This article originally appeared on Djangobooks.com’s May 2015 blog. This version may differ in that it may have been updated since its original publication.
Have you ever wanted to learn how to play authentic Gypsy Jazz rhythm?
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Do you ever watch some of your favourite Gypsy Jazz rhythm players and wonder how they do it?
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In this step-by-step guide, I’ll show you all the secrets of your favourite players such as…
Just kidding, folks! This is not a sleazy article to get you to buy products. Although, many of the topics I discuss are explained in explicit detail in my DC Music School Gypsy Jazz Rhythm lessons (featuring yours truly), this article will mainly cover the historical role of the rhythm section in the music of Django Reinhardt, Gypsy Jazz, and jazz/swing music in general. I will include many recorded examples to demonstrate my points.
I have been particularly interested in accompaniment and interpretation since I discovered the music of Django Reinhardt. The guitar accompaniment itself, that we call La Pompe has been a great source of confusion and mystery for many players. Many people are explaining it differently, and many claim that theirs is authentic. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Denis Chang is right, of course! Just kidding! Well, if you are familiar with any of my articles, then you know that we’re in for a roller coaster ride! When it comes to rhythm guitar in any style, there is so much that can be sound, but I will stick strictly to basic tone and basic execution/interpretation.
The answers to many of your questions require a lot of in-depth analysis. For starters, the word “authentic” itself is ambiguous and subjective; anything can be authentic, if enough people believe it to be. Repeat anything a thousand times, get other people to join in on the bandwagon, and it becomes the truth. For this reason, I will be talking about things from an objective and historical point of view. Of course, I will also share my opinions but they will be just that, and nothing more.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend and perform with pretty much all of the best players in the style. I won’t name drop, and I will even admit that sometimes these opportunities happened thanks to connections/circumstance, and not because I’m the king of rhythm guitar! Nonetheless, I am very thankful for these extremely varied opportunities because they have given me tremendous knowledge and experience! I’ve also played with not so good players, and this too has helped me really understand the topic at a very deep level. I still have much to work on (as does everyone), but I would dare say that I am in the unique position of having studied a very wide range of variations.
For starters, La Pompe is far more than just playing quarter notes; many people underestimate the difficulty and artistry involved in playing rhythm guitar. Even the actual act of playing quarter notes involves interpretation; does one play on the beat, behind the beat, ahead of the beat? Should beats 1 and 3 be ahead of the beat, and 2 and 4 on the beat? Or vice-versa? The combinations are vast! We will discuss all of this in detail.
Furthermore, in contemporary Gypsy Jazz (check out my article on the history of Gypsy Jazz http://www.djangobooks.com/blog/author/denis-chang/), there are many styles beyond swing rhythm, such as Bolero, Bossa Nova, Rhumba, Waltz, etc. For simplicity’s sake, we will only be focusing on the standard 4/4 swing rhythm. Although many people focus on the rhythm guitar aspect of accompaniment, any other accompaniment instrument, whether bass and/or drums, is equally important and intrinsically tied to the rhythm guitar. I will certainly talk about this as well.
Let us first start with the guitar, and some history! Did Django Reinhardt invent La Pompe? No, he did not. The term itself is old French musician jargon referring to the alternation between bass and treble in piano and accordion accompaniment back in the day; think stride piano. La Pompe is literally “the pump”. In Gypsy Jazz circles, it refers to the swing guitar rhythm. La Pompe simulates the sound of a self-contained rhythm section: essentially, drums, harmony, and potentially bass. This is the key concept; the guitar is used to simulate other instruments. As we all know, instruments can sound many different ways; as such, it stands to reason that the sound of the guitar can also change depending on what we sound we are trying to simulate. Let’s make it clear right away: there is no one right way to play La Pompe! There are certainly bad ways, but even then, we end up in subjective territory.
