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Charlie Christian Guitar Lesson

by Wolf Marshall

In this section we'll extract a number of Charlie Christian’s favorite melodic figures for study. You'll see and hear how he applied them to different contexts. This is the ideal starting point to get a basic grasp of his style and of jazz vocabulary on the guitar. Included in the following "licks" lessons are his most common figures. These melodic figures run the gamut from simple three or four note patterns and brief motives, suitable for a wide variety of harmonic settings, to longer phrases with well-defined harmonic implications.

During the course of these lessons his licks, the core motives, patterns and melodic formulas of improvisation, will be cited and alluded to, marking the identifiers and building blocks of Christian's unique style in the music.
In this lesson you'll learn:

Lesson Highlights Combining Arpeggios
star1.gif (994 bytes) Chromaticism
star1.gif (994 bytes) Motives

Figure 1 is a typical sample line from Charlie Christian’s style. It has a common pitch shape or melodic contour. This is an extended passage making use of three specific patterns and motions which occur frequently in his improvising.
Christian_lick1.JPG (20090 bytes)

The three patterns and motions are:

  • Ascending arpeggio (major or minor)
  • Chromatic descent (usually at least four notes in a row)
  • Descending arpeggio (dominant ninth or minor sixth)

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This is Charlie Christian at his bopping best. The standard "Honeysuckle Rose" was recorded during a momentous session of November 22, 1939, with a larger Benny Goodman ensemble including trumpets, trombones, alto and tenor saxes. Christian’s up-tempo single-note lines point unerringly to the future of jazz guitar and the bebop movement. Three decades later Pat Martino quoted a variant of Christian’s opening phrase in the first bars of his own "Dem New York Dues" solo with Don Patterson’s band on Opus De Don.

Charlie solos over one full chorus of the tune’s 32-bar aaba structure in D flat. He sounds remarkably controlled and confident during the improvisations despite the breakneck cut-time tempo of d=110.

Charlie’s solo contains many notable aspects of his single-note style. These include longer strings of swing eighth notes alternating with rhythmic punctuations and funky blues-based phrases.

Play Audio file Play Audio and Listen

Lesson Highlights The overall tonality in the sections is diatonic. The chord movement is a simplified V to I (Ab7 to Db) progression which changes every four measures. Christian draws on the key of Db major (Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C) and the related Ab Mixolydian mode (Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-Gb) for his lines. From that tonal scheme, he selects tones and melodic shapes that emphasize the background chord changes of Ab7 and Db major.

star1.gif (994 bytes) Chromaticism occurs largely as passing tones or lower neighbor notes. The E-F (raised 2nd to the major 3rd) lower neighbor figure used over Db is used frequently in the solo.

star1.gif (994 bytes) Interval skips of a fourth and greater are pursued throughout.

star1.gif (994 bytes) Measures 1-4: Christian sets the tone for his solo with the strong opening phrase. He introduces a rhythmic motive in measure 2. It is made of two well-accented, staccato eighth notes (on beat 3). The rising Ab13 arpeggio (C-Eb-Gb-Bb-F) is one of his favorite melodic formulas and appears in many contexts in his playing. The arpeggio is followed by intervallic jumps (a descending tritone and an ascending fifth) in measure 2. For contrast, Christian descends with a strictly diatonic stepwise line in bars 3-4.

star1.gif (994 bytes) Measures 5-8: The strong rhythmic punctuation in the phrase is one of its most striking features. Christian bases much of the melody on the tonic chord Db and exploits triad  (Db-F-Ab) outlines. The added sixth, Bb, and the flatted seventh, Cb, are notable departures.

Play Interactive Notation Play Interactive Notation

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"Benny’s Bugle" was a Benny Goodman-Count Basie blues composition recorded on November 7, 1939. A twenty-seven and a-half minute rehearsal acetate from the session survives and offers invaluable insights into the workings of the Goodman group. This is also the only known recording of Charlie Christian's voice. He can be heard explaining and demonstrating the riff in the head of the tune to Benny Goodman.

"Benny’s Bugle" is built on a standard 12-bar blues in Bb.

Charlie’s solo contains an effective mix of short blues phrases and longer strings of eighth notes.

Lesson Highlights The solo is based primarily on the Bb Mixolydian mode (Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab). The flatted third Db occurs in measure 4 as an anticipation, anticipating the seventh of the Eb7 chord. The Bb Dorian mode (Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab) is used as a secondary resource over the Eb7 IV7 chord in measures 5-6 and 17-18.

star1.gif (994 bytes) Charlie’s favorite chromatic encircling motive is played consistently, six times in the solo in measures 2, 3, 10, 14, 19, and 23. Twice in the same phrase of measures 2-3.

star1.gif (994 bytes) Raked articulations of arpeggios are played in measures 1 and 4.

star1.gif (994 bytes) The half-step string bend from the sixth G to the seventh Ab in measure 7 is held and very gradually released in measure 8 for the maximum expressive blues effect.

play exercise Play Interactive Notation




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