Reading Jazz Chords – A Guide For Classical Guitarists
As a teacher, I am often approached by guitarists from all backgrounds wishing to understand so-called ‘Jazz Chords’. By this expression, we tend to mean any chord symbol other than the conventional major, minor or maybe a seventh chord. Classical guitarists are seen as those who can read music fluently yet, in reality, we should say ‘classical guitarists are able to read classical guitar scores fluently’. The distinction is that, in the professional working world, guitarists – and other musicians such as pianists and bass players – will often be given scores not specifically created with their instrument in mind.
Many guitarists seek employment as ‘pit’ musicians – playing for theatre productions as part of an orchestra. This has been a significant part of my own career having played for West Side Story, Our House, Les Miserables, A Slice of Saturday Night, 42nd Street, South Pacific, Seven Brides… to name just a few, alongside a wealth of variety compilation productions. During this time, I have rarely been given an idiomatic, guitar-tailored score, having performed from piano parts, bass parts, on one occasion, a bassoon part and more-often-than-not, a score with just chord symbols or triads written out for the player to voice themselves. Another thing to cause guitarists sleepless nights is the fact that many of these scores are in flat keys – a true scarcity in the guitar repertoire – these being idiomatic for brass instruments.
This may seem unreasonable to the student player but surely, if we are asking professional fees, we should come to a job equipped with the appropriate skills.
Guitarists from a pop or acoustic background will often have learned chords through ‘shapes’. This is fine to a certain point, but there must come a moment when an intellectual understanding of what is being performed should accompany a mere memorisation of a left-hand forms. I often witness guitarists rummaging through book upon book attempting to find ‘shapes’ for obscurely-titled chords whereas, if they only had a comprehension of what the symbol actually means, they’d realise that a more straight-forward chord would be acceptable and that the symbol is a mere indication of the harmonic ‘field’. Those having learned from TAB will experience similar difficulties, compounded by the fact that the most basic of musical terminology is absent. This is not a new phenomenon – alfabeto books from the 16th and 17th Centuries presented song accompaniments in TAB and chord symbols. Confusingly, these chords would be called ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ etc but the names had nothing to do with the tonality: ‘C’ in alfabeto for example is a D major chord!
Reading Jazz Chords – A Guide For Classical Guitarists is a book which solves these challenges and in fact gives many other positive spin-offs for guitarists of all styles and also other instrumentalists. Users have noticed a dramatic improvement in the sight reading skills – not only of chords but of staff notation. The reasons for this are obvious: if a player is obliged to think about where notes are on the fingerboard, their reading will make vast strides. Most guitarists’ sight reading is weak simply because they need to learn where the notes sit on the fingerboard. It becomes easier to read up an octave (at true pitch – a skill required of session players) if one understands the harmonic context of a melody. Music-theory knowledge will also advance if one understands harmonic progression and chords. Questions such as ‘when does a D sharp become and E flat will be obvious when one views notes in a harmonic context.
Through a clearly-defined set of principles, chord symbols are explained step-by-step, from the most simple of triads to fully-chromatic and extended chords. Exercises are given which invite learners to identify notes in a chord in terms of intervals from the root and note-names. I have created a set of ‘Five Golden Rules’ which outline the logic behind every chord symbol, demystifying the process. The book also provides a glossary which examines every logical chord symbol (some of the more obscure are created by writers or software who fail to understand how to write chords correctly – take C7(add9) as an oft-seen example) and gives alternative symbols seen in commercial scores everywhere.
The book is available as an instant download or in paper form from my shop.
Prima Vista – 160 Progressive Sight Reading Exercises for Guitarists
We have discussed the fact that professional-level guitarists tend to be weak sight readers above, but the root of the problem can be solved at a much earlier stage. Guitar teachers working in the school peripatetic system are faced with enormous challenges today. In this age of austerity, they are often obliged to teach very large groups for a limited time. During this period, they need to address issues of technique, repertoire ensemble work and much more leaving very little time for sight reading practice. The reality is that many pupils only address the sight reading element of an examination in the weeks preceding the exam itself. The available marks and associated skills are almost written off. Of course, teachers remain under pressure to achieve success in their pupils’ examinations.
In writing Prima Vista, I studied the sight reading requirements of the UK’s three largest examining bodies. I then combined their criteria and composed 150 exercises which become progressively more challenging. They are group into 30 each for Grades 1,2,3,4 & 5 along with 10 introductory exercises for those reading notes for the first time.