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Thread: How Did the Giants Learn Guitar?

  1. #1
    Afro-Cuban Grunge-Pop Bongo Boy's Avatar
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    May 2002
    Colorado Springs CO

    How Did the Giants Learn Guitar?

    This is a really interesting topic to me...so it needs to be interesting to you, too.

    I was having dinner with a freind several months ago, talking about learning to play. I mentioned I was trying to get chord theory and other aspects of music theory. She said, "Why do you need to know that?", and continued with, "A lot of great guitar players never studied that [stuff]!".

    Okay, we've talked about this before (why learn to read, etc), but can we take a specific example? Wes Montgomery.

    Now here's a guy that is considered a legend. We all know that some legends really shouldn't be, but most folks still think he was pretty damn good. Why is it that smart, college educated musicians listen to his work and find great theoretical explanations for what he's doing, yet he apparently had no formal education in music, and couldn't read music well if at all?

    This is a complex question--I'm a complex guy.

    Did he get sufficient informal education that he could put things together based on a rationale of why it would work? Or, did he just play what sounded good, and we happen to know why it sounds good based on music theory?

    My understanding is that the guy spent most of his time working for a living at a crap job, and gigging was a secondary thing (for a long time). How could he have learned about chord progressions and improvisation in that context? Again, was it just by trial and error? Through a mentor? Divine intervention?

    it's actually easier for me to understand how a style like Hendrix' could evolve through simply practicing and noodling around until the lick sounds great. I can even understand how Jimi came up with a bunch of incredible chords and mind-blowing rhythms. It's not EASY for me to understand it, just easier. Mostly because I don't know what he was doing or how he did it. I'm NOT suggesting Jimi demonstrated less skill or his stuff is simpler technically--I simply don't know.

    Wes is considered by some to be 'the greatest jazz guitar player' of all time. Of course I hate those kinds of stupid statements as much as anyone. It reminds me of 1968 when there was this huge Hendrix camp and this huge Clapton camp--"who's the greatest guitar player in the world?". Dumb, dumb, dumb.

    Point is...he WAS a giant. How can you do that by trial and error? I don't think you can--and if not, then how did these guys learn? Not 'how did they learn to get great tone' or 'how did they learn to play so fast', but how did they learn chords? How did they learn chord progressions? I just don't hear or read about who these guys chummed with where they may have learned--it's as though they did it all on their own, which I have to think is crap.

    Do we even know?
    Last edited by Bongo Boy; 12-05-2002 at 01:12 AM.
    Pulsing the System with Confirmed Nonsense.

  2. #2
    Resident Curmudgeon szulc's Avatar
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    Apr 2002
    Jackson MS
    Jazz as a studied art form really didn't begin its serious evolution until the 50's. Most jazz musicians before that just played and played enough to figure out what worked. There is some indication that Charlie Parker learned some chord theory and applied it to improvisation, Coltrane definatly did. Wes and his protoge Joe Pass didn't read or write music. BUt they spent countless hours practicing and learning their craft. I have a chord book by joe pass ( actually he had someone else write it for him) his chord ideas are actually much simpler than they sound, most are based on movable (and ambiguous) chord forms.

    There is the concept of GENIUS Wes, Charlie Parker, Coltran, Joe Pass, these guys all were.
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  3. #3
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    Oct 2002
    Hey Bongo Boy,

    I remembered a Pat Martino interview in Jazz Improv magazine. He said, back in the good old days, jazz was taught and learned in a live setting rather than going to music school. In a way, it's more of a one-to-one teaching situation, not relying on guitar instructional materials or any rigorous music school program.

    In the case of Wes, he was inspired by Charlie Christian and would have self-taught himself by copying licks and solos from Charlie Christian or possibly from any decent musicians during that time. In other words, he's doing all the right things from the beginning; ear-training, transcription (not the written down on paper type), phrasing, rhythm, voicings, etc.

    Charlie Christian himself is influenced by horn players. To me, restricting our spheres of influences to guitar music is pretty sad. Think of all the lovely music that are missed out.

    I'm not against learning theory but theory should be subject to music making, never the other round. I doubt that Wes Montgomery doesn't know much about theory. He would have known more all about scales, arppegios, chordal harmony, practical application, and much more but didn't have a name for his knowledge.

    Thank you also for referring the improvisation article by Sonny Sharrock. He makes a lot of sense.

    If you have not heard T-Bone Walker? Do give him a listen soon. He's the blues counterpart of Charlie Christian - both being pioneers of the electric guitar. T-Bone's lines are very fluid and should i say tasty too.


