New - Play-a-long Tracks

While playing with other people is by far the best possible way to practice and improve, it can be hard to do all of your practice in public or at least with other people listening. Play-a-long tracks, whether in the Music-Minus-One or Jamey Abersold variety, are limited in their effectiveness because there is no give-and-take. Still, they can be helpful when woodshedding a new tune or trying to get your head around some changes.

But, the biggest problem with the current commercially available options, Abersold, etc. is the rhythm section playing. There is nothing even remotely resembling a pre-bebop swing rhythm section anywhere. Personally, I find it very difficult to achieve the sounds I'm going for in when playing along with a band that is rhythmically and harmonically incompatible.  

Eventually, I think I will probably record and release a proper album of play-a-long tracks with the Campus Five's rhythm section, but for now, how about some guitar-only rhythm tracks to practice with?

I've used the tracks at for years, but I find the "Le Pompe" feel they have makes me play much more Django-y, and while I do enjoying playing that way, I have a hard time expressing more "american" ideas when playing over such a backing. 

A word of advice on using play-a-long tracks, i find it helpful to play the melody of the song before diving into soloing over the changes. Often times the melody helps make sense of any interesting changes, and can lend insight to possible melodies and voice-leading, rather than mechanically running through the changes. I've provided three choruses on each track so you'll have space to play the melody before having two whole choruses to develop ideas over. 

Here are four tunes: All of Me, Limehouse Blues, Rosetta, and Tea for Two:

All of me - playalong by campusfive

Limehouse Blues - playalong by campusfive

  Rosetta - playalong by campusfive

Tea for Two - playalong by campusfive

And just for the heck of it, here are a couple takes of me playing over the tracks. FYI, all of these were recorded with my new Blue Yeti microphone - I specifically got it to facilitate recording stuff for the blog, examples, lessons, etc. The guitar is my Eastman AR805 with Martin SP 80/20 strings and a 2.5mm Wegen Pick. 

All of me - playalong with lead by campusfive

Limehouse Blues - playalong with lead by campusfive

Rosetta - playalong and lead by campusfive

Reader Mail: The Four-Beat Ideal vs. Rhythmic Variation (Part 1)

[in the interests of actually putting content up more often, rather than being so precious about it, I've split this up into two articles, and I'm gonna have to add the example clips soon, rather than waiting for them to be ready before I post this.]

YoungWoo Joh, from Orlando, FL recently sent me an email asking me about the interaction of rhythm guitar and piano. Specifically, he was wondering how not having a piano would, could or should change what he does as a rhythm guitarist in his band (the instrumentation of which is clarinet/sax, trombone, guitar, bass, washboard and vocals). He writes: 

 "I had originally just been chunking through the changes (a la 4/4 rhythm guitar), but I've come to feel that lacking both a piano and third horn makes it feel like something is missing. In response to this, I've made my (guitar) playing a little more rhythmically creative, though always going back to the 4/4 as the basic rhythm. In addition to that, I've slowly been working up my chordal vocabulary (inversions and extensions) in order to imply movement and for the occasional fill.

The thing is that all of this is sort of being done experimentally, and I was hoping you could give me a little more insight on what else I could be doing on guitar to help fill out the sound." 

Let's see if any of this helps….


The Four-Beat Idea vs. Musical Reality

The four-beat pulse of Swing is an essential and defining characteristic, differentiating it from earlier and later forms of jazz. Rhythm guitar is one the three instruments in a band that is (generally) solely devoted to this pulse (along with the string bass, and and the bass drum). I've argued in the past that the firm foundation of that pulse, is what makes syncopation in swing music really POP and stand out. So serving that goal is the primary mission.
That being said, the reality is that no rhythm guitarist is without occasional rhythm variation. Whether added 8th note shuffles here and there, or more specific rhythmic figures (either in concert with figures in the band, or in contrast to them), these are all part of playing musically, rather than technically or mechanically. 
In the gypsy-jazz tradition, for example, the standard comping pattern, "le pompe" has 8th note shuffles by default ("a-short, LONG, a-short, LONG" or "a-one, TWO, a-three, FOUR"). Moreover, Django himself often played very distinctive rhythm counterpoint to what's going on in the band. [example "World is Waiting for the Sunrise" 1949]
In the American tradition, playing so boldly was much less common. But guitarists like Al Casey in Fats Waller's band can be heard playing accents and variations. [EXAMPLE]

Just because you can, does that mean you should?

