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  1. #1

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    I went to a concert over the weekend, two guitarists backing up a trumpet player on swing & Rogers & Hart material.
    One guitar player plays with the trumpeter all the time, the other, an old friend of mine I hadn't seen since college, was back visiting the area, and they put together this gig- no rehearsals or lead sheets.

    That's the backstory. These guys can all really play- the local guitarist's comping was impeccable- never dropped a beat, and my visiting friend, if he didn't know a tune well or was following along- it sure didn't show. Key didn't matter, leader wants an intro, no problem..etc.

    My question is, how the #%@^ do you get to that level? I play a bunch of standards, some for decades, but keeping them all in my head, having faultless recall, seems impossible. I can do that with a handful of tunes, like Rhythm changes- but 2 hours of material?!

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  3. #2

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    I got a Bruce Forman ‘mymusicmasterclass’ video on this subject - how to learn tunes (he is careful not to say ‘memorise’!). He knows about 1000 tunes but he has not ‘memorised’ the changes (he says).

    The key is knowing all the melodies. Then you kind of ‘derive’ the changes from the sound and outline of the melody. Because there aren’t really that many different ‘building-block elements’ to all the various chord progressions in the ‘standards’. At least that’s the essence of his method.

    Making up intros and endings on the fly, and playing in any key, are also things he covers in another video (can’t recall which, might be the ‘solo guitar’ one).

    Anyway I got lots of tips from all this. Putting it into practice is not so easy, of course!

  4. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by JGinNJ
    I went to a concert over the weekend, two guitarists backing up a trumpet player on swing & Rogers & Hart material.
    One guitar player plays with the trumpeter all the time, the other, an old friend of mine I hadn't seen since college, was back visiting the area, and they put together this gig- no rehearsals or lead sheets.

    That's the backstory. These guys can all really play- the local guitarist's comping was impeccable- never dropped a beat, and my visiting friend, if he didn't know a tune well or was following along- it sure didn't show. Key didn't matter, leader wants an intro, no problem..etc.

    My question is, how the #%@^ do you get to that level? I play a bunch of standards, some for decades, but keeping them all in my head, having faultless recall, seems impossible. I can do that with a handful of tunes, like Rhythm changes- but 2 hours of material?!
    Assuming a reasonable foundation of chops,

    1. Put in a lot of time playing with other people ("rehearsal" bands, jam sessions, and performances) to develop repertoire and get the patterns and forms of tunes burned into your memory.
    2. Put yourself in situations where you have to come up with material (e.g., intros, endings, arrangements ) and play familiar tunes in unfamiliar keys. Backing singers is a very
    efficient way to do this.
    3. Regularly play with people who are better and/or more experienced than you so their performance knowledge and skills can rub off on you. Open jams where pros show up are great for this.

    Keep doing this over the course of an extended period of time and at some point you'll have a couple of hours of music in your head, plus the ability to play unfamiliar tunes reasonably well by applying bits and pieces of what you do know. Exactly how long it takes depends on you (we're all a little different in how quickly and deeply we learn different material), and on how intensively you're able to do this. If you're able to jam a couple of times a week for a couple of hours a session with good players, and you have a regular gig, you'll get there pretty fast. Jam every couple of months and perform a couple of times a year and it'll take a lot longer. But I don't think you can develop solid ensemble skills and a large repertoire just practicing on your own or with backing tracks. You need the interaction with others, and settings that force you to expand your skills.

    John

  5. #4

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    You need to get to the place where you can play anything you can sing; that's the only way to get into hundreds of tunes territory. How to get there is everyone's problem to solve. In the meantime, be able to sing/hum hundreds of tunes. that's doable, right?

  6. #5

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    One exercise that has helped me figure out tunes on the fly is playing along with random playlists (e.g., Spotify or whatever). I’ll try to figure out as much of the melody and changes as I can by the end of each track. If I don’t find a tune interesting I might skip to the next track. If I want to get deeper into a tune I’ll replay it. If a few bars have stumped me I might replay those bars a few times. I feel this exercise is really good for my ears—improving my ability to hear intervals and chord types or extensions and quickly find them on the instrument. The more often I do this, the easier it gets. I haven’t done enough of this lately, so maybe I will today.

