Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Why is jazz guitar so harmonically under developed?

So it's been a very long time since I've done a blog post. I let it slip my mind and now it's almost been a year since I posted anything. The opinions I expressed last year still hold today and I will get back into those issues later on, but for this post I thought I'd blog about something that I have been thinking about for over 2 years now as well as something that I have been trying to address through my playing over the last year or so. This something is the apparent lack of harmonic development of the jazz guitar since it's emergence as a solo instrument in the late 30s.

So what do I mean by harmonic development? If we look at the jazz guitar from the bebop era, the lines and vocabulary that guitarists such as Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow etc. were using were pretty much in line with the vocabulary of the saxophonists and pianists of the era. However, as jazz developed through the 50s and 60s, the harmonic landscape of jazz really started to open up. Innovators such as Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock changed the harmonic language of jazz forever and for me, it really seems as if the guitar never really caught up with the piano and saxophone when all these great changes were being made.

I think one of the main reason why jazz guitar never really made the switch to chromatic harmony was because we never really had a John Coltrane, a Herbie Hancock or a McCoy Tyner to pave the way for us. We were - and for the most part still are - completely spellbound by Wes Montgomery and rightly so as he was one of the leading exponents of the guitar being a solo instrument. One could argue that Jim Hall lead the way for chromatic substitution, and while this is true to an extent, his innovations were mostly chordal in nature as opposed to single note lines. I am not saying that people like Hall, Wes, and Tal Farlow can't play - obviously they can- I am saying that the guitarists vocabulary never really delved into the harmonic worlds opened up by Coltrane et al.

So what about the modern players like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg and Lage Lund? They are innovative but in a different way. I think the way we see the fretboard is being changed by Rosenwinkel especially, the use of non traditional positions and "technically wrong" leaps around the strings has widened the intervallic structures of improvisational lines on the guitar. The lines are getting more saxophonistic/pianistic in intervallic note choice, but these lines still remain pretty much inside the chord scale of the moment - to use some Berklee terminology.
There are a few guitarists who are managing to expand the harmonic vocabulary of the guitar and personally I think these are two of the most interesting guitar players in jazz right now. Firstly we have Nelson Veras, a Brazillian born guitar player who has been living in Paris for a number of years now. The first thing I noticed about Nelson's playing - long before I became interested in chromatic harmony- was his almost flawless left hand technique it was only later on I realised how developed he was harmonically. His harmonic application is very advanced and he uses some Messiaenic modes in his improvisation which is demonstrated here. The video posted below is with dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje's group. This really demonstrates his use of chromatic harmony over a relatively simple chord progression (I love this tune though!)

The other guitarist is Lionel Loueke. Lionel has been part of Herbie Hancock's band since 2006 and it is obvious he has been hugely influenced by's Herbie's harmonic approach. Also he is just such an original voice on the instrument fusing chromatic jazz language with traditional African music.

I am a firm believer in learning the tradition, I don't think you can jump into chromatic harmony without studying the bebop language but I think as guitarists we need to look beyond the vocabulary of Wes, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Pat Martino and look at players like Coltrane, McCoy, David Liebman, Woody Shaw, Herbie Hancock and Steve Coleman. These harmonic innovators should not be ignored on our instrument, we should embrace this language and apply it to the techniques that Kurt Rosenwinkel, Lage Lund and all the other modern jazz guitarists are pioneering. I think that would make an interesting change in the direction of the guitar in jazz.


  1. what about great compers and chord melodists like lenny breau (look on youtube for his renditions of days gone by, stella by starlight, mccoy tyner's visions etc), ted greene, ed bickert? Or those guitarists like Duck Baker or Eric T. Johnson playing albums of Herbie Nichols compositions? Jimmy Raney?

  2. Hi Brino, thanks for the reply. Yes I agree that while players like Lenny Breau do have some interesting harmonic things going on, chord melodies are generally quite composed. I'm really focusing on single note improvisation.