La Pompe, in its most generic sense of the word, has existed before jazz music. On the guitar, Oscar Aleman was playing La Pompe in his native Argentina. In the USA, Lonnie Johnson was using it to play the blues. In France, Django Reinhardt was using it to play the popular dance music of the day. Furthermore, before the guitar became widespread, many musicians were playing La Pompe on 4 or 6 string banjos.
Django was also not the first to make it sound distinctly growly on beats 1 and 3 as is typical in Gypsy Jazz nowadays. It appears that it was always a sound that good rhythm guitarists naturally went after, back in the day, sometimes playing voicings that included the 5th of a chord on the low E string when the tonic was on A string. For instance, listen to this recording of Charlie Parker with a rhythm guitarist:
Historically, I do not know if there was a specific reason for the heavy bass voicings, but I would assume that it just made things heavier, and helped strengthen the feel of the rhythm section.
Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that chord voicings were sparse in this style of guitar playing, often citing a specific period of Freddie Green’s career. However, in his early days, and in specific ensembles (notably with Eddie Durham in the 30s), Freddie, himself, played a rhythm style very similar to one of Django Reinhardt’s rhythm styles. Though, it is very difficult to ascertain the exact voicings, they were not the sparse one or two note voicings that he became known for later in his career.
Rhythm guitarists in those days favoured dense voicings, sometimes with full bass notes on the lower strings. The voicings themselves were not very complex, generally triads for major and minor chords, and simple dominant 7th chords. Of course, there was no hard rulebook to which guitarists adhered. Therefore, one might occasionally hear special colours, such as augmented 5ths or dominant 9ths, but generally the chords remained simple.
Django Reinhardt, because of his limitations, had to figure out ways to play similar sounding chords and, therefore, came up with a few special voicings that made use of extensions. I have heard people claim that jazz music is based on 7th chords, and that Django innovated jazz by focusing on 6th chords; that is flat out wrong. The focus on the 7th sound came a little bit later in jazz history, and is mainly associated with the bebop movement. In earlier jazz, the 6th was the color of choice for major and minor chords, and Django simply adopted it into his rhythm playing. However, it is interesting to note that when he could, Django still tried to play triads. For instance, a C triad barre chord on the 3rd and 5th frets of the guitar; this can be clearly seen in existing footages of him. This is very interesting because, even with his long fingers, it requires a little bit of effort, when he could just as easily have played the famous Gypsy Jazz C6/9 voicing in the same position. Whether there is any musical intent behind this, we will never know, but it is certainly interesting to point out. What is important to note, was that his rhythm guitar players played the typical triadic voicings of the day. Django, therefore, did not necessarily insist that his rhythm players copy him, as contemporary Gypsy Jazz players often do!
From my conversations with Elios Ferret (son of Matelot Ferret who, along with his brothers, accompanied Django), I was able to confirm that Django was very musically aware; he insisted that the rhythm section be aware of dynamics. This is extremely important, because, it goes without saying that the rhythm section should be there to support the soloist. I believe that dynamically, the rhythm section should always strive to match the dynamics of the soloist. If a soloist is playing soft melodic lines, the rhythm section should play softly behind him/her. If, on the other hand, he/she were playing aggressive/virtuosic lines, the rhythm section should match the intensity.
While on this train of thought, I’ve had conversations with musicians who have said that guitarists have to be amplified if there was a drummer in the ensemble. I disagree; it is up to the drummer to learn how to be quiet to fit the dynamic intensity of the group. This is orchestration 101; good composers and arrangers write their music with full understanding of what each and every instrument can and should be doing at any given moment. There is no reason why this kind of reasoning shouldn’t exist in improvised music of any style. Listen to the fantastic recording of Begin the Beguine by Fapy Lafertin on his album Fleur De Lavende. Notice the light and sparse drumming supporting the soloist; it swings and it fits perfectly!
