Hey Jazz Guy,

I’m always playing one line, how can I get started playing counterpoint? –One at a time in Orem


Dear OAAT,

Playing multiple lines and counterpoint is certainly one of the coolest things to do on a guitar, it can literally add another dimension to your playing. Most of the counterpoint we know comes from licks like the opening to “Stairway To Heaven”, where there is a counterpoint [Ex 1] between the highest and lowest notes. However, with a deeper understanding of traditional counterpoint we can really take it to the next level in a jazz and rock setting. In classical music, two note counterpoint is broken down into different categories, primarily based on the ratio of the rhythms. If we use a 1:1 ratio of top note to bottom note, this is called first species counterpoint [Ex 2]. There are fairly specific rules in traditional counterpoint governing intervals and which notes to choose, such as not using parallel 5ths. This is a heavy topic itself, certainly recommended study to improve your counterpoint abilities and for the sake of our first few examples these rules are mostly heeded. Though there are fewer harmonic rules in jazz counterpoint, it is important to understand the origin of these concepts. In Ex 3 there is a 2:1 ratio between the top note and the bottom note, this is called second species counterpoint. For demonstration purposes, we are keeping the bottom line the same. Naturally following second species is the third species counterpoint in Ex 4 that equates to using 4:1 or 3:1 ratio between the lines. Fourth species counterpoint basically breaks down to a 1:1 ratio, offset [Ex 5], so that there are suspensions created between the lines and each line attacks a note separately, as opposed to simultaneously as in first species. Finally, we get to use all these rhythm ratios in a free-for-all [Ex 6] and we call this fifth species counterpoint. Once we take away the classical harmonic restrictions, and think from the perspective of chord changes we can apply these concepts to jazz. Ex 7 is a line that connects the 7th to the 5th of F7 chromatically, while sustaining the F, giving us a little third species lick. We can play through chord tones contrapuntally [Ex 8] generating some interesting interval combinations. If we then open ourselves to chromatic lines, we can get some spectacularly modern sounding dual lines, jumping between wide and small intervals [Ex 9]. Interestingly enough, this is usually avoided in traditional counterpoint, making it all the more contemporary when used in a jazz context. It is also important to remember, that not all counterpoint has to be double stops, such as the line in Ex 10 that contrasts a descending top note with a motif underneath. Lastly, we combine these various techniques and species to create Ex 11, a sequence through a turnaround. Here we use motion on top and on the bottom, along with a variety of species and rhythms. In the second bar starting on the second half of beat one, the intervals gradually get wider to create an effect. Notice we stay mostly to chord tones with this example but the possibilities are infinite. Counterpoint is one of the best ways to really elevate your playing to the next level, and will improve your soloing as well as your chordal and unaccompanied playing. We have only focused on two note counterpoint, but three and four are possible as well! So start slow, and gradually put the notes and rhythms together. It may even help to write it out so you can see the motion of the lines. Jazz hard, because your one-at-a-time life ends today.




Categories: Chords, Harmony, Uncategorized

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