There’s a special place in the pantheon of jazz guitarists for Joseph Anthony Passalaqua. We call him Joe Pass and for many, he is the definitive model of the “complete” jazz guitar player. Fusing rhythmic and melodic approaches, his compelling solo guitar style develops at a time when most players are using either rhythm or melody — but rarely both at the same time. Legend has it that his father urged him to play the guitar as a way out of his working-class life, encouraging him to learn to fill as much space as possible when playing. Heeding his Dad’s advice, Joe Pass becomes a jazz legend!
What can the aspiring jazz guitar student take away from the example set by Joe Pass? A few things …
1. Cultivate A Sense of Line. (And play well with others…)
Pass is so well known for his solo excursions that it’s easy to take his linear playing for granted. On his recordings, he plays noticeably long lines of 8th notes. He uses his solid command of the eighth-note line as a means to truly express the harmony of a tune. What’s even more interesting about this is that he doesn’t use pre-set licks to improvise. A true improviser!
A closer inspection of some example lines in his wonderful book “Joe Pass Guitar Style” demonstrates his keen sense of shape and balance. Learning even a few of these lines will provide any student years of stimulation and inspiration. One online blog by a jazz saxophonist even refers to these lines as “pretty close to something like the Platonic ideal of Be-Bop lines.” When non-guitarists are checking out your ideas, you know there’s something there!
Much of Joe Pass’ recorded output is solo guitar. There is also a large amount of work with singers, and drummer-less ensembles too. But do give a listen to his work on records like “Simplicity,” where his linear concept is in full-flight, including the support of a full rhythm section. Also notable is “Chops” with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pederson, as well as an early video of “The Song Is You” — with Joe playing a Fender Jaguar!
2. Play Well By Yourself
The flip-side of Joe Pass’ linear playing is the legendary elegance of his solo playing. Listening to him play a standard is to hear the whole tune, with no concessions to the difficulty of the instrument. He’s technically flawless, making the music sound effortless and almost casual! It can be said that his playing shows he’s comfortably familiar with the harmonic language of the 20th-century popular song in a way that makes his playing unique for his time, and through onto today’s era as well.
Once he immerses himself in solo work, he sets aside the plectrum and commits fully to playing with his fingers. Producing a burnished and warm tone with his fingers on nylon string as well as arch-top electric guitars.
What we can learn is this: Is it necessary to play sans plectrum to play solo guitar arrangements? No. Does it help? Yes!
Choose a few standards that you truly love and learn the melody, the harmony, and set about to arranging them. If you like, immerse yourself in one of Joe’s own arrangements in “Joe Pass Guitar Solos” to get started. (“Days Of Wine And Roses” and “Misty” are great). You’ll be sure to find yourself playing passages and recognizing them from recordings by lots of famous guitar players. His playing really does define the style!
3. Be The Guitarist Singers Want to Play With!
Joe Pass develops such a beautiful accompanying style for himself that he becomes a natural choice to accompany legendary singers such as Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. He seems to relish the role and always spurs great performances from these great vocalists with truly musical and unselfish support.
What we learn from this is that finding opportunities to play with singers is important. And when you do have the chance, come prepared. Think of it as a warm up to full-on solo playing. There is a lot of space, so there’s “nowhere to hide!” At the very least you’ll have someone (the singer) carrying the melody! Check out “My Old Flame” with Sarah Vaughn. The performance is truly a dialogue between two musicians who trust each other and want to hear what the other is going to do next!
4. Have Rock Solid Time (But know when to bend…)
Another thing that seems to set Joe Pass apart is his impeccable sense of time. There are so many different guitarists of his era, all wonderful players with lots of things that made them important in the history of the instrument.
Without naming anyone in particular, many legends of jazz guitar simply did not have the rhythmic drive and accuracy of their peers on other instruments. There’s some interesting historical context here — it’s important to note that the electric guitar and jazz guitar were basically born at the same time! Technical and conceptual hurdles are being worked out in real time without any real guiding hand as to how any of this was to be accomplished!
Joe Pass (like Wes Montgomery and later George Benson and Pat Martino) becomes arguably one of the standard bearers for a new level of guitar technique. His propulsive right-hand pick technique gives his improvisations forward motion or drive when coupled with his studied use of shape and balance. This is also evident in his solo guitar arrangements, where even when playing block chords and contrapuntal ideas the melodic contour is always clear and articulated. Further to this sense of balance is his judicious use of rubato passages to tie sections together and let the music breathe when appropriate.
5. Be relentless
To sum up: there may not be a better guitarist upon which to model your playing if straight-ahead jazz guitar is your bag. There exists a wealth of recorded music in solo, duo, and group formats. His concepts (while difficult to execute) are clear and unobscured by impressionistic flourishes or conceptual abstractions. What your hear is what you get!
If you have even a fraction of the work ethic of Joe Pass, you’ll find the information is there, waiting to be absorbed via transcription and his published pedagogical materials. What are you waiting for?
Steve Raegele is a guitarist based in Montreal. He’s played many styles of music (except Bluegrass) in dozens of cities across 4 continents. He enjoys playing jazz, rock, R&B and improvising creative music. As a sideman Steve has played the music of Thom Gossage, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nicole Lizée, Christine Jensen, and many others. His trio record, Last Century, is available from Songlines.