Nowadays with technology, it’s very easy to amplify the guitar, and it’s a big topic best left for another article, but in my opinion, one should not be a slave to amplification as it can greatly negatively affect one’s perception of technique and music performance. The tone of acoustic instruments change significantly in the way we attack the strings, and over amplification can force us to attack in a restrained way that does not allow us to explore the full dynamic and tonal range of the instrument. I believe that it is up to the entire ensemble to adjust their dynamics according to the lead instrument’s volume. Unless one were to approach this from the perspective of a rock band (and some do, which is fine, if that is their intent), amplification should be used sparsely and with great attention to musicality.
At any rate, throughout his career, Django and his rhythm players played La Pompe in many different ways. There is no distinct defining rhythm style associated with him. Again, with the lack of interviews and anecdotes, we will never know how much of it was intentional, but I would like to think that a vast majority of it certainly was!
Listen to the rhythm guitar (Joseph Reinhardt) in the August 1934 recording of Tiger Rag: very straight, equal duration chords with light accent on 2 and 4.
Now listen to Rose Room, recorded in 1937: still Joseph Reinhardt, but with the addition of another rhythm guitarist (Gusti Mahla). Notice, that the sound of the rhythm guitar during Django’s solo is a little bit heavier and slightly more staccato than the 1934 Tiger Rag recording. Because of the audio quality, it is hard to distinguish whether they were adding the upstroke grace note on beats 1 and 3, but Django certainly was when he was playing rhythm.
However, this upstroke is very audible in the 1937 recording of Minor Swing. I like to refer to this style of rhythm playing as the Hot Club sound. Even then, one should not quickly assume that this particular recording is the definitive way to do it.
If we listen to the 1939 recording of I’ll See You In My Dreams, we hear the same rhythm style but with a lighter attack, and a shorter duration for the chords. We begin to see with just these few examples how flexible rhythm guitar can be in swing/jazz music!
Moving forward in time, in 1943, let us listen to the recording of Douce Ambiance; a drum now replaces the second rhythm guitarist. Notice the sparse accompaniment that gives plenty of breathing space for the lead instruments! The rhythm guitar is light, and straight, matching the sound of the drums! This is very reminiscent of Charlie Christian’s own rhythm playing (listen to his recording of Rose Room with Benny Goodman).
At any rate, notice the careful orchestration in all of these Django recordings. With the limited recording technology back in the day, Django’s ensembles had to record in such a way that every instrument be positioned in a specific manner so that the lead instruments stood out and the rhythm section could still be felt without getting in the way. The rhythm guitars were driving and powerful, yet not overbearing. Compare this meticulous approach to orchestration to the contemporary Gypsy Jazz tendency of using amplification, where the lead player is constantly competing with the rhythm section for volume.
In 1949, Django recorded a Minor Blues that I particularly like because of his accompaniment. It is very dry, raw and direct; it almost sounds like a march. I made a note for note cover a few years ago that you can watch here:
Assuming that my transcription is accurate, notice the use of triads on the I chord. On the IV chord (Cm), he uses a Cm6 voicing that sounds thinner than the Gm triad that he plays. Again, I would not dare say that I know exactly what he was thinking, but I do have certain theories about this. I believe that Django purposely used a richer and thicker sounding voicing on the I chord because it was more functionally important than the IV chord. Otherwise, if he had wanted to be efficient (and considering his handicap), he could have used the same voicings for both chords, which he clearly didn’t. He only starts playing Gm6/9 when doing effects such as the tremolo section on the penultimate chorus. With his handicap, he could have easily played Gm6/9 throughout, but instead, he always focused on the triadic sound! Of course, it is just a theory that I have, but I would not say that it is far-fetched; for someone who was illiterate and had practically no concept of music theory, Django was a very astute observer.
This leads me to the topic of voicings. I would like to think that Django was very aware of his choice of voicings, even despite his limitations! He played a specific voicing because that was the one he had in his musical vision. This is in stark contrast with contemporary players playing a voicing because it happens to be the one that they know. This idea of going to our “go to” voicings is not limited to Gypsy Jazz, but all styles of music. We should strive to play a voicing because it is the one we intend to play; we must always be able to justify it even if someone else may not agree with the choice, hence the subjective aspect of music. When I teach or give critiques, I try not to tell people how I think they should play, but I instead ask them if that is how they want to sound. Most of the time, people are unable to answer this question. Food for thought!
