FOUR to the BAR - by Scott Stenten
One of the ways to have a rich and full sound with the two-hand tapping approach is by playing one chord per beat with your left hand while playing melody lines with your right hand. In the four-four time signature, playing a "four chord to the bar" pulse in the left hand is a fairly easy technique. It is also a powerful tool that should not be overlooked.
Let's talk about how other instrumentalists use this "four to the bar" chordal style and how it relates to the two-hand tapping approach.
The jazz pianist Erroll Garner had a highly personal style that in the 1950¹s and 60¹s merged jazz and popular music. A trademark of Garner¹s playing was a four to the bar left hand groove with a hard, swinging right hand playing lines and chords. Garner drew his left hand rhythm ideas from big band guitarists like Freddie Green of the Count Basie Band. The way Garner emulated the big band swells, shouts, and grooves was a refreshing innovation even if he did not absorb as much of the Bebop language as some of the other pianists of the day. The hard grooving left hand pulse was the foundation that much of his improvisations were built upon.
One of the greatest jazz pianists is Ahmad Jamal. Jamal sites Garner as a major influence. He also draws upon the four to the bar left hand pulse. The left hand grooves that Jamal uses are more subtle and shorter in duration than those of Garner, but they are no less fierce. I recommend his more recent releases on the Verve Birdology label. His Live at the Pershing recording from 1958, however, is essential jazz trio music. Those of us interested in hard driving funk-type grooves should check out live versions of Jamal tunes like "Firefly" or "Mellowdrama." These tunes incorporate the four to the bar left hand feel with the right hand unleashing furious improvisations.
Django Reinhardt and the Gypsy Guitar Legacy is a magnificent film (that can be found on video) about recent European guitarists playing in the gypsy guitar style. There are several examples of guitarists playing duets. The rhythm guitarist plays a pulsating four chord to the bar groove while the soloist plays melodies and burning improvisations. Beats two and four of the rhythm are accented and add to the hard driving sensation. The Homespun Video Gypsy Jazz Guitar Part 1 by Paul Mehling breaks down and explains this approach.
I had never really thought about doing something as simple as a four chords to the bar groove, with my left hand, until I came back to these previously mentioned influences. How can I sound like this on my instrument, I thought? The left hand should groove hard and not deviate from the time. The right hand can rush, lay back, or be right in the pocket, but the left hand must hold it¹s own. Listening to and thinking about the gypsy guitarists, pianists Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, as well as others has breathed new life into my rhythmic ideas.
Don¹t be afraid to lay into the chord. Use vibrato and try to feel and hear each note. It might be my personal preference, but chords tapped light and fast can come off sounding like a harpsichord setting on a cheap electronic keyboard. Experimenting with touch and really listening to the comping is essential. At the same time this allows your soloing to have more natural space because the comping sounds so solid.
Listening to the great masters like Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Errol Garner, Amal Jamal, Art Tatum, Earl Hines and countless others is the best way to absorb this feel. Hearing them in your head while you play or even mentally visualizing them can also be effective.
I use the four to the bar feel in a variety of jazz styles. Specific tunes include the standards "Lover Man" and "The Days of Wine and Roses," the bebop classic "Confirmation," the modal "Impressions" and more. Often I find myself laying down this type of groove when working off a lead sheet for the first time. This feel can be played in anything from ballads to more up-tempo numbers. You might want to break up the tune by playing bass lines, arpeggios, or broken chords. Then again if it feels good and grooves hard, you may never want to stop.