Review: Sean McGowan’s Pentatonic Palettes for Jazz Guitar

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

Yup, it’s another course on pentatonic scales, this time offered by jazz guitarist Sean McGowan, and taking some creative steps to applying these ideas to more traditional sounding jazz. The courses start into the familiar territory with pentatonic scales, move quickly into more advanced applications like chromatic sidestepping, and then start applying more unconventional five note scales like the minor six/Kumoi scale, the dominant pentatonic, and the Hirajoshi. I’m still working in this section and am having fun.

From there it breaks into some form exercises with ii – V – Is, to applying some standard changes like for “Autumn Leaves.”

There were a few moments during the breakdowns were I was asking “Yes, that’s a nice sounding lick, Sean, but what are you applying that from?” Overall, though, this is a great set of concepts, and Sean lays them out very clearly.

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: 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.


Visual Learning and work in progress: Giant Steps

I don’t make any claims to be a great jazz player (I was decent at being an ensemble player in some big band rhythm sections) despite part of my focus here. My interest is part analysis, part self-improvement, and part sharing what I know.

In other words, I haven’t mastered this piece. This is a “this piece kicks my butt, just like it does most common mortals who haven’t spent years practicing and developing it.” And this is why; but it may help you, too.

There are many analyses of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps online with instructions or suggestions on how to improvise over it. Nearly every one gives some historical context or just explains that it’s a piece requiring a certain improvisational virtuosity to pull off. I’m not going to get to deep into that here, nor do I think anything I’m posting is going to be new except for this visualization I’ve done for it (I’m big on visual learning for guitar and music in general). I’m guessing either you’re familiar with the piece, and me saying “it’s a hard one” is nothing new, or you should Google it.  😉 Find the original studio version with John Coltrane. … All right, maybe this one frequently relayed bit of history:  😉  Trane had been woodshedding it for years before bringing it to the session. Pianist Tommy Flanagan, depending on who is telling the story, was either looking at it “cold” or only had a day or two to look at the piece. OK, now find Tommy’s 1982 trio recording of it. Even with master players, this is a piece that requires practice.

The only other thing I’ll say of many of the other online lessons is 1) don’t put stock in any of the “easy tricks” or what have you; you’re usually just learning a gimmick that will only sound good for a chorus, and may risk making you look worse than usual if you get lost (because you’ll need foundational knowledge of any song if you get lost while soloing. “One easy trick” does not help you on a piece this difficult) 2) I’ve found some analyses that, for whatever reason, show the key centers changing at the bar-line only, which you can “sorta” get away with (good jazz improv definitely does not relying on lining the melodic ideas directly over the changes, for example anticipating the next change melodically) but may just be some folks survival or coping method for the fast changes (Which leans into “trick”, to my way of thinking)

Analysis: I think the best simplified way to look at the piece also shows why it’s hair-tearing maddening to play. The changes are lightening fast, but there’s only three key centers: B major, G major, and Eb Major. The two problems there is that the key never stays put for longer than two bars at any given point in the piece (did I mention it’s usually done very fast) and each time it is up or down a major third… which if you’re used to up or down the circle of fifths modulations, this can easily grind mental gears. (Plus, if you miss a modulation on a circle of fifths, you have technically one bad note you can “fudge” and correct if you’re just floating around. Modulating a major third, you only have three common scale tones. You have to know where, or the harmony will expose you)  The modulations that occur in the middle of the bars in the first half of this piece, making one and a half bar, or one bar over the bar-line V-I and ii-V-Is also go against my previous instincts, even at slow tempos.

My thought for visualization: B – Red, G – Yellow, Eb – Blue.

Giant Steps AnalysisEach of these are just straight V – I or ii – V – I progressions in those three keys. Again, the difficulty comes in the frequent “giant step” modulations and the speed of the piece.

Addendum: Visual learning guitar grid for the major scales using the same color coordination: Red = B Major, Yellow = G Major, Blue = Eb Major.


The Lost Art of Swing Quarter Notes (and yes, that is a real thing)

I recently did a video of this for Northwest Guitars, and I may link it when it comes up. Three points to set this up: the first was running across the subject of “Can you swing quarter notes” on a long cold internet discussion, of which the entire consensus compared it to swinging eighths (for those not familiar, not playing straight eighth notes for Jazz tunes, and similar to blues shuffle eighths. The best description that I’ve seen for jazz swing eighths is to imagine an egg rolling end over end down a hill.) and why the entire premise was wrong and not a real thing. While it’s true that in Swing music, quarter notes have even time, I would like to offer a frequently told jazz story.

