Hey Jazz Guy,
I’m always playing one line. How can I get
started playing counterpoint? –One at a Time
Playing multiple lines and counterpoint
is certainly one of the coolest things to
do on a guitar. It can literally add another
dimension to your playing. A lot of what
we know about this musical concept comes
from licks like the opening to “Stairway to
Heaven,” where there is a counterpoint [Ex.
1] between the highest and lowest notes.
However, with a deeper understanding of
traditional counterpoint, we can really take
it to the next level in a jazz and rock setting.
There are fairly specific rules in traditional
counterpoint governing intervals and which
notes to choose, such as not using parallel
fifths. Though there are fewer harmonic
rules in jazz counterpoint, it is important
to understand the origin of these concepts.
This is a heavy topic in itself, and certainly
recommended study to improve your contrapuntal
abilities. For the sake of our first
few examples, these traditional rules will
be heeded for the most part.
In classical music, two-note counterpoint
is broken down into different categories,
primarily based on the ratio of the
rhythms. If we use a 1:1 ratio of top note
to bottom note, this is called first species
counterpoint as in Ex. 2. In Ex. 3 there is
a 2:1 ratio between the top note and the
bottom note; this is called second species
counterpoint. For demonstration purposes,
we are keeping the bottom line the same.
Naturally following second species is
the third species counterpoint that we see
in Ex. 4, which equates to using a 4:1 or
3:1 ratio between the lines. Fourth species
counterpoint, like in Ex. 5, basically breaks
down to a 1:1 ratio, offset so that there
are suspensions created between the lines
and each line attacks a note separately, as
opposed to simultaneously (as in first species).
Finally, we get to use all these rhythm
ratios in a free-for-all in Ex. 6, and we call
this fifth species counterpoint.
Once we take away the classical harmonic
restrictions and think from the perspective
of chord changes, we can apply
these concepts to jazz. Ex. 7 is a line that
connects the 7 to the 5 of F7 chromatically
while sustaining the F, giving us a little
third species lick.
We play through chord tones contrapuntally
in Ex. 8 and generate some interesting
interval combinations. If we then
open ourselves to chromatic lines, we can
get some spectacularly modern sounding
dual lines, jumping between wide and small
intervals, as in Ex. 9. Interestingly enough,
this is usually avoided in traditional counterpoint,
making it all the more contemporary
when used in a jazz context.
It is also important to remember that
not all counterpoint has to be double-stops,
such as the line in Ex. 10 that contrasts a
descending top note with a motif underneath.
Lastly, we combine these various techniques and species to create Ex. 11, a
sequence through a turnaround. Here we
use motion on top and on the bottom, along
with a variety of species and rhythms. In
bar 2, starting on the second half of beat
one, the intervals gradually get wider to create an effect. We stick mostly to chord
tones with this example, but the possibilities
are infinite. Counterpoint is one of the
best ways to really elevate your music to the
next level, and will improve your soloing
as well as your chordal and unaccompanied
playing. We have only focused on two-note
counterpoint, but three and four are possible
as well! So start slow, and gradually
put the notes and rhythms together. It may
even help to write them out so you can see
the motion of the lines. Jazz hard, because
your one-at-a-time life ends today.
Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the
non-jazz world. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jake’s latest release is