This is, of course, incredibly subjective and personal, and it is obviously something you will have to spend time thinking about in your own time. I will, however, explain my choice of voicings and rhythm styles.
I choose my voicings based on the repertoire, the style, the tempo, and especially with whom I am playing (both the soloist and the rest of the rhythm section). I am always listening for clues to find the best way to complement the band. There are countless variations for this, but I will give you a few different scenarios.
The same song can be played in so many different ways. If I played Minor Swing with a player with strong bebop inflections, I would gravitate towards Minor 7th chords. I might even add a Bm7b5 before going to E7, which I may dress up with a b9 or #9.
INSERT EX.1 HERE
Notice the sound that I am using; fairly long duration of the chords on all beats, light attack with a slight accent on 2 and 4. Of course, keep in mind that this is a general example; in reality, I constantly react according to what the soloist is doing, and the rhythm style may change within the same performance according to what I hear.
If on the other hand, I was playing with a old style swing player, then I would opt to use the simple triadic voicings of the 1930s.
INSERT EX 2 HERE
If I played with certain Gypsies in the east of France, I would use some of the heavy and rich voicings that Django used, and then some; I might even play F6/9 instead of Dm6 as is typical in that region! Players in that region tend to have a much heavier attack, which is the perfect opportunity to let loose! Let the Djang-Bang begin (Copyright Roch Dwyer)!
INSERT EX 3 HERE
Notice the difference in dynamics between this style and the previous recording. The same drive and intensity is there, but a different dynamic level. Again, I remind you, that things may change, and I may use a completely different way of accompaniment based on who I play with and which song we were playing. The Gypsies, themselves have many ways of accompanying, and it can just as easily sound a different way. As always, there is no specific principle that they follow.
INSERT EX 4 HERE
Keep in mind that the sound of the rhythm can also change based on the tempo of the song; the possibilities are endless! Here are two examples of two uptempo songs just to give you an idea.
INSERT EX 5 HERE
INSERT EX 6 HERE
As you see, if we go beyond a narrow-minded contemporary vision Gypsy Jazz, there is no one defining style of rhythm playing. That said, when I do teach contemporary Gypsy Jazz, I generally teach a form of the basic Hot Club rhythm that we talked about earlier; with and without the upstroke, which is yet another option to all the rhythm styles (and then some) that we have looked at so far. Gypsies (the Manouche Gypsies anyway) seem to have preserved a lot of the sound of the old style, but they have also brought in their own touch, which is generally a much heavier and aggressive sound. Even then, as I mentioned earlier on, there is no one single defining style; the sound varies from region to region, or even player to player. People talk about a Parisian school, Alsatian school, Dutch school, German school, Bieber school but quite frankly, I’m not sure that I 100% agree with this. There may have been a time when that could have been very true, but in my travels, each player had their distinct way of accompanying; certain players may be influenced by local players, but accompaniment styles can still differ greatly. Listen to Hono Winterstein’s accompaniment versus Dorado Schmitt’s accompaniment. For your information, they are both from Forbach in the Lorraine region of France; Hono is Dorado’s brother-in-law.
On the other hand, If we are to assume that the real way of playing Gypsy Jazz rhythm is the contemporary Gypsy way (and I don’t, although I am heavily influenced by them), then indeed many people are teaching it wrong.
