bar 1 of Ex. 2a illustrates typical Parker-style phrasing for a reverse Fmaj7 arpeggio-based line, which is played here over a Dm7 II chord. This IV-for-II sub (along with other ones) was pioneered by Parker as a hip way to play off of a chord’s upper extensions. (Tip: Try the same line over G7.) After stating the chord’s 9 (E) on the downbeat, Diorio’s slurring comes into play on beat two, where we sweep across the F-triad triplet using a smooth flow of consecutive upstrokes— think “ooh-blee-ah”—before concluding on beat three with a pair of down/up, swingeighth notes. Cooler still is how raising the same lick a minor third (three frets) yields the altered-tension-laden, V-chord (G7) run in bar 2, and jumping it up another major third (four frets) in bar 3 brings us home to Cmaj7. Play all three bars in sequence and you’ve got a complete II-V-I lick. Ex. 2b’s I-VI-II-V progression, which fits nicely into bars 7 through 10 of a 12-bar bop blues in C, frames many Parker-isms embellished with strategically-placed, Diorio-style hammer- ons, pull-offs, and sweeps. (Note the variation of Ex. 2a in bars 3 and 4.) Never thought of trilling a bent note before? For more bluesy and R&B affairs, drop the flutter- tongued bent trills shown in Ex. 2c into your next funky jam in C or A minor and watch the heads turn. Follow the fingering and picking notation in these examples and a sax-y time will be had by all!

A logical step after becoming versed in a few saxophone techniques is taking on full horn-section parts. I’ve done this with tunes by Chicago, Tower of Power, James Brown, Sly, and many others, and it can be big fun. A good starting point is to take a few typical phrases and harmonize them in various triad inversions. Ex. 3a shows four harmonizations of essentially the same one-bar, R&B-flavored turnaround. The first set of inversions (bar 1) is built below three different top voices. Bar 2 reduces that to two, while bar 3 features a common tone on top of all three chords, and bar 4 offers a slight change in the original harmony. For funkier grooves in F, drop Ex. 3b’s two-bar, Towerof- Power-inspired figure in the slot, and check out how bouncing between chords and bass notes creates a full section effect. The opening E7-F7 slide and final F9 hit in bar 1 capture a brass-and-reeds vibe, while the octave F’s create the impression of a contrapuntal baritone sax line. The fourchord figure in bar 2 was shown to me in 1978 by GIT guru Don Mock (whose licks I still regurgitate regularly), and I’ve been relying on it ever since! Funky sixteenthnote grooves also dominate a good portion of the T.O.P. book, and the tight syncopations depicted in Ex. 3c go a long way in defining what is hip. Here, we reprise the four Mock chords (bar 1), introduce some parallel chromatic motion (bar 2), and add a rhythmically altered Count Basie ending (bar 3). Vootie!

Keyboard styles and techniques offer another important avenue of exploration available to every guitarist. So how does one begin to play like a piano? The most obvious answer is “don’t strum.” Play Ex. 4a as written using either alternate down/ up strumming or consecutive down-strokes, and you’ll hear a very guitar-y version of this Rundgren-esque chord progression. Other than the chord voicings, there’s nothing remotely piano-like about it, right? Now, lose the pick and dig into Ex. 4b, where the same figure has been arranged for fingerstyle guitar. Note how we get a much more piano-y vibe by sustaining the bass notes and attacking the notes of each chord both individually and simultaneously. (Tip: Try applying this technique to Ex. 3a.) Another alternative is to rhythmically break up the chords and bass notes while letting them ring, as shown in Ex. 4c. Got it? Good, ’cause it’s time to…

I began investigating piano techniques because I was attracted to certain songs and liked the idea of being able to cover bass, harmony, and melody at the same time. Of course, jazz and classical guitarists do this all the time, but I was on a different course, intrigued enough by the harmonic structure of dozens of Todd Rundgren’s piano-based tunes to spend considerable time and brainpower translating them to the guitar. Ex. 5a shows the results of one such effort that eventually led to regularly performing the song with its composer beginning some 20 years later! This intro to the aptly titled “Lucky Guy” (from Hermit of Mink Hollow) combines classical piano technique with Todd’s clever signature suspensions, which, in this case, are formed by playing a descending B major scale beneath a repetitive, one-bar eighth-note figure. Suss out the chord fingerings, which change every two beats, and gradually work it up to tempo. (I later re-harmonized the song in a bossa nova style.) One of TR’s most exquisite compositions was birthed as incidental organ music for a funeral scene in the TV series Crime Story and eventually appeared in orchestrated form as “Kindness” on 1991’s Second Wind. The six-bar chord sequence transcribed in Ex. 5b appears in both the intro and verses, and features almost every Todd suspension in the book, including the legendary “T chord,” which appears in bar 2 as Gadd4, but was originally conceived as a third-less Cmaj7. They’re stretchy for guitarists, but studying T.R.’s piano voicings proved invaluable for me, and I urge you to do the same with your favorite keyboard players. But piano isn’t the only keyboard out there. Have you ever tried to…