  4. #4
    IbreatheMusic Author Bizarro's Avatar
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    Oct 2002
    This is an interesting topic and one I've spent some time thinking about myself... I'd like to apologize in advance for my strange opinions!

    I'll start by saying that every single person has unique talents and some things come easier, some come harder. Many of the greats probably had a lot of things come easy, and then they worked their butts off learning the stuff that didn't come so easy!

    Let me paraphrase what I think you are asking...
    1. How to learn improv and chord progressions? Book theory is absolutely not required for either part! It can help tremendously, but it's not required. All you need is your ear and some quality practice time. You start small and gradually add *outside* notes to your soloing and chord work. If you watch a Joe Pass video, he starts out with a trivial progression (I-vi-ii-V, I think) and keeps adding a substitution here and there. Before you know it everything gets crazy! But he started really simple and built up to it.

    For me personally, I've always been a "noodler". My ears and fingers developed a communication path that works better when it leaves out my brain. I can usually solo (in key) over anything that I hear. I do all sorts of weird stuff which is not very diatonic but it sounds okay because somehow I learned when to add those notes. (George Lynch is similar, but he's way better than I am... and a much different style) Along the way I did learn theory and took jazz improv and classical and all that stuff, but that was after I learned how to noodle. (here's some jazz improv theory: play whatever you want, resolve your melody line to a chord tone occasionally, paraphrase the head, and then comp along and let the next guy take a solo... Seriously, that sums up several years of jazz theory for me.)

    I think the bottom line is to learn the basics very well, develop your ear, listen to all sorts of music, and then try play what you hear in your head. Theory is just a short cut to getting there.
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  5. #5
    Registered User metallibeast's Avatar
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    May 2002
    Many of the greats probably had a lot of things come easy, and then they worked their butts off learning the stuff that didn't come so easy!
    When I went for Paul Gilbert's workshop few months ago, he actually said something similiar. Someone ask him how to play did he learn to play so fast?

    Guess what's his reply? He said that he finds playing three note per string to be really easy and he works on it really hard, practice that everyday but he finds that playing two note per string to be really hard. He said that Zakk Wylde is really good at playing two note per string and goes "Wylde" on stage playing it.

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  6. #6
    Ibreathe Music Advisor EricV's Avatar
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    Mar 2002
    Hey there...

    Good example ( the "2 note vs. 3 notes per string"-thingy )
    I experience the same thing. I dunno whether itīs a natural thing or because I focussed on TNPS-exercises so much, but I do find those descending 2NPS-pentatonic licks that Wylde uses a lot very difficult, more difficult than the faster 3NPS-stuff, even if it requires bigger stretches...

  7. #7
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    Jul 2007

    i will explain.....just as comics can naturally make people laugh and can't explain or learn it, so do musical geniuses....

    when a famous english comic Tony Hancock, decided to 'learn' what made him funny, it lost it's mystique, and somehow he became locked into his new 'formula' and he was no longer able to be funny and make people laugh, and commited suicide.

    Like film makers, they have an eye and imagination, but trying to disassemble it all and make it a 'science' can make some who are natural at it, lose the 'knack' of just doing it naturally and they can lose it as instead of feeling and seeing images in their mind, they start to have formulaic and technical theories of what makes a film, come to their mind and ruin what came naturally !

    Sometimes too much study locks you....unless you just learn to use it to transcribe and work out certain stuff, but as far as songwriting and impro, it should be just pure imagination led by emotions and feel.

    I will say this not being arrogant as I was a prodigious accordionist as a kid learning stuff in a lesson others took a month to learn (words of my teacher) and he said I was a genius and had never met anyone like me before, and still says he's never met anyoen with my ear.....sadly my life was neglected the chance to study music and i never got a guitar till my later life, and now am 35 and a 'begineer' compared to you lot, but what i have leanrt I just could do, like picking up a guitar and plucking just came natural, and learning by ear was just a case of trial and error, and then my mind just 'kne' where to go, so i can improvise anything which is not limited by my technique, and for this reason i can improvise with jazz guys I know, and when they unexpectedly play weird stuff, my mind seems to just latch to it and get inspired and doesn't get caught out, and my friend says I am the best emotional player he has played with as I impress him while he tries to trip me up with his complex jazz piano stuff !
    he says I am not technical, but more imaginative and interesting to play with as he can jam and do what he likes and I always compliment him, whereas his Guitar Institute graduate mates who can play chord solos and play anything, ust can't follow him and always ask about keys and chords before they begind so they know what he will do, and he says they are great but with me I break rules and theory, as I don't have any, and it still sounds great as it's all about music....
    he loves me and made me join his experimental jazz pop band, whcih I hated and didn't want to learn, so he just said improvise on stage and I did, and well made the odd mistake as i really am a blagger, but on stage we did a few gigs and the crowd loved it, and then he threw in some trance house tune on his synth which I ahte and don't listen to, and I came out with some weird impro stuff which surprised me and some audience members came upto me after and complimented me and said it was very original, and I stood there and said I was useless and just blagged it, and my mind did it as didn't really think but felt !!!!

