I first met Joe Pass when I was 16. I went to him for one lesson and then didn’t go back for two years, because I wasn’t ready. I thought I was ready—at that point I’d been playing almost ten years and gigging since I was 14—but in reality I wasn’t. I did go back when I was 18, and could understand a little more of what he was showing me. Joe had such a basic, wonderful approach to finding out where someone was at, as a musician. He’d say, “Let’s play a blues, but only use eighth-notes.” If you play eighth-notes without stopping, the holes are going to show up in your ability to sketch or imply harmony with your lines. By eliminating all vibrato, string bending, rhythmic variation, and fancy ornamentation, there’s nothing to hide behind, no techniques to substitute for harmonic knowledge—or lack thereof. Joe would grade you as a D player, a C player, or a B player. It was tough, but by listening to a few choruses, he knew exactly where I was at harmonically.
It’s a great exercise, and you can do it too. To keep things simple, start with the key of C. Count off a swing blues at a slow tempo and begin working melodically through a 12-bar blues progression, playing a steady stream of eighth-notes. No pauses, no tricks—nothing except relentless melody. This example illustrates how I might navigate the first six bars of a 12-bar blues, a section that spans the I and IV chords. We’ll tackle bars 7-12 in the next lesson. In the meantime, play this melody and try to identify the arpeggios that outline the main changes. Also listen for superimposed arpeggios—the G triad in bar 3 and the Eb triad in bar 5—as well as altered tones, which include Gb (the b5), G# or Ab (the #5), Db (the b9), and Eb (the #9). These colors add dimension to your blues lines, pushing them beyond the standard minor-pentatonic sound.
—As told to Andy Ellis