There are a number of players teaching the Hot Club rhythm in an interesting way, and it has become quite popular among non-Gypsy musicians (all around the world, and even in Paris). This style of rhythm playing comes from trying to emulate the sounds that one hears on Gypsy recordings. Unfortunately, rhythm guitars aren’t always mixed prominently in a recording; with all the mixing and mastering, sometimes the sound of a rhythm guitar ends up giving the illusion of sounding a different way. This is what many players have copied. Interestingly enough, when these players, then record this way, it ends up sounding different from the recordings they originally tried to emulate. Again, I am not criticizing these musicians; it is perfectly their right to play it however they want. For instance, people who don’t speak French, generally can’t tell the difference between Swiss, Belgian, Quebec, Parisian (etc.) accents; I have been so deeply involved with Gypsy Jazz at an intimate level, that I am able to hear these little details, the same way I can distinguish between the various French accents (since I do speak French). Interestingly enough, I know the players that they try to emulate, and they themselves confirm that they definitely do not play it that way.
One such way is a heavy emphasis on beats 1 and 3 and a nearly or quasi-muted and softer staccato 2 and 4.
FAST EXAMPLE INSERT EX 7 HERE
SLOW EXAMPLE /INSERT EX 8 HERE
While it’s definitely not my “go to” standard swing rhythm, I wouldn’t be quick as to completely dismiss it despite its fascinating origins. I think certain rhythms can be used for very specific situations.
In the instance of a folkloric Gypsy song, it can be nice to have a longer 1 and 3 and a short 2 and 4. You can hear this on the lesson/album that I produced for Tcha Limberger, Romani Gilia Vol.2, on the song “Kai Djas Kan Miri Pirni”.
On certain slow to medium swings, it can also be interesting to have a quasi-muted 2 and 4; it reminds me of a nice Sinatra feel.
INSERT EX 9
Generally speaking though, I think it’s a good idea to match the duration of the chords on the left hand. If the 1 and 3 were to be played short, the 2 and 4 should be played short as well. If on the other hand, exceptions aside, the 1 and 3 were played longer, the 2 and 4 should be held longer as well. The duration of the chords don’t necessarily have to be exact, but there shouldn’t be such a huge contrast like in the last few examples. Furthermore, the volume difference between 1 and 3, and 2 and 4, should not be too big. If anything, the 2 and 4 can be just a touch louder. The difference between these two pairs is not a difference of volume but of difference of attack. Again, this is but my opinion, based on the sounds that I like (which include both Gypsies and pre-war jazz guitarists)
In my opinion, the best way to learn Gypsy Jazz rhythm sound production, is to learn to play chords with longer durations, and then to learn to play them with shorter durations. Once these two are assimilated (and it is no easy feat), we will be able to technically achieve any sound we want. Most people are only familiar with a short duration for beats 2 and 4, and it is extremely difficult them to hold on to the chord without sacrificing tone on the other beats and the right hand. Indeed, while working on the left hand duration, the right hand must remain the same!
With regards to using the upstroke, there are many ways to approach it as well. Some upstrokes are lighter, others are more pronounced. It is merely a question of preference. In the instance of medium to up-tempo swing, the upstroke should generally be extremely close to the downstroke, to the point where they form one tight unit. The up and downstrokes should generally not be separate rhythmic units.
One can choose to hit all the strings on the upstrokes and downstrokes in the style of Fapy Lafertin, or just the bass strings, in the style of Hono Winterstein. The difference between the two is quite subtle, and we’re not even talking about left hand duration.
EXAMPLE 10 FAPY STYLE
EXAMPLE 11 HONO STYLE
Disclaimer: I wouldn’t dare say that that is exactly how Fapy and Hono play their rhythms. In fact, they have more than just one style, but I would say that it is fairly close to what they do.
On beats 2 and 4, I like to hit all strings, but a few players like to alternate between bass (roughly E to G) and treble strings (roughly D to high E) on 1 and 3. Once again the difference is subtle.
All strings on 2 and 4 : EXAMPLE 12
Treble strings 2 and 4 Example: EXAMPLE 13
Finally, coming back to the issue of upstrokes, one can apply pressure on the strings with the left hand before executing the upstroke, or one can totally (or almost) mute the strings, the difference is also very subtle. See if you can hear the difference in the following examples
EXAMPLE 14 NON MUTED
EXAMPLE 15 MUTED
As you can see, the combinations are near endless!