Both the legendary Count Basie band and saxophone great Charlie Parker came out of Kansas City. But the story goes that Parker auditioned for the Basie band, and the Count put a piece of music in front of all the people auditioning with two measures of the same quarter note. Other than a few people describing it as needing to be a “fat” note, no one telling this tale usually can describe why Parker, THE saxophone player for nearly all jazz-heads, couldn’t make eight quarter notes “swing” enough for the Basie gig  …but it certainly does imply that there is a right and wrong way to do it, yes?

The third stop is that some years ago I took some lessons with Tim Lerch, an astounding guitarist of multiple styles, and a beautiful human being I feel privileged to call friend. I noticed that he had one unusual habit that I never asked him about (in fact this article is the first time I’ve mentioned noticing a tie-in, and I’ll see what he has to say reading this… I think my educated guess is right, but I’m not 100% sure without verification), whether practicing or on the bandstand, he doesn’t just tap his foot, he twists it, alternating right and left, 1 – 2, 1 – 2. And whether he was playing chords, single line melodies or what have you, in any rhythm, his phrasing always had a swing to it, eighths or no.

The simple answer is the back-beat. And it’s also important in blues, country, and most forms of rock (not everything, for example funk is all about the one)

In the army band and for music school I had the opportunity to play for some decent big bands, and learned the Freddie Green four quarter note to the bar comping style pretty solid. Though Freddie didn’t do this, if you watch a lot of other film of big bands from the era, you’ll see guitarists do an exaggerated alternating neck strum – bridge strum, 1 – 2, 1 – 2. Accent the back beat, the two and four: strum STRUM strum STRUM.

That’s Swing Quarter Notes: one TWO three FOUR.  Tim’s (and many others) lines swing no matter the rhythm of the melody not only from perfectly “swung” eighths, but a stress on the backbeat. Try it, pull out a Real Book or other melody chart of a standard from the swing era, like “All of Me.” Rock you foot left and right as you tap quarters, of lightly pencil a mark over every beat two and four. Stress the notes on the two and four (and just the two and four, articulate the syncopations that tie over and triplets normally, …just “think” the two and four fatter right on the pulse  😉   )

I’m still working on getting this to sound natural in my own playing. I’ve found it’s not easy to do all the time if you’re freely improvising (and I admit that get a bit lost in the rhythms of my own phrasing frequently) and overemphasizing can frequently sound as “square” as not doing it at all. But I found not thinking too hard and rocking my foot tapping helps when I practice it.  🙂

Edit – Follow-up quote from Tim: “Nice piece CD, thats how I see it. Not just accent but also I like the 2 and 4 to be just a teeny bit late as well. Well, not late but on the backside of the beat.”

Guitar PSA: Bend with your wrist, not your fingers

Everyone in my neck of the woods who’s held a job that involved moving things has heard the phrase “lift with your legs, not your back.” Today, I stopped into Tommy’s Guitar Shop in Everett for a moment, and just caught the tail end of where the customer was describing some type of stress injury and Kevin (salesperson, repair guy, and teacher there) was saying something along the lines of violence toward whoever on the internet says “push up with your fingers.” I caught up with the conversation immediately after. We’re talking bending those strings.

For anyone unfamiliar, one of the most expressive and “vocal” melodic tools you can use as a guitarist involve bending and/or releasing strings. It also is, to a lesser degree, the most common way to get vibrato, another essential expressive tool. The problem is that when you see this described,  the phrase is that you “push up with your fingers.” DO NOT DO THIS if it’s your first time trying… or really at all. Tendonitis or other repetitive stress injuries can put you out of playing at all, for months or for good.

Bend with the wrist and not the fingers: Consciously or unconsciously this is the method I do and see most frequently – Put your thumb on the top edge of the neck, instead of the classical approved middle of the back of the neck. For the purpose of bending and side to side vibrato, the thumb is now a fulcrum rooted at the top of the guitar neck. Start with a note fingered with your third or fourth finger. Put down each finger behind that note, you will use these for leverage as well. Keep your fingers on the board rigid and twist against your thumb to raise the string (which raises the tension of the string, and as a result the pitch of the note.) This gives you better leverage with stronger muscles.

