Charlie Christian Lesson Project

Before I begin, I would like to give a big thanks to the fine folks at Lollar Pickups for providing me with a CC pickup, and a big thank you to my luthier Martin Tremblay for providing me with an ES-250 style guitar. Also, thanks to Michael Bauer for lending me a Gibson ES-150 and the Gibson EH-150 amplifier.

DISCLAIMER: It’s a few hours before Christmas 2015, and in less than 48 hours, I will be flying to Taiwan for 3 months. The last few months have been incredibly hectic, and the last few days even worse. Balancing work, and holiday social obligations have left me with very little time to do the video linked below. I was supposed to start working on a Charlie Christian lesson project for DC Music School in August, but for reasons way beyond my control, I was not able to do anything. At 1 am last night, I transcribed and memorized Charlie Christian’s solo to “Flying Home”. This morning, I drove my roommate to the airport for his holidays. When I got back home, I started recording the solo. Today was really my last chance to do anything like this before I take off. All this to say that these were not ideal performance conditions for me. I didn’t have time to practice the solo at all. So please excuse the playing. I will certainly redo it, when it’s time to get serious! Last but not least, it goes without saying that there can be only ONE Charlie Christian; this is a humble tribute to him, and in no way do I pretend to be able to play EXACTLY like him.
So, yes, I’m working on a lesson series on the guitar style of Charlie Christian. I’m perfectly aware that there are many Charlie Christian style lessons out there. I haven’t really looked at all of them in detail, but I’ve glanced over a few of them. Why am I doing this? There are many reasons. For starters, I am going after something different. Most lessons, that I have seen, certainly look correct but they seem to focus on the more “obvious” aspects of Charlie Christian’s guitar style; some of the information,  while correct, is also a bit superficial. I’m trying to dig much deeper than that. This is, in some ways, an ethnomusicological study of Charlie Christian’s style; I am looking at everything from a historical perspective. I am interested in the performance practice (guitar and jazz improvisation) of Charlie Christian’s era. Part of my research also involves studying the styles of other musicians and guitar players from that era: Eddie Durham, Lonnie Johnson, Nick Lucas, Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, Rick Astley, etc.

Beyond the obvious theoretical aspects of Charlie Christian’s playing, I am also interested in his approach to rhythm guitar, his sense of timing, his phrasing, and his tone. I have been reading various biographies of his life to get an understanding of where he came from, and what was going on in Oklahoma in his formative years. I have been reading interviews of people who knew him and/or played with him. Most importantly, I have been carefully transcribing his playing. Not just the solos, but also some of the riffs and comping that he did.

I am still in the process of transcribing his playing, but I’ve already learned a lot. My process has been very intricate. I am trying my very best to get the right fingerings. What I would do is take multiple instances of the same note from various phrases, and stack them vertically in multiple tracks in my DAW. There are certain phrases where I am 100% sure of the fingerings, and therefore, I would compare the different instances of the same note to try to determine the exact position. Of course, we will be 100% sure without clear video footage, but I think I’m getting quite close. If I am correct, then I’ve learned a few interesting things about his choice of fingerings. Anyone who’s ever studied Charlie Christian knows that he bases his playing on a number of shapes that he likes. However, I always wondered how strict he was about playing certain phrases in a specific position. Would he always play a particular set of notes the exact same way every time, or would he sometimes play them on a different string set? Now, I’m always careful to never say never, but so far, my research seems to indicate that he was fairly dogmatic about where he would play some of his favorite phrases. In the instance of the solo that I recorded in the video below, I was able to determine where he played most of his phrases. What struck me was how he  jumped to third position from a higher position to play the triplet Eb triad only to jump back up to the higher position. There is certainly a possibility that I am wrong with my fingerings, but I did carefully compare the various instances of Eb, and these are the fingerings to which I keep coming back.

This is one of the other reasons why I’m interested in producing a lesson series on Charlie Christian. He is, without a doubt, one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time. However, his playing is actually very accessible, and quite simple. Like BB King, he favoured very simple shapes. This goes against typical conventional wisdom that one must be extremely advanced to be able to improvise a jazz solo. In fact, Charlie Christian dispels many myths perpetuated by conventional wisdom. For anyone interested in learning to play mainstream jazz on the guitar, Charlie Christian might be one of the best starting points to learn to improvise jazz solos. In standard academic jazz pedagogy, students are taught about chord scale theory. Don’t get me wrong, I am very pro-education, and I think it’s great to learn as much as one possibly can. However, this style of thinking can also get in the way of creativity and interesting discoveries. If anyone studies Charlie Christian, it becomes very obvious that he had no clue about chord scale relationships (at least not from his playing). His improvisation system is extremely basic and by theoretical standards, quite wrong! That’s what makes his playing so fresh, the “incorrect” (please notice the use of quotation marks) use of chord scale relationships yields very interesting results in his playing. As a friend from Oklahoma likes to say, Charlie Christian’s plays a lot of “juice notes” as a results of his “mistakes”.

