Review: Henry Johnson’s Jazz Expressions

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Oh man, this is a solid block of lessons aimed straight for what I think of as the core of jazz guitar. I did not have to know his history and reputation or look at Henry’s bio to know that he’s heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery, early George Benson, and Kenny Burrell. TrueFire’s Jazz Expressions lesson pack is an old school, master explains some of the things a jazz player needs to know approach to teaching the craft. It’s more a demonstration and playing tips than theory intensive study of jazz guitar.

That said, there is some significant theory behind what he’s demonstrating, it’s just not presented as that. The biggest example being he demonstrates how to cover the neck by what he calls Areas of Activity. The theory not discussed is he’s doing the drop 2 chord voicings in major, minor, and dominant in their four inversions, and playing melodies based on the related scale fingering in that area… he’s just not saying things like drop 2 voicing and CAGED patterns, he’s more interested in phrases and melodies.

The only thing that then suffers from this approach is that the transcriptions often stop before he gets to the more interesting ideas. I understand transcriptions are time consuming, but when Henry takes a chorus each of the areas, and the transcription stops at two choruses, there are more ideas being covered up the neck. A couple of Areas of Activity being demonstrated are being neglected this way.

Perhaps it’s better for the student to do some ear training, but there are times I wished I had the Tab.

After covering practical ideas, he then demonstrates the ideas through some jazz blues and rhythm changes examples. As a blues guy who wishes he sounds better on standards… I’m still struggling with rhythm changes. I’m still not meeting my own standards, so I’m still working on this (and a few other teachers approaches, like Cheryl Bailey’s studies, also on TrueFire.)

Overall, Henry Johnson’s Jazz Expressions is an outstanding, no nonsense approach to old school Wes style jazz guitar.

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Review: Johnny Hiland’s Ten Gallon Guitar: Intros, Outros & Turnarounds

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

I will never love country music as much as Johnny Hiland, but that’s OK… I don’t think anyone can. This is only one reason why he is arguably the best country guitar player alive. His easygoing “aw shucks” delivery in teaching his material makes things entertaining while I’m swearing at my own fingers struggles trying to keep up with the music on my screen. While Ten Gallon Guitar: Intros, Outros & Turnarounds has a nice collection of licks, this is probably the best in his series so far in covering how to use them in context. Him explaining that any random singer in Nashville might jump up on the stage and suggest songs he hasn’t heard makes for a point of departure for bandstand survival in his world. The simple explanation of the Nashville number system in terms of the progression alone might be worth the price of admission. (While anyone should know what a twelve bar blues is, knowing what “14, 11, 44, 11, 45, 15” means was most illuminating for me) The lesson plan breaks down how to start, end, and make fills on ten different grooves, making for thirty great extended licks, but lots of context on how they’re used.

And even though my fingers can barely keep up with him, I still can’t keep from smiling listening to him talk with such a pure enthusiasm and joy for his subject. He makes me want to keep going, when in similar situations I might just give up in frustration. Johnny Hiland is a great teacher and a monster player. If you have any interest in country guitar at all, check out his lessons.

Review: David Wallimann’s Guitar DNA: Pentatonics

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Ah, Pentatonics: Guitar DNA is an apt title, especially on this subject of the series. Pentatonics are easy to learn, play, and visualize on guitar and make an excellent starting point to learning improvisation for many styles of music. David Walliman is an excellent fusion player and lines up some absolutely essential concepts, getting into some advanced territory, including connecting chromatic material between the notes in the “boxes”. Even though there are some tasty licks all tabbed out, this is mostly presenting concepts, which I look at as a big plus, and overall I would recommend this both to students learning to break out of the one or two standard boxes of pentatonics, but for intermediate t advanced folks looking to apply ideas in new ways…

