This month, I am very pleased to present a contribution from friend and fellow steel guitarist, Raphael McGregor, of NYC. Raphael has been busy cutting new trails with his steel guitar for years, and his first CD as leader, Fretless, is an excellent introduction to what is sure to be productive and creative career. Raphael has also played with some excellent bands, including Brazilian-infused Nation Beat, who toured the world and played at Farm Aid.
To learn more about Raphael and hear some of his music, visit Raphael’s website.
Playing the Part: transcribing music from other instruments on the steel
Certain things lie perfectly on the steel; mostly the songs written by steel guitarists that are intended to be played on the steel guitar. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to inject some new ideas into your playing and expand your repertoire, try transcribing music from other instruments and putting them on the steel. Doing this really pushes you to develop other aspects of your technique that you might otherwise not have had a reason to. Music written for piano, for example, is going to require you to do some things that might be quite simple on the keyboard but that require you to be extremely creative in terms of how you play them on the steel. Then you can take the techniques you learned from your transcriptions and apply them to your own improvisations, compositions, and interpretations of melodies.
To that end, here are two transcriptions of trumpet solos: first, Louis Armstrong’s melody chorus on his 1926 recording of “Big Butter and Egg Man,” a traditional jazz staple, and second, Bix Beiderbecke’s solo chorus on “Singin’ the Blues,” from 1927, another important recording in jazz history. Both are moderately difficult, and there are a few riffs in the Beiderbecke that are quite challenging. The Louis Armstrong is definitely the simpler of the two so I would recommend starting with that.
You might be thinking, “I never have any intention of playing either of these two songs, so why is this useful to me?” Well first of all, both performers transcribed here are acknowledged as two of the greatest instrumentalists of all time, so even if you don’t enjoy or intend to play the music, there are numerous lessons to be learned by listening to and performing these pieces, both in terms of lap steel technique and general musicianship. Second, you can play these pieces using my tablature and when you get to spots you find technically challenging, focus on those. You can even develop exercises that are based off of specific phrases in the music. For instance, measure 20 in the Bix is scalar motion using two strings only. Why not take that idea and see if you can effectively play a major scale on only two strings? Or, take that idea and write a sequence of it through the Eb major scale, using only two strings, then take that sequence and play it in all keys, still on two strings. Doing this type of thing gives you more possibilities when you improvise, compose, or make embellishments to melodies and makes it less likely that you will be stuck playing the same thing over and over. (E.G: Well, I’m in Eb, guess I’ll play on the 15th fret for a while).
Also, even if you don’t play these, there is still a lot to learn just by looking at the transcriptions. In Bix’s solo, for example, he cleverly develops an idea over a few bars, never repeating it exactly but always making reference to the original idea. Notice also that he frequently uses the upper extensions of the triads–such as bars 10-11 he plays a B-7b5 arpeggio over the G7 and then lands on the D natural, the 9th of the C7 chord. So maybe you want to practice playing the chords that start from the 3rd or 5th of the chord you are on instead of the root. (So, in this case: G7=G B D F, and Bix is using B D F A, which is just extending the pattern of the chord one tone further) Or notice the broken Eb-7 arpeggio in bar 32 of Armstrong’s that ends on an A natural over a Gb major chord, adding a sense of drama and tension that pulls you into the next chorus. Maybe this will lead you to practice arpeggios in different inversions and arrangements. And with both players, listen closely and try to emulate the bends, swoops, and various articulations that they use to approach notes, particularly in bar 10 of the Bix and beat four of bar 24 of the Armstrong. Both solos are filled with musical moments that should help you generate ideas when you are in similar playing circumstances.
Lastly, a note on feel–being that this is jazz music, many of the written rhythms do not correspond exactly to the way you will hear them played in the recordings. This is not to say it is inaccurately written; it just means there are subtleties for which written music cannot account. Listen closely to the performances and make an exercise out of trying to capture their swing and their rhythmic placement. Sometimes they will be behind or ahead of the beat; try and hear where they are and do your best to replicate it.
Thanks very much, hope you find this helpful! Please feel free to contact me via my website with any questions!
Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five: Big Butter and Egg Man
Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra featuring Bix Beiderbecke: Singin the Blues