To give you an example, according to diatonic chord-scale theory, when improvising over a dominant chord in a minor key, say G7 going to C minor, the most theoretically obvious choice is to play a scale consisting of the C minor scale while adjusting certain notes to fit a G7 chord. The result would be G Ab B C D Eb F G. In this scale, the Bb was changed to B to fit the G7 chord. Of course, standard jazz pedagogy also teaches the use of special sounds such as the diminished scale, the whole tone scale, the altered scale, etc. That’s all great. Most people, however, would not really think to play G Mixolydian over G7 when resolving to Cm. Charlie Christian consistently did! How did he come up with this sound? For those who are well versed in music theory, G Mixolydian is the scale that would go over G7 if we were in the key of C major (G A B C D E F).

To take things even further, I don’t believe that Charlie Christian thought much in terms of scales. In fact, his improvisations seem to indicate two things:

1) He improvises around chord shapes

2) He is very aware of voice leading.

The reason he comes up with G Mixolydian (regardless of key) is because one of his favoured shapes for improvisation is based on the G13 chord. He would use this shape everywhere. In traditional theory, G7 to Cm is not the same as G7 to C; for Charlie Christian, it was all the same. This is an extremely simplified version of music theory, to say the least. One must keep in mind that back in those days, one did not formally learn to play jazz in academic institutions. Biographical accounts indicate that Charlie Christian studied music theory, but music theory is vast. My guess is that he learned rudiments, and figured out the rest on his own.

With regards to voice leading, he pretty much always resolved his lines in a very smooth manner. The connection between chords is always seamless in his improvisations.

Otherwise, his improvisation style is quite straightforward. In those days, II V I progressions were not yet the norm. Chords were much simpler, and chord durations were a longer. In mainstream jazz, where one expects to find II Vs, one would, instead, during Christian’s time, encounter a long duration of a V chord; in other words, the II chord is completely omitted and replaced by a longer duration V chord (after all a II chord is pretty much a V7sus chord). There was a lot of blues influence in his playing, as well. Last but not least, an overlooked aspect of his improvisation is his phrasing and sense of timing. I could certainly go on, but I would like to reserve the rest for my actual lesson series.

The technical approach is also very fascinating for me. If you’ve read some of my other articles on Django Reinhardt (please check out the blog section of this site), you might have seen me mention a specific technique that was used in those days that is long forgotten today, except in certain niche circles. Nowadays, it is a technique often associated with Gypsies who play in the Django Reinhardt Hot Club style. Michael Horowitz, who runs Djangobooks, even authored a book called Gypsy Picking that discusses this technique. However, this technique has been in existence for centuries. There are treatises from the 18th century that discuss this technique for mandolin. Oud players have used this technique for many centuries and continue to use this technique. This was the standard guitar technique of the early 20th century. Django Reinhardt, Nick Lucas, Eddie Lang, Eddie Durham,  Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Christian, and many others used this technique. This technique involves having a floating hand and a slightly bent wrist. Downstrokes are favoured in this style of picking, and are generally rest strokes, using the weight of the hand/arm to attack the strings. The result is a round and punchy tone. In fact, jazz guitarist Barney Kessel has mentioned that Charlie was a fairly loud player; this certainly fits the description of the old technique. We can hear it whenever he played on the high E string, the notes tend to snap and pop.

Barney Kessel also mentioned that Charlie played “95% downstrokes”. I wouldn’t put it that way, he certainly favoured downstrokes, but there were still a fair number of upstrokes. It’s quite evident in some of his double time lines.

This technique is also a reason why I’m pursuing this project; I have been playing with this “old” technique for over 15 years now. Learning Charlie Christian’s solos using this technique has been very easy for me.

With that said, I would like to present to you the video that I recorded for you today. Please keep in mind the above disclaimer! I’d also like to add, that in retrospect, I should have added another mic to get a little bit of the acoustic sound of the guitar. I’m not sure how Charlie Christian was recorded back in the day, but it seems that we do hear a little about of his acoustic sound. Needless to say, these recordings are done with a close micing technique. As you can see in the video, I used two microphones, a Gefell M930 condenser mic, and an AEA R84 ribbon mic. You’ll see two performances of the entire solo, one on each guitar. Afterwards, there is an amplifier comparison test, followed by a guitar comparison test. I’ll let you be the judge. Enjoy!