THE EAST COAST HAD LES PAUL. Perhaps the West Coast’s answer to the guitar kingpin was Jimmy Wyble. Wyble, who passed away January 16, 2010, was nowhere near as famous as Paul—he didn’t have a namesake guitar played by legions of guitarists across the globe, and he didn’t usher in the age of overdubbing—but he had a lot in common with the man. For one, Wyble was of the same generation. Born just six-and-a-half years after Paul, Wyble had a career that lasted well into his 87th year. And, as was the case with Paul, the guitar seemed to keep him young, as he played guitar and taught GIT students at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, up until six months before his death. Secondly, having worked with everyone from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and Benny Goodman to Barney Kessel and Frank Sinatra, Wyble, like Paul, had a storied career. The biggest thing that he had in common with Paul, though, was that he was a true innovator.
“All it takes is one listen to Jimmy’s recordings to realize what a creative genius the man was,” says GIT instructor and Wyble disciple David Oakes. A brilliant fingerstylist in his own right, Oakes not only continues to teach Wyble’s beloved GIT class, The Art of Two-Line Improvisation, he also performed all of the mind- bogglingly contrapuntal Wyble pieces on the CD that accompanies Wyble’s Mel Bay instructional book of the same name. Best of all, Oakes has made many of Wyble’s rare recordings, transcriptions, and lessons downloadable for free on his website, davidoakesguitar.com.
“What was amazing about Jimmy was that he was not only able to play completely contrapuntally, with simultaneous lines moving in opposite directions, but he could improvise contrapuntally, too,” continues Oakes. “He could pull all that stuff off on the fly. When Jimmy first started exploring this kind of thought, there was no method or pedagogy for playing and improvising with two lines on the guitar. He developed it all himself.”
The Wyble approach starts with the major scale. “All Jimmy was ever taught was that scale,” says Oakes. “So when he lowered the 3 a half-step, no one told him that that was the melodic minor scale, or if he instead raised the 4 a half-step, no one told him that he had stumbled on the Lydian mode. He was before all that. He came up in the ’30s and ’40s. That terminology didn’t really come into the mainstream of jazz education until the late ’50s and early ’60s.”
Jimmy’s first tool for exploring twoline contrapuntal playing—an approach he didn’t truly develop until the ’70s—was a morphed version of the major scale: 1, 2, b3, #4, #5, 6, 7—or C, D, Eb, F#, G#, A, B, in the key of C. “It has a real diminished sound,” says Oakes. “He had an outside kind of ear, an ear that was always geared toward finding something more dissonant than typical melodic fare.”
Starting on the simpler side and increasing in complexity, Examples 1 through 6 serve up several Wyble exercises that can help a guitarist build two-line technique. “The pedaled F# in Ex. 1 seves as the upper voice.” says Oakes, “and, if you play fingerstyle, the plucking-hand fingering is shown between the staves. By example 3, the approach is getting a little more intricate, because you have to re-finger the pedaled note. Jump to the last example, and you see an obvious X pattern. That’s created by the scale being played ascending and descending at the same time in both voices and crossing in complete counterpoint.
“These are some of the most misunderstood exercises in the history of the guitar. A lot of people are like, ‘How is this going to make me a better improviser? Can I use this when I improvise?’ The answer is yes, but maybe not with these actual notes. One of Jimmy’s main goals was developing the harmonic awareness, efficiency, and technique necessary to hear and play notes and lines in two voices. In that respect, these exercises are not actual improvisational devices. The obvious thing they teach you is how to move a line in the bass against another line up top. You’re being taught the art of counterpoint, and all the re-fingering it requires.”
MIX IT UP
Having multiple Wyble exercises is handy, especially if you follow one of the great teacher’s favorite pieces of advice: Never practice the same thing two days in a row. “Jimmy had boundless energy for music, and he inspired countless people at Musicians Institute to open up their thinking about the guitar,” says Oakes. “There was probably never a person who met him who didn’t walk away feeling like he’d made a good friend. Jimmy was an absolute giant of jazz, but never carried that around with him. He was a truly humble, loving man, and I never met anybody who wasn’t completely moved by his graciousness and by the way he lived his life.”