If we take service to the four-beat pulse as our prime directive, then generally it is wise to concentrate on that pulse, and eschew additional accents. 
That said, I think rhythmic accents and variations in service of being musical are important and welcome, so long as they do not distract or detract from the beat. The problem comes when there is too much variation, or when variations and accents just aren't musical. The key factors are the number and kind of instruments in the band, and the rhythmic figures being played elsewhere. 
The more instruments there are in the band, the less room there is for rhythmic variation. For example, in the American Swing-Rhythm Guitar tradition, you find a consistent emphasis on the straight four beat rhythm than the gypsy-jazz tradition. Generally the american rhythm guitarists of note were found in bigger bands, not quartets and quintets. 
But even in smaller groups, american rhythm guitarists had much less rhythmic variation than in the gypsy jazz tradition. But of course, in the american tradition it was pretty uncommon to see more than one guitarist in the band. Django almost always had at least one, but often two rhythm guitar players in his bands beside himself. I would argue that Django was free to comp so wildly because the beat was being so firmly established by the other guitarist(s). 
So with more instruments in the band there is less room for rhythm variation, though in a small group, having multiple guitar players can free up one to add accents without the same fear of losing the beat. 

Coming up next...

So in part 2, I'll pick up with hitting musical accent figures with the band, and talk about interacting with YoungWoo's particular instrumentation in the next installment. 


Rhythm Guitar Posture: Yes, it makes a difference.

Playing acoustic rhythm guitar can be challenging acoustically. Getting the most acoustic potential out of your guitar is one way to make playing a lot easier. Playing an acoustic guitar helps, as does avoiding things like floating pickups that touch and weigh down the top. Suffice it to say that allowing your guitar to resonate as freely as possible is key.

Aside from spending money a nicer guitar, or removing things that dampen the top, or getting better amplification, there is one very simple thing you can do to improve the resonance and projection of your instrument: change your posture.

If you look at photos of Allan Reuss and Freddie Green, both of them have a similar playing position, and that should tell you something! Both cross their left leg over right, and sit the guitar on their left leg, with the guitar angled back, so that the back of the guitar doesn't touch anything. The neck is angled up a bit, too. This position accomplishes a couple things. 1) Such posture allows the top and back of the guitar to resonate freely. 2) Tilting the guitar up helps the player to hear better as well as project a bit further. And 3), the neck position is a bit more comfortable for playing the chords as well. I've looked at many pictures of Freddie, and his legs might have been different depending on the situation and also I think the size of the guitar, but the angle was always there. In his later years, the angle became more and more extreme, until the guitar was almost parallel to the ground.

Here's some photographic evidence:

Freddie Green has the guitar angled out so that the back doesn't touch his body. Charlie has his guitar in a more conventional position, but still angled a bit.

If you absolutely must: making electric guitar work for Swing Rhythm

Electric guitars do not work for Swing Rhythm Guitar.

Let me say that again. Electric guitars DO NOT work for Swing Rhythm Guitar.

Amplified electric guitars have way too much sustain, plus they overamplify bass strings. What you end up with is mud, and not the crispness of an acoustic archtop. That inherent lack of sustain is part and parcel of getting properly short notes. Plus, the overemphasis on bass frequencies makes the possibility of playing too loud almost impossible to avoid.

But sometimes, even for a total rhythm guitar geek like me, you have no choice. Here is the best possible advice I can give for making the best of it.

Making Electric Guitar Work for Swing Rhythm

1. Roll down the volume knob

When playing acoustically, you would generally be hiting the strings fairly hard. Roll the volume knob down so that you can play as hard as you normally would, without being to loud for the band. Basically you want to avoid altering your right hand technique as much as possible, so change up the amount of signal going to the amp.

2. Consider rolling off some of the bass

Depending on the situation, you may not be able to do this but, rolling off some of the bass frequencies of the amp can be helpful. Electric guitars and amps over amplify bass frequencies - it's one of the things that makes electric guitars sound, well, "electric." Since you are trying to ape an acoustic sound as much as possible.