As one of his biggest fans, I’ve always been in awe of Jan Hammer’s ability to transcend his instrument and sound at times like the most amazing guitar player on the planet. In an ironic bit of reverse engineering, let’s investigate how the world’s foremost synth god crafts licks that outgun the world’s greatest guitarists—even on their best day. Decorated with select, organic bends, Examples 6a and 6b exhibit the type of Eastern Indian-influenced A Mixolydian runs and motifs that often turn up in Hammer’s compositions and improvisations. Ex. 6c features fluttery bent trills (played in the same manner as Ex. 2c) applied to three different qualities of A-based chords—a personal favorite. Moving to B minor, Ex. 6d recalls a snippet of Hammer’s solo on “Stratus,” from Billy Cobham’s seminal fusion album Spectrum. We begin with two bars of upper-register, B pentatonic-based riffing—highlighted by a whopping major-third bend (that’s four frets!) and some wide intervallic jumps— before dropping into open position and playing a D pentatonic minor-based ostinato for two more measures. The cool rule here is you can create hip, outside sounds by playing pentatonic minor lines a minor third (3 frets) above the root of any minor seventh chord, (Tip: Follow up with any Bm7-based line to back inside the tonality.) Hammer’s no slouch on the piano, either, and his compressed Fender Rhodes tones permeate much of his catalog, including Ex. 6e’s take on the spacey, impressionistic intro figure that segues into a funky verse groove on “Full Moon Boogie” (from Like Children and Jeff Beck Live with the Jan Hammer Group). But Hammer time’s not over just yet. You’ve still gotta…

The bar line, that is. Hammer’s stupendous leadsynth work is inexorably tied to his exceptional drumming chops, something you’ll find evident in the septet of polyrhythmic 3/4 hemiolas illustrated in Ex. 7a. The idea here is to play each phrase—which has also been designed to illustrate Hammer’s notorious “string” bends applied to the A pentatonic minor and A Mixolydian scales—four times over the course of three measures of 4/4 time, at which point it recycles and starts over. (Tip: Bend toward the floor in bar six and then try all of these moves over Dm7, Em7, or Fmaj7.) Ex. 7b provides the seed for you to transform the same moves into a pair of quintuplets played in 5/8 time. (Fact: Every song on the Jan Hammer Group’s Oh Yeah? album is in a different time signature. Yow!) Let’s change our plan of attack and…

When it comes to simulating brass- and woodwindsection swells, or creating synth-y string lines and pads, your volume control or pedal is your best friend. Volume swells can be used to vary the attack time of simple single-note lines like the one in Ex. 8a—based on the faux-synth part I play on Todd Rundgren’s “Flaw” from Liars—or in a more complex manner by adding softly tapped or aggressively slapped harmonics to the equation. Ex. 8b shows how I would adapt a flute-and-soft-brass synth figure from Todd’s “Healing Pt.1” to the guitar, though I actually played the part on keyboards on tour. Memorize the chord shapes, and, with your volume down, tap each harmonic node 12 frets higher and fade in to taste. (Tip: At slower tempos, try tapping slightly ahead of the beat.) Slant your tapping finger to conform to the angle of the chord shape whenever necessary. You may not get every note to sound as a harmonic, but you’ll get most of them. (Tip: Add some compression, delay and/or reverb, and try this technique with Ex.5b.) On the other hand, you’ll want to crank the gain up to “11” for Ex. 8c, which documents the nonswelled, Bm, Em/B, and Asus4 voicings that I furiously slapped 12 frets above each chord shape to create a swirling maelstrom of harmonic chime and feedback for the intro to the Tony Levin Band’s “Pieces of the Sun” (from Pieces of the Sun and Double Espresso). But to truly make your guitar sing, you’ve gotta…

Okay, it took a brilliant English guitarist to figure out, but manipulating your ax’s natural harmonics with your volume control or pedal and a whammy bar is probably the closest you’re ever going to get when it comes to approximating the purity of the word-less female voice. In preparation, Ex. 9a diagrams a descending A Mixolydian scale played entirely with natural harmonics located between the 3rd and 5th frets on the bottom four strings. Get to know it. In honor of Jeff Beck’s “Where Were You” (from Guitar Shop), which was inspired by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Ex. 9b presents a challenging exercise designed to develop precise intonation and facility for bending and shaping harmonics into melodic fragments over A7, the V chord in the key of D. (Fact: A floating tremolo is essential.) Each five-note motif is generated from a single harmonic. Continue this melodic sequence beginning on each of the remaining four scale tones, and then try out any of these moves over various chords harmonically related to the key of D, like Bm7, Em7, and Gmaj7. You’ll like what you hear. So what’s left?

Finally, if there’s really one thing you’ve gotta do to not play like a guitar, it’s playing like two guitars! Do a little homework and you’ll find that it’s not as hard as you might think to play twopart, harmonized melodies all by yourself. Back in 1997, I had the honor and pleasure of recording and co-arranging Todd Rundgren’s With a Twist album, which featured select T.R. standards re-cast in a bossa nova/ exotica vein. One particular challenge was to adapt Todd’s electric “I Saw the Light” solo (from Something/Anything?) to nylonstring acoustic without losing the flavor of the original. The first half of the original solo was a single-note line, and the second half was harmonized in thirds. My solution was to re-harmonize the first four bars of Todd’s original solo over a bossa-fied Bm9- E13-C#m7b5-F#7#5 progression and play it chord-melody-style, and then follow up with Ex. 10, a virtual note-for-note reading of the harmony portion of the original with a slightly twisted ending. It took a couple of days to master, but the effort proved well spent when we began playing the song live in both full band and duo settings. During recent T.R. tours, I’ve been covering both parts of the harmonized fills and solos on “Love of the Common Man” (from Faithful) and “Courage” (from Arena). Now get to work and figure out a few harmonized solos of your own—I’ll be listening for your one-guitar version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” I hope you had as much fun with this edition of 10 Things as I did. Keep those ears open and I’ll see you on the road or at!

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