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Charlie Hunter: If the Groove is Happening

Invaluable pointers on chord-melody guitar playing

Charlie Hunter
Charlie Hunter
Paul Olkowski
Charlie Hunter

Rhythm Thing

I’ve put out a few solo records, and they’re OK. I could do much better, and the reason why is because I’m always working on the rhythmic aspect of [chord-melody playing]. I realized that, to me, the most important aspect of any tune is the feel that you’re going to impart into it. For instance, yeah, you could play a complicated jazz song, but if you’re gonna play the same feel every single time when you’re doing a solo, unaccompanied guitar thing, it’s gonna quickly become tired. Even if the feel is good, you really have to vary it. If I’m thinking of a tune, I’m thinking, first and foremost, “What is the drum feel on this? What would the drummer play on this?” Let me use that as a departure point.

Right Hand vs. Left

There’s a prevailing wisdom in most guitar universes that’s very simplistic and does make a lot of sense in a lot of ways, where you think of the right hand as the execution hand and you think of the left hand as the conception hand. Which is great if you’re just playing single-note lines, and you’re playing chords, and you have a band behind you. That’s fine. But if you start to accompany yourself, and you want to make people in the room move, you need to append that a little bit, because the right hand, if you’re doing anything that’s rhythmically contrapuntal, like the drummer is, that right hand now also becomes a conception hand. And if you’re moving parts with your left hand from point A to point B, then that left hand becomes a rhythmic execution hand as well.

If you want to keep the rhythmic integrity, what you need to do with your left hand is any time you mute a note-and there will be lots of muting of notes-you have to think of that muted note as a rest that you are playing. That way, it’s like a math equation at the end of a bar, or two bars, whatever the phrase is: Everything will add up and make sense in terms of how it grooves.


For me, use as little as possible. I really like triads, but playing them in tune on my instrument can be daunting. The bass notes have so much tension on them that they tend to pull the guitar notes a little out sometimes. I like to play two-note chord voicings with a bass note underneath. That way I always have a pivot finger open for keeping the groove going, and it’s easier to keep everything more or less in tune. Let’s say you’re a basketball player and you stop dribbling the ball-you gotta pass it. That’s what happens musically, too, so the best approach is to try to always leave a finger open for your next movement, your next pivot point. It’s also amazing how many cool things you can get going with combinations of fretted and open strings. And when you get the open strings ringing against the fretted strings, all kinds of great harmony comes out.

Once you become fluid using two-note chords plus a bass note, it doesn’t become about the harmony, it becomes about the voice leading and the harmonic movement. And all of these great things happen, because you’ve opened yourself up to this idea of “Hey, man, it’s 2015. We’ve all heard that 13th chord. We’ve even heard the 13-flat-nine with the sharp-11. We’ve heard these giant chords.” They don’t really sound fantastic on guitar anyway. So why don’t you get nasty and [play] two-note chords with voice movement-with all these different color tones and all this stuff happening because people already know what the harmony is by the way the bass is moving? Then you’re doing something really interesting. And the groove always feels better because you’re not stopping to pass the ball, so to speak, all the time. Sometimes all you need to do is play a bass part and a melody part together; you don’t need that many harmony parts in there. If the groove is happening, and the feel is right, everything will just take care of itself.

[As told to Brad Farberman]

Charlie Hunter, who developed singular, jaw-dropping technique in self-accompaniment on custom eight- and seven-string guitar/bass hybrid instruments, has been a highly regarded figure in the jazz and jam-band scenes for over two decades. His new album is called Let the Bells Ring On, featuring trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and drummer Bobby Previte.

Originally Published