Generally, if I'm stuck playing rhythm on an electric guitar, it's because I'm playing mostly lead guitar all night. In that setting, I wouldn't want to compromise the lead tone, so I just make due.

3. Emphasize the D and G strings, and avoid the low E and A strings

I have in the past emphasized and urged the use of classic three-note Allan Reuss voicings. As I may have mentioned previously, there is something out there called the "one note theory" - which holds that after the Swing-era, Freddie Green leaned heavily on single-note and two-note voicings, on the D and G strings. These evolved from playing standard 3 note voices and leaving out the bass note.

I'm prefer to stick to three-note voicings normally, but switching to two-note voicings is a great workaround for the bass frequency problem.

UPDATE: Here's a simple example of how to change 3-note voicings to 2-note voicings just by leaving out the bass note:

Swing Time Feel: Rhythm Guitar Technique

Hopefully you’ve read the last post about Swing-Era Time-Feel, and if not, stop and go read it and listen to the examples first. Ok, now that we have that out of the way, today’s post will be focused on the left-hand and right-hand technique necessary to achieve the right sound for Swing-Era Rhythm Guitar

The sound

As we discussed in the last post, the unique rhythmic feel of the swing-era involves the chunky, pumping, four-beat rhythm.


It’s important that each note be separate and distinct from the next. Short, fat little round notes. But, you don’t want them to be so short as to be choked.

Left Hand Technique

The left hand is the most important part of the equation, since the left hand is responsible for how long fretted notes ring. You’ll want to “pump” your fingers for each beat; pressing down only as much as is necessary for notes to sound, and releasing only as much as is necessary to mute the strings. Your fingers will never completely leave the strings.


Notice how each note is even, and there is no particular accents. There is clear separation between each note, but the notes were not choked, or stunted.

Right Hand Technique

Picking technique is also important. You’ll want to avoid emphasizing the low E string, because it can easy buzz against the fretboard if you hit hard. Rather, you should emphasize the D and G strings. These notes do the real work, anyway. As far as picking position, there are two schools of thought. Some prefer to just strum away over the end of the fretboard, basically where a neck pickup would be, if you had one. See, just look where Freddie Green is pickin':

Others alternate between the neck pickup area on beats 1 and 3, and the bridge pickup area on beats 2 and 4. I generally strum in the neck position, because I like to really keep the beats even, however I will alternate if there is a really heavy shout chorus, and I want to even further accentuate the back beat.

Guitar selection

A quick note on guitar selection. Much of the sound signature sound of swing-era rhythm guitar is tied to the instruments used – the acoustic archtop. Acoustic archtops have just the right amount of sustain, so getting the right time-feel is second nature. Selmer-style “Django” guitars come in at close second, and then flattop acoustics. Electric guitars, even hollow-bodied ones will have way too much sustain when plugged-in and amplified through an electric guitar amplifier. In a pinch, it can be done on a hollow-body electric, but there you will have to change up your technique a bit to compensate. More on that particular problem to follow.

*By the way I'm just playing a I-vi-iiV7 pattern in Bb, and my strings are kinda dead.

Rhythm: Three note chords - Why?

Because of a comment on another post, I realized that I hadn't cover why the classic swing rhythm guitar voicings are three notes.

Consider the rhythm guitarist in a swing band: Allan Reuss in Goodman's Band, Freddie Green in Basie's, etc. It's you and your acoustic archtop versus 10 to 13 horns. You have to cut through and still provide the pulse. The answer is a three note chord.

While it might seem counter-intuitive that playing less notes will be heard better than more notes, but you have to think about being a knife. In a big band, the bass player, bass drum, the trombones and the left hand of the piano are below you, and the trumpets, saxes, cymbals, and the right hand of the piano are above you. In between all of these voices is a small notch - that's where the rhythm guitar goes. By filling that notch, and not trying to play any other notes, you're acting as knife, slicing through the mix.

If you play higher and lower notes, they'll just get lost in the mix of the other instruments. But the notes (especially on the D and G strings) can cut through the band. Think of that space as a hole in enemy lines - you need to get a small special forces squad through unnoticed, not try to cram a battalion through. Playing more notes in a big band just muddies things up. It blunts the rhythmic impact (which is really the primary thing), and it results in a lot of wasted effort.

