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Free Monthly Newsletter Lesson - May 2014

"Autumn Leaves"

Arranged for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine by Mickey Abraham

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Hello and welcome back to Flatpicking Guitar Magazine’s free lesson portion of our monthly newsletter. Over the years I have strived to keep these lessons musically diverse. One month you might click here and find a classic bluegrass kick-off -- and then the next month you might click here and find a cool klezmer tune. I suppose it goes without saying that learning songs from as many genres as you can will improve your flatpicking, musicianship, and overall musical knowledge.
This month I present to you three versions of the famous jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.” “Autumn Leaves” is a tune that is heard on many instruments in many genres all over the world. Most people associate the song with the American jazz tradition as it is often played and recorded by well known jazz musicians.
I chose to present the tune in the key of Gm. You will hear musicians playing “Autumn Leaves” in a variety of keys. I chose Gm because that is the key my jazz friends play it in. Gm is the relative minor to Bb major which is a favorite key for trumpets and saxophones. Interestingly, although this song is “jazzy,” most musicians find the tune’s infectious chord progression to poses all the makings of classical and baroque music. It’s really all the same stuff! If you are used to playing open position chords in a bluegrass context this will be a wonderful song to learn new closed position chord shapes. All the chords used in this song are common shapes used in gypsy jazz and acoustic swing. Just like learning and using G, C, and D, once you get these new shapes under your fingers, you will be able to apply them to many other tunes that are similar. The technique used in playing these swing chords involves the muffling of all the strings that you are not fretting. Some people find this difficult. My advice would be to try to not arch your index finger -- let it feel lazy so it falls over all the strings. Everyone’s hand is different and attacks the guitar at a different angle. Keep experimenting with various hand positions until you feel comfortable with the muting concept. The next step is to strike the chord like it’s one big fat string -- don’t separate the bass note like you would in bluegrass. My rhythm pattern is based on a gypsy jazz strum. I’m playing the chords with all downstrokes and trying to accent the 2nd and 4th beats of each measure. Something like: one TWO three FOUR one TWO three FOUR.
When I was arranging the solos to this lesson my goal was to combine flatpicking language with jazz language. One of the ways I accomplished this was to keep all my ideas in open position on the neck. I tried to make use of all the open strings the way I would when playing a tune such as “Salt Creek.” Most jazz players don’t exploit the open position as much as us flatpickers. I find it interesting and challenging to try to weave musical lines in and out of the chord changes all while staying in roughly one position. Next, I based my ideas around picked eighth notes. Playing continuous eighth notes is a significant characteristic of bluegrass and fiddle tunes. It’s actually quite fun to come up with flatpicking licks that fit over these chords.
For the first solo pass I tried to outline the chord changes with melodic variations. Even though the jazzy chords are flying by, the lines are mostly based on unaltered major scales. The second solo is more advanced and takes more harmonic liberties. There is a lot of meat in these solos and I encourage you to work through it all at your own pace. Remember to click on the included lesson mp3 to hear the chords and melody in action. I hope you enjoy working on my arrangement of “Autumn Leaves.” I had a great time coming up with all the cool lines for the solos. For those of you out there that already have a firm grasp on creating bluegrass licks and are interested in how to create lines like these I plan on writing a book called “Jazz for the Flatpicking Guitarist.” In the book I will explain what scales and shapes I use to make these kinds of lines and, of course, I’ll be keeping the licks in open position. This way they can be related to fiddle tunes and you can begin to insert them into your already existing language. As always, if you have any questions or comments on this e-lesson just drop me a line at michabraham@comcast.net.