Matt Warnock’s site on jazz guitar (mattwarnockguitar.com) is truly a goldmine of useful information. I’ve been spending a bunch of time over there myself lately trying to improve my jazz vocabulary. Recently I caught up with Matt for a short interview:
What’s going through your head immediately prior to and during your improvised solos? Are you thinking about the chord changes… the scale patterns you‘re going to use… what it‘s going to sound like… all of those things at once? What I‘m really after here is the thought process that synthesizes all of the disparate pieces of musical knowledge that you have and turns them into improvised music. I know how to build all the same scales and arpeggios, but you’re great at jazz improv and I‘m not. There has to be more to the learning process than just knowing chords, scales and arpeggios, but the chords, scales and arpeggios seem to be what most jazz sites out there fixate on.
When I get to the actual jam session or gig, I’m trying not to think about anything technical, and am focusing more on the musical and emotional aspects of what is going on in that moment.
I think a lot about note choices, scales and arpeggios, licks and patterns etc., when I am practicing. But, when I get to a performance I want to be thinking about dynamics, direction of my lines, articulation and accents, rhythms, what the rest of the band is doing and how can I react to what’s going on, that sort of thing.
So I think in both the practice room and on stage. But, I use my practice room thinking to take care of the mechanical and technical aspects of improvising, and then use my on-stage thinking to work out how to best create interesting music in that particular moment, using the material I have worked out in the woodshed.
Jazz, as seen through the eyes of someone who is classically trained, seems to me to be “extremely advanced voice leading done in real time.” Those voice leading exercises that I did in harmony class back in college still, to me, are the essence of what western music is all about, regardless of genre. Is there any sense among jazz professionals of a connection all the way back to Mozart or Bach, for instance, or would a jazz pro never describe jazz that way?
We would describe them in similar terms, or at least I would. Voice leading is a big part of learning to solo and comp chords for a jazz guitarist. Many people struggle when first beginning to explore jazz guitar because they are jumping around the neck a lot when they are soloing or comping chords.
After they work out how to smoothly move between chords when soloing or comping, things tend to become easier and their playing is more relaxed. I’ve worked on voice leading a lot in my own playing, and I focus on it a lot with my students in different contexts depending on what we are working on and where they are in their development.
But, I would agree that no matter where a guitarist is in their learning process, having at least a basic understanding of voice leading principles when soloing and comping will go a long way in taking their playing to the next level.
I think there‘s a bit of a myth out there that improvisation is literally the creation of something from nothing. In other words, that nothing at all is planned out or conjured from memory. Being the jazz and improvisation expert that you are, would you care to comment on this? What portion of your improv is memory based and what portion of it is stuff you make up on the spot, that you‘ve literally never played before?
Yeah that is a big topic of discussion among jazzers and non-jazzers alike. For me, I don’t want to be a “lick” player, where I have a set list of licks that I know and that’s what I use when it comes time to solo. But, I do want to have a solid amount of jazz vocabulary in my lines so that I’m speaking the language of jazz and not just running scales and arpeggios over chords.
So there is a balance there that needs to be addressed when one is learning how to improvise in a jazz setting. The best way I’ve found to do this, is to analyze great licks from players over the years, and then pull them apart to find the shorter, building blocks of those licks that I can then use in my own lines to sound within the jazz idiom, while not exactly quoting long lines in my solos at the same time.
So having smaller, more versatile bits of jazz slang in my vocabulary is important to be able to speak in the jazz vernacular, and I use these melodies and motives to create longer lines on the spot, along with scales, arpeggios, patterns and other musical devices.
As far as what is new on the spot and what I’ve played before, I would say that I’ve played most if not all of the material before in my practicing in some form or another, but I’ve never played it in the combination that I am in any specific solo.
I’m building my solo based on scales, patterns, motives, licks, arpeggios, etc. that I’ve worked out over the years in my practicing, and then combining them in new ways, taking them in new directions and using them to react to the musical moment when creating a solo on stage.
It’s more like taking comfortable material and using it in ways I’ve never thought of before as the performance pushes me and takes me in new and exciting musical directions.
Let‘s talk improvement. Do the things that you do to challenge yourself and make yourself better today differ, conceptually, from the way(s) in which you challenged yourself when you were first starting out with jazz and improvisation? If so, how? If not, why do these same concepts continue to work for you?
I think when I was first starting out, I was more focused on learning the technical side of improvising, so learning scales, arpeggios, patterns, transcribing solos etc. But now, I tend to focus on the language of jazz, as I mentioned earlier, as well as developing the more musical side of my playing.
Right now I’m spending more time on bringing specific emotions out in my playing, and connecting with an audience even though there is no lyrical content for people to grab onto in my guitar work. This isn’t easy to do, it’s always easier to relate to lyrics when you hear them from a band, but connections can be made with audiences in an instrumental setting, and that’s what I strive for with my music these days. Much more so than learning new modes or patterns etc.
Do you teach kids to improvise using a different approach than you use with adults?
I don’t teach different age groups differently. But, I teach different people differently, if that makes sense. I find that everyone learns a little differently and that everyone is coming from a different background and has a different set of musical experiences and tastes. Therefore, I tend to treat each person as a unique pedagogical experience rather than grouping different ages or backgrounds together.
I do have certain things that I teach every student, and certain approaches that I’ve found work well across the board, but for the most part each of my students learns and works a bit differently from the others, and so I approach each one in a unique way to make sure we are both getting the most out of our lesson time together.
If you had to boil what makes a good improviser down to one thing, what would that one thing be and why?
The ability to listen and react in the moment. I think having solid ears, coupled with the ability to be musically flexible, can really make a difference when someone is learning how to improvise.
Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that learning technique will make us great improvisors. But, it is the ability to take those technical items and use them in the moment to create memorable music that is the hard part when it comes to improvising, especially in jazz setting.
So, being able to hear what’s going on in the rest of the band, as well as having the ability to then react to what you are hearing in a proper and musical fashion, is something that all the great improvisors could do, and it’s something I aim for in my own performing as well as with my student’s learning as well.
How do you feel about the current state of the music industry? Do you still think there‘s economic space for people who aren‘t on American Idol to make a career out of music?
I think for those that want to go the traditional route, getting signed to a record deal and using that business model for their careers, then this is a very tough time in history to follow that path.
But, for those that have the determination and creativity to go out and create their own careers, self-producing, building their fan base online, using social media to connect to fans etc., then there has never been a better time in history to be an independent musician.
There is never a perfect time for anyone trying to become a performer or music teacher, there will always be hurdles in the way. But, with the internet and the low-cost of recording and website-building technology, this is a great time for anyone wanting to go out there and carve their own career path as a performer or in the music industry.
Matt Warnock is the owner of mattwarnockguitar.com, a free website that provides hundreds of lessons and resources designed to help guitarists of all experience levels meet their practice and performance goals. Matt lives in the UK, where he is a lecturer at the University of Chester and an examiner for the London College of Music (Registry of Guitar Tutors).