What was Joe Pass’ Approach to Solo Jazz Guitar?

This article is a part of my graduate assignment at the Aaron Copland School of Music.

In Part 1 of this series, you explored Joe Pass’ journey from child prodigy to drug addict, to cleaned up jazz superstar. In Part 2 we explore Joe’s approach to the art of solo jazz guitar.

How To Play Joe Pass Style Chords— Video

In my opinion, the best way to learn about music is by doing rather than reading. Spend some time exploring the video and use the TAB and notation below to help internalise Joe’s innovative approach to jazz guitar.

Now let’s explore Joe Pass’ approach to solo jazz guitar form a biographical and educational standpoint.

The Idea for Solo Guitar

Jazz promotor Norman Granz asked Joe to play Solo Guitar at a concert. Joe didn’t know what would happen and was very nervous as he had never performed solo before. In his characteristic humble style Joe said

“… it was kind of an accident, you know. Nobody got mad or threw anything, so I continued to do it” (Genius of Joe Pass, 2001, DVD)

If you take Joe’s humble word for it, his innovative approach to solo guitar happened almost by chance. On the other hand, if you explore Joe’s history it is easy to find out where his ability stems from.

The Beginning

Growing up on New Jersey, Joe’s father used to call him down to play for his friends when they were drinking wine and playing cards at the age of 14. Joe had to play little Italian songs or tunes from the radio. Not scales or exercises. His father would say fill it up! Play! Joe would have to connect phrases of the melody with improvised lines.

Now if we fast forward to 1973, Joe records his solo guitar Album ‘Virtuoso.’ Lee Underwood wrote in Downbeat

“ ‘Virtuoso’ startled everybody: one man, one guitar, complex tunes, and a display of technique that raised the short hair on the back of the neck.” (Genius of Jazz Guitar, 2001, Liner Notes)

‘Virtuoso’ (well named in my opinion) set the jazz world on fire and stands as the solo jazz guitar album of all time.

After ‘Virtuoso’ Joe went on to record with the who’s who of jazz, with an impressive output of recordings, videos performances (YouTube him to see what I mean) and even instructional videos.

Solo Jazz Guitar Tips From Joe Pass

In the DVD ‘An Evening With Joe Pass — 1994' Joe gives a clinic where he describes his approach to solo jazz guitar. To save you watching the whole thing, I summarised his advice below.

  • Play the melody up high.
  • You don’t need a chord for every note.
  • Don’t need to over reharmonize.
  • Add different alterations or colors to chord (rather than heavy reharmonization).
  • Have strong voice movements between chords.
  • You need to have motion and movement in chords.
  • Don’t play fills that don’t go anywhere.
  • You don’t have to play bass, chord, melody all the time, dip in and out between all three.
  • Keep it easy for yourself.

I recommend you watch the whole clinic to really soak up his approach.

Joe Pass; The Educator

Joe’s legacy lives on through the clinics and videos he made. To me, this set’s Joe above all other guitarists — he was not only a master guitarist but he shared his knowledge and helped develop and nurture the jazz tradition. What follows is a collection of tips and quotes of Joe’s I found in his clinics and videos.

Make Mistakes

“I have never made anything without a glitch or a mistake in it. That is my trademark.” An Evening With Joe Pass — 1994

The II V I: Just Play the V

Joe didn’t know about II V I chords or modes, his students told him about the concept. Joe heard it first and played it. If he had to think about it Joe says, forget the II. You don’t need it. Don’t think it as two separate chords. It’s the V that counts. An Evening With Joe Pass — 1994

Learning a Jazz Standard: Keep it Simple

Learn it really simple — just the core harmony. Don’t complicate the chords. You hear the alterations and play them but you think simply. For example Joe thinks of the first chords to Stella by Starlight as:

|A7 | F7 | Bb7 Eb Ebm |

Compare those basic chords to a typical leadsheet and you’ll get what Joe was talking about: think simple, remove the II, hear the rest. An Evening With Joe Pass — 1994

Thinking While Playing: Don’t Do It

“You can’t think and play. If you think about what you are playing, the playing does, becomes stilted. You have to just focus on the music, I feel, concentrate on the music, focus on what you are playing, and let the playing come out. Genius of Jazz Guitar, 2001, Video interview
“(music)… is like a language. You have a whole collection of musical ideas and thoughts that you have accumulated through your musical history plus all the musical history of the whole world and it’s all in your subconscious, and you draw upon it when you play. Genius of Jazz Guitar, 2001, Video interview.

Top 7 Joe Pass Jazz Guitar Licks

To wrap up, here are a bunch of easy Joe Pass inspired licks to add to your repertoire. Enjoy!

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