On the other hand, when playing ballads, chord durations and the use of upstrokes are different than for swing rhythms; it’s an entirely different approach. Once again, there are no rules, and it depends on the song and the mood that one wishes to convey.
For lyrical passages, one can have much longer chord durations to the point where the harmony rings out in the sonic spectrum. I will give you three examples of ballad rhythms with long duration:
In Ex.16, notice the pronounced and slow upstroke before beats 1 and 3. Of course, the upstrokes are optional; it can be done with only downstrokes throughout.
In the Ex.18 , notice that my left hand never releases the pressure except to switch chords!
For passages that are more dramatic and require more intensity, I may make the chord durations much shorter, and if I choose to use an upstroke, it is much quicker:
I think I have given you enough examples for you to understand, that there is no one right way to do things. In fact, there are many other sounds that can be achieved, but the point of this article is to only to help clear some of the confusion.
How then do I decide which rhythm to use? As I said, it depends on many factors. If I were just jamming casually, it shouldn’t matter too much, though it would be nice to listen to each other and complement each other. If, on the other hand, I was working in a professional setting, I usually just ask the player what he/she prefers. Some are very easy going (phew!), others have a very clear vision of what they want, and I try my best to fulfill his/her vision.
My good friend Roberto Rosenman, from Toronto, coined the term Rhythm Bitch; it’s really just light humour, but the fact is, a rhythm player should truly be at the service of the soloist.
Of course, there are other styles, where the line between rhythm and solo becomes quite blurry, and the rhythm section actively influences the soloist. This is another style of playing, which is certainly valid. There’s not much to say about that style of playing, because in that world, anything goes! In my opinion, that style of playing works best in smaller settings such as duets, otherwise, things can easily get chaotic. Whenever I play this way, I listen very carefully to what the soloist is doing, and at times, I may even completely reharmonize a song if I hear that the soloist is about to hit a specific note, and I know that my new harmony will fit. It can be quite exciting!
Speaking of harmony, I’ve talked about the importance of choosing the right voicings, but one should equally be aware about which sets of chords to play. Many songs, if not all, can be played in a number of different ways. Some songs within a particular style have a standard set of changes that most players know, but others, that are less common, can be played in many different ways. In a professional setting, it’s a good idea of the ensemble to be an agreement with which sets of changes to use. It’s always amusing to witness a jam session with each player playing completely different sets of chords (and in some cases, chords that are conflicting) and seeing everyone being completely oblivious to it. I really wonder, are they listening?! I encourage you to listen to different versions of songs and to pay attention to what chords are being played, it can be a very educational experience, and can give you new ideas.
With regards to timing, believe it or not, it can be highly interpretive as well. The tempo can, and certainly will move, though in my opinion it should be extremely subtle; anything more should be intentional. No one is ever 100% metronomic, we all move in one way or another. I have to admit that everything in my previous examples was recorded to a click track, and since I am using midi bass, I lined up my rhythm guitar to be perfectly in sync with it. This is not reality, however.
This is very subjective, but most people who are playing swing music generally want the beat to drive a little bit. It should give the feeling of pushing without really speeding up too much; once again, it is very subtle. In the more contemporary Gypsy Jazz style, people to tend to exaggerate this a little bit; I’m not a huge fan of it, but I suppose that’s what the style is. I, myself, am sometimes guilty of it if I don’t pay attention.
One of the best examples of subtle pushing, is Django’s first recording of Minor Swing in 1937. The band gets excited over the course of the song, and by the end of the tune, the tempo has sped up a little bit, though it is not so obvious.
With this feeling of subtly pushing the beat, soloists have more freedom in their phrasing, and can easily play on the beat, and with a bit of skill can even play behind the beat, which creates a very fluid and relaxed feel. Generally, guitarists with a lot of technical facility have no problem playing ahead of the beat, and in fact, they tend to naturally gravitate towards it. It can certainly be an effect, and works great for certain passages, but in my opinion, we should try to only use it sparingly.