Twist the wrist to bend the note.


Baby Steps from Pentatonic to Major Scale

My friend Bill asked me yesterday about guitar lessons, and we talked about a few things he was hoping to learn. One of the things that came out was he was hoping to play “major scale” because he had recently jammed with some friends, and they were playing songs where minor pentatonic scale lead playing did not fit. I was working on a bigger lesson this week, because I haven’t made in entry in toooo long… but this made for a great subject to share.

Scales relate to chords; chords relate to scales. Chord progression is important.

We’re looking at three chord major songs. Country, folk, southern rock, hymns, campfire songs, you name it. A lot of songs are made up of three major chords and in one key. I’m going to take some easy steps to improvising a seven note scale over major keys for players used to plugging in a five note scale into one key and having all the notes sound… okay.

I’ve seen this point usually being the one where you get a major scale, a fingering for it, and a song… Okay, go… Not sounding that great? Just keep doing it ’til you sound like… (one of a thousand monkeys typing out Shakespeare…) Continuous semi-random trial and error does not work for many people. Running scales does not work for many people. If you’ve encountered this, keep hope that there are many ways to learn things. I’m hoping that this lesson combining visual learning and spending time listening to each pitch will help a few folks that haven’t succeeded by the most common route.

For this lesson I’m going to make some assumptions, I will do something that many of you have seen a million times before, and then I hope to show you one way to make improvising with all seven notes way less random, and hopefully build a foundation block for playing over changes.

Assumptions: You know what a I, IV, and V chord is in a given key. You know the five “box” shapes of pentatonic minor up and down the neck.

You may have seen this before: Take any “box” shape and play it over the I chord. Familiar sound. Now play it three frets down over the same chord. You are now playing a pentatonic major scale.


Now: spend a bit of time playing around with it to get it in your ear if this is unfamiliar. Now try playing over three chords; I – IV -V. Any three chord pattern or song that you like, record yourself playing chords, however best you like to improvise melodic ideas. You may find some nice new ideas, but really, this scale works best just over that I chord, right?

OK, let’s take a second and look at the major scale. I’ll show you the closed pattern that has the root on the sixth string under your second finger. People familiar with the CAGED system will call this the E scale pattern. Let’s do this at Position II on your neck, which will make the root of the scale, and the key, G major.


Let’s switch to the pentatonic major in the same position. You’ll see it as one of the familiar box shapes, and you’ll see that these notes are all from the major scale. Play this. Record yourself playing this one chord and play each note individually. See which ones feel “stable” and which feel “tense”.


Here is where we get into progression. This is the scale in the same position for the IV, in the key of G major – C. C is under your second finger on the fifth string for this scale. This is a different shape, but still a familiar one.


Now remember when we just started doing chords and you learned how to switch between the G and C chords?  Now do it with these scales. Record yourself playing the chords or use a metronome or any other method available, but be sure to practice slowly and really get this down. When the chords change, which notes are common? For the common ones, how does the feeling change for “stable” vs. “tense”. If you’ve never shifted melodic ideas to match the chord changes before, this is a first step in “playing the changes”.

We also have a pentatonic for the V chord. Now the root is under your fourth finger on the fifth string in this familiar box. Okay, lets do the same thing we were doing earlier between the I chord and V chord now to get them under your fingers and in your ear. Now the IV and V.


One more crazy idea before letting you loose on some songs. On many of these types of songs you’ll see a V7. (in this particular key, D7) This is a pentatonic dominant scale.


You’ll see it’s the same box other than one note, and it hits that defining 7th. This is one that not a lot of guitar players think of.

Now, I can hear in my mind Bill saying “Well you showed me a bunch of pentatonics, CD, but I’m still waiting to improvise with the major scale.” OK, we’re playing a progression of three chords, let’s stack up all three scales for the progression, showing all of the melodic content we’ve been improvising with:



Does the last shape look familiar? It’s where we started:


You’re playing a major scale. Now you’re aware of the prime notes according to the chord progression. When you’re completely comfortable with where the fat notes are in each chord, you can now experiment adding those half steps in more scalar melodies with confidence.

Play some songs now with friends, or record yourself, or do any of the “band in the the box” type music programs, but play over song changes. Amazing Grace, Camptown Races, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Stir It Up… lots of songs in many genres to choose from. Work out the melodies from the songs as well as making your own. The more time spent, the more your ears and fingers will guide each other.