    I think what I’m describing is similar to the experience of being on the bandstand, except you obviously can’t interact with the other musicians on recordings.

    You might already know this, but when learning tunes don’t memorize chord-by-chord, instead keep track of the key of the tune and the key of the moment (when modulating) relative to the key of the tune. Learn the sound of common chord progressions (e.g., ii V I) so you can quickly recognize and play them on the bandstand almost instinctively.

    (But take my advice with a grain of salt—I’m not a pro.)

  7. #6

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    These days I’m getting better at learning tunes in ‘chunks’, like KirkP says, you don’t try to remember every chord. Instead you remember a whole segment which follows a typical progression, as one ‘chunk’. After a while you recognise these ‘chunks’ in lots of tunes. Which means you know how they go as soon as you encounter them in another tune. Also makes it easier to play them in different keys. You’re not transposing chord-by-chord, you are moving the whole ‘chunk’ to another key. You can practise these things in several keys to make it easier. But first you have to know what the common ‘chunks’ are. Which comes from playing lots of tunes. It’s a kind of virtuous circle.

  8. #7

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    Here’s an example I got from Bruce Forman. A lot of tunes modulate to the IV at some point (often it’s the bridge, for example). How do you know this is coming? Because you hear a minor chord on the V. (it is acting as the ii-V to lead you to the IV). E.g. a tune in F, when you hear C minor, this will usually happen (it will go to Bb, i.e. Cm, F7, Bb).

    It’s such a distinctive sound once you identify it. Which means you don’t have to think about it any more, you can just play it by ear and now you have that change nailed every time.

  9. #8

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    virtuous circle
    :-)

  10. #9

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    I think that the players who know hundreds of tunes do it entirely by sound.

    They know the tunes the same way anybody who can hum a pop tune knows the tune.

    The difference is that they can hear and find the correct chords on the fly based on their memory of the sound of the tune.

    What are the elements?

    Musical memory. Some people remember things better than others.

    Ear training. Assuming you can hear the sound of the tune in your mind, do you know what the chords are? You need to recognize the usual cadences of chords, but, beyond that, you need to be able to recognize the key changes that occur within tunes.

    Finding the notes. When you can hear what you want, in your mind, do your fingers automatically go to the right place?

    Familiarity. For most of us, it helps to play a lot.

    Another point. Not every player can do this. And, even some great players, who can do it, still feel more comfortable if there's a chart.

    And, even if you were capable of learning a zillion tunes by rote, that wouldn't be enough. On the bandstand, with everyone playing by memory, there are going to be differences in what chords the players use. You have to be able to hear what the other guy is playing, know what it is, and adjust on the fly.

  11. #10

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    Every tune I work on I’ll play in multiple keys without a lead sheet in the practice room. I’ll at least comp and play the melody line separately in a couple of other keys. I’ll often attempt a rough solo arrangement in an alternate key. If I’ve been relying on chord-by-chord memorization or muscle memory or a lead sheet, playing in multiple keys forces me to relearn in terms of “chunks” as described above. It encourages me to learn everything relative to the key of the tune or “key of the moment.”

    Learning tunes at a higher level of abstraction means my mind has fewer details to attend to when I’m playing. The neuron networks that had been busy recalling memorized details are now freed up to focus on listening and creating. — That’s my goal anyway.

  12. #11

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    Bruce Forman has a neat analogy for this stuff. He says the melody is like a clothes-hanger, the chords hang on it like clothes. When he needs to play a tune, his memory only retrieves the ‘hanger’ (melody) and the clothes (chords) just come with it.

    He says if you don’t organise your clothes by putting them on hangers, they end up in a heap on the floor and you have to rummage amongst them to find what you need (!).

    He does say if a particular tune has some unusual chord change in it, then he will remember that one piece of information too, like a sort of ‘exception to the rule’.

