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Partial Capos and Jazz Guitar

I have always said that partial capos are not particularly useful for jazz guitarists, and though this remains primarily true, it's worth talking about a little bit, and I'd like to try to engage some jazz guitarists in this area.

Classic jazz guitar is something people do most often with a 6-string guitar in standard tuning. Traditionally the players have used a flatpick (plectrum if you are Mel Bay) to chunk rhythm chords and play melody lines, though the realm of what is often called "fingerstyle jazz" has been growing steadily outside of this framework. If you look at the bigger picture, you see that there have always been some truly experimental players, starting from Carl Kress who used a unique tuning, Wes Montgomery, who used only his right hand thumb, and Lenny Breau, who brought classical and flamenco techniques (plus a lot of his own) to the realm of "jazz guitar." George Van Eps was using a 7-string guitar decades ago, and a number of fine players have gone outside the realm of straight-ahead jazz guitar to play their music. Tuck Andress comes to mind, as well as Larry Coryell, Michael Hedges, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny.

What "classic" jazz guitarists have done, fundamentally, is to develop a universal technique that primarily involves closed-position chords and scales, so they can transpose to different keys than guitarists normally play in. The so-called "horn keys" of F, Bb, Eb and Ab (plus piano keys like C# and F#) are not normally what guitarists favor, and because of the tendency of open strings on an electric guitar to sound different, jazz guitarists have generally tried to use open strings as little as possible. Since open strings is what the partial capo is all about, the basic idea of the partial capo and the basic idea of jazz guitar are sort of opposites. Also, the open tunings and partial capos are largely used to set up ringing drone resonances, and they lose their effectiveness in a jazz song where there are often a lot of chord changes, or a band.

In jazz guitar, a good education also seems to be a lot about knowing some way to play every extended chord you might need, and preferably it should be a closed-position voicing that can be moved around the neck. There aren't many ways to voice a Bbm9b5 or an Ebmaj6 chord, for example. There is another kind of idea that comes up often in partial capo research, which is to put your guitar in an environment where there are huge numbers of possible voicings of certain chords. There might be 25 nice voicings of an A or an E7 chord, and you might want to pick through them all to find the ones that sounds just right to your ears on a particular song. Many of these voicings also might be something that has never been possible before, and partial capo environments are ideal for players who are searching for some brand-new, fresh-sounding chords.

However, it is no secret that all guitarists love to hear ringing open strings, and in the world of acoustic guitar jazz players, we increasingly find altered tunings, and we hear more and more open-string voicings of the more complex and extended chords that we associate with jazz music. The kinds of more adventurous things that players like Pierre Bensusan, Leo Kottke, Alex DeGrassi, Ralph Towner, Jeff Linsky, Don Ross, Peter Finger, Adam Rafferty and Phil Keaggy are doing involve a lot of open strings, usually in non-standard tunings. Because jazz music is about the more complex chord structures and progressions, and because the map of possibilities of what chords and chord voicings are possible on guitar has everything to do with what music can be played– it only makes sense that some jazz players will be able to find some musically valuable things by using a partial capo. Many jazz guitarists like to play things like Beatles songs, and though they almost always feature more sophisticated chords than just 1-4-5, there are a number of examples of their songs (Norwegian Wood, Eleanor Rigby etc.) that can come alive with a partial capo arrangment. I play very little of what could be called "jazz guitar" myself, though I have worked up some very nice arrangements of things like "Send in the Clowns" with a partial capo, and the combination of the ringing open strings and the extended chords is really lovely.

So if you consider yourself a jazz guitarist, don't overlook this simple tool that changes the whole game of what is possible, and there are bound to be some songs you can arrange (and some new parts of your guitar brain you can stimulate) with a partial capo. Remember that a lot of the partial capo configurations involve standard tuning, so you can always use all the scales and closed-position chords you already know, and this musical world is vastly less disorienting than the world of open tunings, which you already know about.

Harvey Reid © 2010