Acoustic archtop guitars happen to have their natural peak in the mid-range on the D and G strings, between the 5th and 10th frets - basically prime rhythm guitar chord territory. By focusing on that region, you get the best return on your efforts.

When people talk about Freddie Green playing only or two note chords, he would basically be fingering the classic three note voices, but not fully pushing down the bass string, and/or or the G string. He would be focusing on the D and G strings for the maximum punch and cut.

I generally stick to the classic three note voicings for 90% of playing. Sometimes, in a bigger band, I'll drop the bass string. And sometimes, in a trio setting, I might add a fourth note, but I also might not. By focusing on only playing those three notes, it is also easier to check the rhythmic snap needed for the style.

Swing Harmony: Turnarounds, Vamps and Line Cliches - Part 1, Major Turnarounds

Turnarounds and line cliches are both common chord sequences in Swing Harmony, and can be found in numerous songs. Each sequence contains an ascending or descending line, often voiced in the bass. From a rhythm guitar standpoint, it’s important to get them under your fingers, because they come up often, and they come up fast when sight reading.

Major I-IV Turnaround

Most commonly found in songs based on the chords to “I Got Rhythm”, the I-IV turnaround can also be found at the end of some blues songs, and sprinkled in several traditional jazz standards. The sequence is a fancy way of moving from a I chord to the IV and back. Both the ascending and descending versions have the same chords except for the transition chord from the IV chord back to the I chord (a #ivº in the ascending / a iv minor in the descending). Both the ascending and descending versions are used interchangeably, and sometimes by musicians in the same band at the same time – even though, technically, the #ivº and iv conflict. But, hey, that’s jazz.


In either case, from a rhythm guitar perspective, the turnaround can be approached as static chords, or using walking chords. Here are examples of both:

Ascending and Descending I-IV Turnarounds (PDF)

The examples are in a couple different keys, so that you can see in the shapes in different positions.

BOOK: Masters of the Plectrum Guitar

The pre-bebop styles of block-chord solos and solo guitar chord melody are almost completely lost arts. There are few living practitioners, and few resources to learn from. However, there is one book out there which is still in print that provides a great deal of insight, as well as a multitude of transcriptions:

Masters of the Plectrum Guitar (Mel Bay)

Transciptions of Eddie Lang, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, George M. Smith, Carmen Mastren, and Tony Mattola, as well as couple duet pieces. Modern technology also provides you the opportunity to check out the book before you by it at Google Books.

Masters of the Plectrum Guitar (Google Books Preview)

I particularly suggest taking a look at the full transcription of "Sutton Mutton" by Carl Kress on pgs. 42-45. I still haven't gotten around to learning the slow section, but I love the first section, and it's often the first thing I play when testing out an acoustic archtop. Thanks to Mike Faltesek for bringing it to my attention.

More Example Tunes

Here are a few more tunes to work through, all using the 20 Essential Voicings.

F Blues (PDF)
F Rhythm Changes (PDF)
Sweet Sue (PDF)
Avalon (PDF)
On the Sunny Side of the Street (PDF)

Each tune is chock full of voice leading and transitions that come up all the time. The quicker you get these classic moves under your fingers, the quicker you'll be able to sight read a lead sheet or a rhythm guitar part.

Also, keep checking back regularly. I'm going to be redoing all of the charts in my usual music font, the Swingfont by Sigler Music Fonts, which is awesome looking, and, more importantly, it's highly legible. I use the Swingfont for all of the charts for both the Campus Five and the Orchestra, and I highly recommend it! As soon as I can download an updated version of the font, I'll be putting up more rhythm chord charts, but also some regular leadsheets, and even some rhythm guitar charts from the Campus Five and Orchestra so you'll be able to practice your reading!

Great Link: Playing Swing and Sweet Music Of the 1930s and 1940s

Here's a great link that talks about the rhythm style of the 1930's-1940's. The point-of-view of the article is clearly of a frustrated bandleader that has to deal modern jazzbos all the time. Still, the philosophy is pretty much dead on.

Playing Swing and Sweet Music Of the 1930s and 1940s

Playing Swing and Sweet Music Of the 1930s and 1940s