  13. #12

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    Lots of good advice here. I don't have problems as much with melodies, maybe because I also play trumpet. When I pick that up, I can play melodies I learned decades ago, or learn new ones fairly quickly. It's much easier not to deal with chords- I mean, you need to know them, but you don't have to play them, in time, and with variation, different inversions, etc.

    I think my problem is more one of musical memory specific to tunes. For example, I learned "Country Roads" (my toddler loves it). Simple chords, but it has a verse, chorus, tag (or "Shout chorus"?). I promptly forgot it, a couple of weeks later I had to play it a couple of dozen times to get it under my fingers again.

  14. #13

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    I had a similar experience as the OP until I started playing gigs with a pro trumpet player that never read a chart. He kept telling me to put the Fakebook away. I did, at home, and forced my way through tunes I thought I knew. I also practiced every tune with an intro and ending. After about 6 months I was playing some three set gigs without charts. It is a great feeling and really frees up your creative side.

  15. #14

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    I found this a helpful guide to learning and retaining tunes. I have started to use it in order to speed the process of learning and retaining tunes.
    Attached Images Attached Images

  16. #15

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    Yea... the first step is playing a lot. Personally, memorizing melodies is pretty easy... if I can hear it I generally can play head. But sounds like you have the melodic thing together. The changes are just melodies voiced out.

    I generally comp or play and hear changes by Function. The simplest root motion. And then from years of becoming aware of Jazz chord patterns and what subs and their possible chord patterns work within Functional harmonic movement.... the basic chords... I go from there. But you do need to be able to hear chord patterns... changes. As RP mentioned above, unless your always performing solo... you need to be able to hear what other players are doing or implying.

    The next level which doesn't get brought up much on this forum.... there are generally more levels or layers of harmonic movement going on. These are generally just added changes and chord patterns that help create the feel of movement. Which helps make tunes lock in... create better feels.

    Simple application is just creating a pattern or cycle that creates or sets up a Dominant like feel for the basic harmonic motion of the basic changes. Sometimes called the Harmonic Rhythm... This is usually expanded to reflect the Style and feel of the Tune. The rhythmic attacks and pattern of those attacks functioning with the changes and within Space or bars to help create the feel of repeat.

    So from that created Harmonic Rhythm... sometimes called the strong side of the Harmonic Rhythm, you create a weak side using Dominant movement to that Strong side of the Harmonic Rhythm.

    Usually not everything, just Targets, which become Tonal Targets, the most important Tonal Targets of tune which will help create the feel of movement with repeat.

    Really it's all just organization of Space... or Form

    I like to use lead lines as part of that organization. You can interchange the function of the Lead Lines with the Chord Patterns.

    An easy approach is to just practice playing melodies, or melodic lines voiced with different Chord patterns. I understand Grahams use of Bruce's approach works... but chords and chord patterns are also melodies... You can also just reverse the analogy The chords are the hangers and the melodies are just different clothes. Personally they're both cool. But most Guitarist have trouble with both... and guitarist comping is.... pretty lousy.

    Eventually just playing material right... clean, is just the beginning.

    I'm putting together some examples and will try and get them posted soon. They'll be very informative and I'm trying to keep them somewhat simple, playable. They might help, it's difficult to memorize everything and perform from that memorize everything approach.

  17. #16

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    Most people can memorize melodies. Everybody I know, not just musicians, can sing all kinds of tunes.

    After playing a while, your fingers find those notes without thought. So, if you can't take a simple tune, say Home on the Range or Happy Birthday, and play it starting on a random fret/finger/string, then that's something to work on. Imitate everything you hear.

    Doing it with chords is similar. You hear the sound you want and your fingers go there. Any key. The goal is to make a complicated tune as effortless as going to the IV chord of a blues. How to get there? Play a lot. Practice tunes in multiple keys. Don't look at the chart. It gets better. But, it is probably true that some people have a much easier time with this than others. Can you get the connection between the sound of a chord sequence in your mind and your fingers just going there?