THE CROSSROADS Blue Note Artists
Guitar Techniques|February 2022
John Wheatcroft explores some of the bluesy-jazz artists at the Blue Note label, with 10 classic and modern guitarists ranging from legends such as Grant Green, Kenny Burrell and Tal Farlow, to John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Julian Lage.
John Wheatcroft

Alfred Lion founded Blue Note Records in 1939 with the help of his friend, executive and photographer Francis Wolff. Together they created a label that featured a staggering number of legendary jazz artists, developing and promoting their talents with help of graphic designer Reid Miles and iconic sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder. They produced not only the unique Blue Note sound, but also its look and, crucially, vibe.

They recorded them all, Monk, Davis, Coltrane, Shorter, Hancock, literally a who’s-who of jazz. The label was at the cutting edge for bebop, hard bop and avant-garde styles. Two crucial differences between Blue Note and other labels was for both the enthusiasm of Lion and Wolfffor ‘music for music’s sake’, not purely as a commodity to make money. Secondly, they always paid for rehearsals and encouraged the artists to include as many original compositions as possible, so you hear fewer standards than on rival labels and often the arrangements are more cohesive and secure. More recently, the catalogue has been sampled by many of the biggest hip-hop artists, helping to establish a cultural connection spanning generations.

ADDING EXPRESSION WITHOUT BENDING

Two of the most expressive and dynamic devices adopted by almost all blues guitarists to personalise their sound and style are bending and vibrato, allowing the player to go some way towards matching the infinitely variable pitch delivery of a singer. With some notable exceptions, such as Django Reinhardt or George Benson, these techniques are largely absent, or at least used in a vastly reduced capacity by their jazz counterparts. This is partially idiomatic and also a result of using flatwound strings to allow for a bold and forceful tone without overdrive but limiting bending potential. Rather like switching to a nylon-string classical guitar, this physical restriction creates an intriguing challenge to the expressive performer, one that can be addressed by adding a greater balance of hammer-on and pull-off ideas, exploring a wider range of picking dynamics and timbral position shifts or by mimicking the sound of bends by sliding up to or away from any note. Pat Metheny states that he aims to never play two consecutive notes with the exact same attack, tone or technique and perhaps this is a contributing factor in why his sound communicates so directly to so many listeners.

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