But I have one major complaint. (Warning: big music geek/teacher rant ahead. It’s OK to  skip down a paragraph. You have been warned.) Back when I reviewed Jeff Sheetz’s Street Theory for Guitarists, I gave him big praise for getting into the seven fundamental modes without getting into what I call “guitarists bad modal theory”, which can be especially prevalent in the way many younger jazzers teach. It causes some supreme confusion when later getting into simple concepts like jazz ii-V-Is. (“Dorian to mixolydian to…” NO! It’s a simple MAJOR SCALE chord progression.) The seven fundamental modes aren’t just the same scale with a different root, it still also has to function within the harmonic context. Teaching scales as “modes” based on what note is under your first or second finger on the sixth string of the grid is a confusing no-no both for teaching scale grids, and for teaching modal theory. It goes double for when you show which three Pentatonic grids fit into the three major and minor modes (You are not playing three separate major “modes” of pentatonics within the Ionian mode. You are fleshing out the major scale with three seperate Pentatonic scales. Hint: teach this by scale degree, not by naming modes completely out of context.) Seriously, I know there are some of you who will disagree, but this is Bad. This is B-aaayad music theory. What I find really bad is that Mr. Walliman knows modes well enough that when he does get around to jamming over them he’s using progressions that work for the correct modes (i.e. the correct context at that point) that it’s baffling he’s using out of context modes in place of naming grids or scale degrees.

Other than my major pet peeve about modal theory… if you can avoid the confusion related to that, there is a wealth of useful material here.

Review: Frank Vignola’s Jazzin’ the Blues Vol. 1 & Vol.2

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

I am known around town as a blues player, and I’ve been to music school and studied under some greats; so I love injecting some jazz traits to my electric blues solos. So, I wanted to take a look at Frank Vignola’s Jazzin’ the Blues Vol.1 for this month’s review. While I was working with it during the month, Jazzing the Blues Vol.2 was released. So, let’s take a look at both volumes. 

As with nearly all TrueFire lesson groups, you get video of Frank playing his examples and tab. These lessons feature Soundslice, so that a student can set a variable speed, follow the tab playback which is really handy for playing along with fast or tricky passages. You see it exactly as played from half speed to faster than performed.

This is a focus on adding “jazzy” ideas to blues lead lines on guitar. Frank Vignola is a master player and has a basic format for both volumes: focus on one idea at a time and play two different choruses of solos that illustrate that idea. Each is melodic and state the idea well, and don’t get particularly challenging to play for an intermediate player until getting into Volume 2. 

My only complaint to his approach and teaching style in these volumes is his speaking style can come across as a grade school instructor telling a student that “very important new word” when going to each new idea, like major 2nds, or the Super Locrian or whole tone scale; but if he is approaching these concepts as new, there are no additional materials demonstrating what a major 2nd is and where it is on the neck, or any grids or descriptions of new scales. There is some description of the ideas during the Breakdown sections, but seem explained as though the player who previously hears the words “Super Locrian scale” then should know how that concept relates to the licks being demonstrated. 

If the student has a strong grasp of theory, they may chuckle at the vocal delivery but get a wealth of knowledge and some great ideas for playing. A student  not familiar with the concepts should have access to some sort of supplemental information covering the concepts to fully “get” the information presented. 

The concepts in Volume 1 cover using the major 6th, the diminished scale, the bebop scale, the whole tone scale, octaves, the major 2nd, the Mixolydian mode, and the Super Locrian mode. Volume 2 covers the major 9, (this time relating to the other chord tones and within each chord, opposed to the major 2nd in Vol.1) the chromatic scale, double stops, the Dorian mode, implying the ii V, neighboring tones, and the harmonic minor scale. If the student gets the concepts beyond just the riffs… this is a BIG bag of tricks for blues playing.

The only other tiny quibble is that the intro invokes names like Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, and Oz Noy… yet these licks don’t invoke the playing of any of them, more stock “Soul Jazz” riffs. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING… especially if you can internalize the concepts more than the licks from the lesson plan (and make your own sound)… which again raises my stressing for having better access to the concepts for folks not familiar.

So, if I’m in any way critical, it’s only because there’s really, really good stuff here to be had.