    I am a crap guitarist as have never learnt and have no theory or technique and I have picked bits up from boosk for the sake of it, and understoof the science and how one can construct his own chords which is cool but i guess this is useful stuff which does good, and also readingmusic is very cool too, but as far as trying to study how to improvise or write songs, i think it's nonsense, as music has progressed and so all that is to come cannot fit any formula, and well i believe it's talent, a natural thing, you know, emoptions make inspiration which then make ou 'hear' music inside you as your emotions seek an outlet to 'explain' the situation artistically....

    I can't write a song or wrtie a poem, but i just 'hear' and 'see' words coe to me, like I may get rejected by some girl, lose 50 quid on a poker game and walk home and feel like all this music and words come to me to describe what my mind had not thought about much, and so i need to grab a pen ro guitar, and this stuff rolls out, and I start to write words and as I wite the words come out and make sense and rhyme, and it's like my subconsious has it all stored inside and aslong as I am 'channelling' this stuff from my subconsious, it's like genius !!! as soon as I feel uninspired or I start to think wat is happening and try and 'think of words' then it stops......and impro is the same, a guitarist must go into that 'alpha state' and let the subconsious speak, and do what it wants, and the moment you have to think what to do, it's lost or contrived......lets face it there's no way you can think a split second before what you will do, but if you just let the mind go with the flow, and let it come to you, then you will hear the notes and think you are listening to a radio, and then the fingers will just play what they hear being 'dictated'.....

    I am no genius, but maybe i have a abnormal mind which has a way to make ideas come to me from the subconsious etc, which are genius ideas we all have , but some need a mental disorder to unlock, abit like those autistic kids who can hear a piece of rachmaninov and will go to a piano wihotu ever having touched it before, and can play it all perfectly without ever making a mistake, or that guy who can do any calculation faster than a computer, and that kid who can accurately draw the London city landscape after just seeing a photo for a few seconds....

    i am not like that, as I am pretty normal, but have a gift which amkes me do stuff wthout knowing why....and guess as a kid didn't think that it only happened to me and not everyone, and so at 35 now, i must learn to play guitar properly and so catch up on 20 yers of lost time and hope I can use my rare gift to benefit music and contribuet the amazing stuff I have heard all these years which is sadly lost to time.....i used to anticipate a buying my next led Zeppelin album when I was a kid, wondering what it would sound like, and well the music in my ehad would just give me music which was amazing, like my frustrated mind couldn't wait to 'hear' the album I hadn't yet bought, and well when hearing Zeppelin, sure I was blown away, but the stuff i imagines may be lie what I expected, was bloody amazing and sometimes even better !!! but it's all lost to time....

    I must say listening to loads of music is a way of learning theory as the more examples of music you hear, the more you are infact educating the mind to this music.....all kinds....

    when i was a kid though before hearing many groups and kinds of music I wanted to, my frustrated mind made brilliant music inside of me, as I guess I have a theory that if you have a creative mind and big expectations of what the music you want to eventually buy will sound like, then you could imagine brilliant music with much originality, because you haven't heard mucyh music to be able to rip it off, so sometimes it would be an experiment to get a genius and let him hear a few amazing albums, and then deprive him of listening to others, and see what he comes up with, as I reckon listening to too much music can mean your subconsious gets too full of stuff and eventually rips off sounds and licks etc.....

    who knows......but I must try and repair my lost career before I get too old and have no chances left....as a kid something could have happened, but now I guess aslong as people don't discriminate, all could still be good, as music is what it's about, and well is it only me who thinks DIO and Alice Cooper always look like 60 year olds when they were young, and their 'old hag witch' look is what makes people love them even now.....that ragged worn out DIO look is actually cool.....if he was young and handsome looking, it wouldn't be DIO....

    I dunno.....lifes too short

  8. #8
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    Apr 2007
    Joe Pass says he would take his guitar down to the "record store" and use their records (while in the store) to cop licks.

  9. #9
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    May 2003
    wow, nothing like bringing back a thread that's been dead for almost 5 years.

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