Phil Upchurch - Guitar Heroes A-Z

Chicago-born guitarist and bassist Phil Upchurch has been backing jazz, blues, and pop stars for over 50 years. What magic formula has allowed him to record and perform with everyone from Otis Rush and Donny Hathaway to George Benson and Michael Jackson? Aside from Upchurch’s immense talent and versatility, it also has to do with the fact that the guitarist is very detail oriented—particularly when it comes to rhythmic and melodic phrasing. Whether comping or soloing, Upchurch thinks like a drummer and always plays with and not on top of the band. “If you listen to [drummer] Philly Joe Jones’ snare, you can get a lot of ideas for rhythmic comping on the guitar,” offers Upchurch, who also points to Miles Davis—with his masterful blend of sustained notes and silence—as essential listening for all aspiring jazzers. Upchurch says that, like Davis, a great soloist must practice mindful interaction with the band, knowing exactly when and when not to play.

Most phrasing in Western music can be divided into two- or four-measure segments, and the phrase below is no exception. First, sing or tap its rhythms and observe how the two main statements develop over a span of four bars. Notice the hole left at the end of measure 2—this gap (starting on beat three) might elicit a bass drum “bomb” or quick piano jab on the upbeat to set up the next phrase. Now, play the example on guitar. Like many Upchurch lines, these contain a healthy mix of melodic shapes to keep things interesting. In the first measure, Upchurch descends a four-note Am arpeggio (contained within Fmaj9). In bar 4, he lands on an octave-displaced Ebmaj7 (superimposed over Cm7) that resolves to A, the 3 of F7.