Review: Robbie Calvo’s Double Stop Chops

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Let’s talk double stops, those little two note jabs or lines on the guitar. Many guitarists get get tied up in single note melodic lines, and chordal playing and overlook this essential technique. In Double Stop Chops Robbie Calvo covers all the essentials Major and Minor thirds and sixths, fourths, octaves; and then lets you wet your toes into some r&b and blues toward the end. One critique: Robbie is a Nashville cat and most of the examples (including the r7b and blues) sound like modern country. The good news is that he spends a lot of time on concepts and encourages the student to wrap their head and fingers around them to make their own sounds.

This subject and set of lessons may not be as flashy as other offerings, but it is a great approach to teaching an essential and often neglected guitar technique. I use double stops all over my contemporary blues, rock, and even zydeco shows currently. This is good stuff, bravo Robbie Calvo.

Review – Angus Clark’s Essentials: Neoclassical Rock Soloing

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Oh wow, duuuude! …OK, flashback over. If you were a teen guitarist in the 80’s and into hard rock guitar playing, you kind of fell into two camps. Eddie Van Halen or Ynwie Malmsteen. Yes there were many others, but basically these were the two biggest influencers of the rest of the heroes from that era.

I’ll just say that one of my first rock albums was Van Halen 1984.

So I wasn’t in the Yngwie camp starting out, but later as my playing improved, I wanted to see how I could incorporate more of the classical influence into my playing. Back then there was an explosion of advancement in teaching guitar via tab transcription and lessons. The problem back when I had the jones to listen to and learn this “Neo-classical” metal style of guitar leads there were two flavors of instruction. Absolute rudimentary type stuff, or the straight transcriptions of the virtuosity and instruction videos of spider permed gents doing the “I am a Scandinavian God and you suck” approach of more is more at 300 beats per second. If you were already gifted with lightning fast hands, you might pick up a lick or two.

If there was anything in between, I never really found it.

These days I’m much more into Blues and Jazz/Blues in approach to the instrument, but I’m blown away by this collection of lessons from Angus Clark. They are listenable, definitely representative of the style, and just challenging enough for an intermediate level player not familiar with the style to push to reach the goal without giving up in frustration. Some of these are pretty quick, but not so blazing and unachievable as the classes I remember from the days of VHS.

And even though my tastes have changed, this was a great bit of nostalgia, and a better grip on a few more sick tricks to add in the tool box for when I am playing in a harder rock context. Wish I’d seen a set of lessons like this back in the mid to late 80’s. Bravo!

Essentials:Neoclassical Rock – Lessons on TrueFire

Review: Sheryl Bailey’s Essentials: Bebop Blues Etudes

Full Disclosure: I am not a paid blogger, but TrueFire does exchange access to their lessons to me for a review per month.

Oh my! Sheryl Bailey is both a master of bop guitar and a stellar teacher, and this is a great package of lessons. First off, I love the format: Sheryl takes a collection of changes from essential bop blues tunes and standards (Summertime, Blues for Alice, Watermelon Man, Billie’s Bounce, All Blues, Confirmation, West Coast Blues, etc.) and does a model solo as an etude for each of the tunes. What really impressed me was that each etude found a sweet spot of not being too difficult to play, but “sounded like jazz”; they are all great licks and lines. (most jazz lessons I’ve encountered fall short in one of those ways or the other, most frequently being finger twisters that frustrate… and as a pro for decades, I realize there will be some difficulty in learning new styles, but I frequently find ones that just make me want to quit in frustration. No worries here!)

Each lesson features a play-through of the etude, and then an in depth breakdown of the licks and concepts.  Most are single note, melodic development off of the original head. But, I found the introductory lesson contained some chordal approaches that were new to me, hip, and easy enough to comprehend and implement on the bandstand right away. This to me is the gold standard of any book, video, or lesson series purchase. Just give me something cool that I will be happy to add to my “trick bag.” There are a few points where I’d hoped Sheryl would get more in depth about some more difficult ideas (Thinking in particular about how she came up with choices for, say, chromatic ii-Vs on Parker blues… and more specifically how I could make my own) That said, what she does cover, she does very well and shows the joy of sharing discoveries to her students.

If you are interested in bop, jazz guitar, and the jazzier side of blues playing, unless you are already well versed in this particular niche, this is an excellent collection of lessons that I would highly recommend.