On the other hand, if the rhythm player is dragging, it can make many soloists nervous, and those who tend to play slightly ahead of the beat will sound much more out of time than they should. This can especially be a drag (pun intended) on up-tempo virtuosic songs, where the soloist is really giving all he/she’s got.
Any fluctuation in tempo should not be too noticeable (unless intended). Usually the ones who notice this feeling are the people soloing or dancing (assuming that they’re paying attention to these details).
I would encourage you to experiment with a few different concepts; trying to push on 1 and 3, but keeping it steady on 2 and 4, and vice versa. Record yourself, and try soloing over the tracks to feel the effect. Again, this is something that is extremely subtle and this kind of pushing should be microscopic. On slower songs, one might even want to have a subtle laid back feeling on the 1 and 3 and keep the 2 and 4 as steady as possible, especially for lyrical passages. On dramatic passages, where the rhythm is more staccato, I would suggest striving to keep all beats steady, but if it had to move, better to slightly push than drag.
Again, I remind you that this is highly subjective and that you should simply just try to experiment with what feels best for the people you play with. I have played with people who preferred that the rhythm section drag a little bit, and I have also played with people who insisted that the rhythm section REALLY push the beat. There are all sorts of opinions out there, and if they are the leaders of the band, then they are the ones who are right. If you don’t agree, you quit the band!
I remember doing a tour with two rhythm guitar players, where one was fairly consistent with the beats, but the other one had a tendency to push the 2 and 4 a little bit more than what felt comfortable for the soloists; with two rhythm guitar players, with conflicting time feel, it created a bit of a echo effect. In instances where there are two rhythm players, I urge you to listen very carefully to the timing and to find a common meeting point. These are very subtle and require tremendous concentration.
No one is perfect, I’ve had my share of off moments on certain songs, where I dragged or pushed more than I should have, and I’m happy to say that I’ve seen all the best players do the same. In the end, it requires constant concentration, which is why rhythm guitar is not as easy as it appears to be!
But enough about guitar! As I have mentioned before, the bass is an equally important part of the equation. None of the sound issues we talked about matter, if the bass is doing the same thing all the time, especially if it’s a different thing! In fact, it just kills the whole feel, in my opinion. There was a time earlier in my career when I thought every bass player was the same; just get anyone who can walk in time, and that’s it. How naïve I was!
With regards to upright bass sound production, many bass players seem to play the same way, walking bass. When it comes to playing swing music, many are at a loss! Few can play with a bow in tune and with a decent tone. In fact, I believe that whatever instrument we play, we should learn to take advantage of all the sounds it can offer. The contemporary pizzicato rest stroke technique for bass involves playing fairly long tones for walking bass, and the attack is sometimes somewhat soft. It is the standard technique, and make no mistake about it, it’s fantastic, but it is not the only way to play the instrument. Yet, for many bass players, it is the only way that they know.
The slap technique of the old days is great and I don’t see any reason not to learn how to do it, even at the most basic level. It doesn’t have to be the virtuosic slap style that rockabilly bass players are known for. There is a percussive intensity in the old style of plucking the bass that works great for old style swing / dance music. Listen to this clip of Louis Armstrong from 1933:
Of course, they were not playing steel strings back in the day, but I have seen bass players do it with steel strings as well; like anything, it simply requires practice. We’re not talking about virtuosic rockabilly music, but a different tonal texture.
There is also no reason why the bass shouldn’t be played with a bow in jazz / swing music. It can create wonderful textures and can still swing, if done properly:
In the context of swing music or Gypsy Jazz, there is no one right away to play bass, again it depends on the same factors as rhythm guitar.
If we go back to the standard walking bass, there are many ways to do it as well. In this recording, the bass notes are held long but the bass player applies a certain level of intensity in the attack for each note, often using always the same finger to pluck each note:
Now listen to the same bass player, and same lead player playing a heavier song:
Notice that the bass player is still walking but now the duration of the quarter notes is much shorter, and the intensity of the right hand is a bit stronger resulting in a pumping feel!
I invite you to listen back to all the recordings that I’ve made for this article and listen to how the bass complements each of the rhythm guitar styles. Again, nothing is set in stone, it’s not about copying but about complementing, and there are different ways to do this; in the end, it is up to you and your bassist to experiment.
As to when one should be playing in two feel or walking bass, once again, that entirely depends on so many factors. Everyone will have different takes on this. I feel certain songs certainly benefit from playing mainly in two feel, such as older swing songs purposely played in the old style. Occasionally, on certain passages, it can be nice to have a few walk ups in walking feel, as well; it’s really up the bass player’s discretion. I have tried to add some of that in my recorded examples of two feel.
On certain songs, it can be nice to have parts of the songs in two feel and others in walking bass. Generally, the first and last choruses (melodies) can be played in two, and the solos can be walked. It can be a particularly exciting effect when there is a climactic build up leading to the final chorus ending with a heavy accent on the first beat of the last chorus, then switching to a soft two feel, and finally ending with a big bang. This is what I aimed for in this recording of J’attendrai with Yorgui Loeffler, at 3:20:
The important thing is to always listen to what’s going on, and to figure out what is the best way to complement the situation. There are no rules, but one should strive to make every action intentional in order to serve the music.
In order to have the freedom to concentrate on what’s going on, one must be very comfortable with the technical and mental aspect of rhythm playing. The technical aspect speaks for itself. The mental aspect is the mastery of the repertoire. Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate charts. I have never used charts to accompany anyone professionally unless it was a specific requirement for the band (such as big bands). I’ve always committed every song to memory, and I have trained myself to be able to memorize the songs quickly. I don’t believe myself to be more talented than the average musician, but I understood early on that I had to train my memory and ears. I’ve had to memorize entire sets with arrangements the day of the concert, and the only reason I am able to do this, is because I stopped using charts long ago. If you are really serious about music, I urge you to do the same.
I also highly advise people interested in rhythm playing, to also learn as many lead playing concepts as possible, in order to train the ears to hear how certain notes and melodies fit with certain chords or certain voicings. If I hear that someone is about to go for an altered line, I can quickly adjust my chords to support his/her line.
That, my friends, is the secret to Gypsy Jazz rhythm. It is an organic and interactive process that requires tremendous concentration. I know that not everyone does these things in this style of music. Even some of the well-known ensembles don’t always follow these principles, but that is just my vision of music in general, not just Gypsy Jazz. Nonetheless, I still find joy in listening to artists whose visions are different from mine. My words are merely food for though. Hopefully they also dispel any kind of mystery and misconception that one has about this style. There is no one right way, and the leader of each ensemble decides what is the right sound; if a Gypsy Jazz bandleader thinks that a bluegrass rhythm with open chords is “authentic” Gypsy Jazz, then that is his/her right. The important thing is that everything is intentional and that it swings. Yes, the concept of swing is very subjective. I’ve heard music that I thought had zero groove, but that people enjoyed greatly. Some bandleaders are less strict about how rhythm should sound, others are very specific about what they want. Fair enough! It’s a great learning experience to work with these people, but I would also urge you to give it some thought so that you can come up what works best for your vision of music.
Gypsy or not, good accompaniment is very difficult and requires tremendous skill. Gypsies only have the advantage of learning sound through osmosis, but that is only one aspect of rhythm playing. I’d rather work with someone whose sound I didn’t necessarily like, but whose timing was solid, and who was able to learn songs quickly.
I think any style of music can be greatly improved if the whole ensemble strived, not only to work together, but to also serve the music, first and foremost.
If you enjoyed this article, and would like to know more about this topic, please check out the various Gypsy Jazz lessons on my website www.dc-musicschool.com, featuring yours truly, and many world renowned artists.
All examples recorded on my beautiful Martin Tremblay guitar
All bass examples come from the Trilian sample library by Spectrasonics.