Featuring Ike Isaacs
Reminiscences of the Guitar | Ike Isaacs
This well respected jazz guitarist talks about the origins and technique of the guitar; plus free pull-out music: "After Hours" - one of his pieces to play
IKE Isaacs has recently left the U.K. to start his own guitar school in Sydney, Australia. He was born in Rangon, Burma, in 1919 and studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry for his B.Sc. During the war, he was evacuated to India with the Japanese occupation of Burma. After the war, he was offered a job in a band for six months - and the six months are still going along!
For over thirty years he has been a master of the guitar player's art and has worked with artists from Frank Sinatra to Stephane Grappelli. The Japanese Aria Guitar Company have manufactured the 'Ike Isaacs' TA 1500 semi-acoustic instrument, setting Ike's high standard of quality he expects from workmanship and performance. At the age of 62 he is prepared to dedicate many more years in the teaching and playing of the guitar.
I call the last 25 years the 'Guitar Age' because there have been so many millions of guitars sold in all shapes and sizes. There has been someone in nearly every family who plays a guitar, so the interest in the instrument has been tremendous, even though many people never go beyond the basic stage. Like anything that proliferates, the guitar has really developed since I was a kid.
The basic guitar in those days was an acoustic instrument and it was popularised with chord strumming and folk guitar style, with a wide standard of playing realised even in those formative years. I am talking about the times when people played and accompanied blues, protest and religious songs. Then came the emergence of the jazz band using the tuba and banjo. Later, the strident brassiness of the tuba was replace with the double bass and the rumbustuous 'plinkety-plonking' banjo was exchanged for the acoustic guitar.
The main function of the acoustic guitar was for rhythm playing by strumming chords. Of course, there was no amplification for it and only one microphone in the jazz band usually, so the player would raise the action of his guitar (by lifting the bridge), use heavy strings and really play hard. This style of playing was often detrimental to improving techniques and made fast runs very difficult. So playing had to be moderated for the structure of the instrument. Subsequently, the guitarist was often given a monotonous role as a rhythm 'ox', having only an occasional few solo bars in an introduction, modulation to the middle eight, or ending.
One way of improving the situation was to do other work with quartets and trios using a second instrument with a lower action that played softer. This music was more sophisticated, demanding a better technique from the player for arpeggios and single line passages. Equal importance was apportioned to the ensemble instruments and many of these combinations became well known, e.g. the Joe Venuti/Eddie Lang Duo, the Adrian Rollini Trio and Quartet, and the Karl Kress and Dick McDonough Duo, who all played some tremendous music. There was also Tony Mottola, still doing some fine sessions in New York, who started off in the early days. George van Eps was one of the innovators of guitar and chord playing styles, and must now be the 'Daddy' of them all coming up to 70 years of age. He's still playing brilliantly and like many long-standing guitarists has moved from acoustic to electric. He recently published a book 'Harmonic Mechanisms for the Guitar' which is a must for every serious guitar player. It's an in-depth study of left handing fingering and co-ordination of right and left hands. When you can master these techniques you can really play anything. (Sevcik did a similar system for the violin). Eps' teaching brings the playing of the guitar to a very advanced complicated level. Everybody needs to play his method if they want to play better music.
The jazz guitar started as an acoustic guitar that was amplified. One problem with this instrument was its susceptibility to feedback from its big sound chamber, and lower notes especially were prone to this. Moving from open strings to octaves often induced vibrations too, so certain 'wolf' notes appeared on the guitar as well as others caused by the amplifier resonating.
The semi-acoustic developed into an instrument with two pick-ups screwed to the body. This meant that vibration was reduced, although it still suffered from feedback at times. It is not uncommon to find the semiacoustic in use with a rock group where feedback is overcome simply by the forward positioning of the PA.
The length of the acoustic guitar note is shorter than that on the semi-acoustic because of the body structure. A normal acoustic with a solid wooden bridge that's moveable gives a good punchy sound for rhythm playing but it does not give a good sustain note. A round hole guitar will also give more sustain than an F hole instrument. The latter was used for clean chord accompaniment in the rhythm section of a big band. Changing an acoustic to semi-acoustic was often done by inserting a pick-up and a metal bridge, whilst maintaining the same distance from neck to bridge.
Then came the electric guitar, achieved with a basic magnet and a hand wound coil as a pick up in the most crude form in the early days. It was played by people like Floyd Smith and Charlie Christian. I played this early electric myself, using a home wound coil with an amplifier built by a friend. Then I came across my first semi-acoustic guitar with the pickup screwed into the body rather than a floating version, and that gave a different sort of sound, with a little more sustain. We tried very hard in the early years of the guitar to get the variety of sounds from the instrument itself, but of course today you can use graphic equalisers, compression, delay and effects to simulate more or less any sound you want. You can therefore often compensate for deficiencies on your instrument. But I have found that the valve amp gives a particularly warm sound which you won't find with transistors. It's really the transistor 'brittleness', whereas the valves give a little more 'meat' and density in the note as well as more 'elasticity' to the sound - a note doesn't just end suddenly.
I became involved with Jimmy Burns in Essex, in the making of guitars and we worked on the Hank Marvin (Shadows) and Bison guitars. We spent many sleepless nights improving the designs - I was very exacting and a critical listener. We did the Orbit amplifiers too. The instruments were very good for that time, but unfortunately were not as successful as they could have been.
"After the war, I was offered a job in a band for six months - and the six months are still going along!"
Many guitar manufacturers now provide cheap instruments for music students, and these days they are very good - only a shade off some of the best guitars. You can't go far wrong by choosing one of the good copies to start off with. One problem with maintaining quality is the shortage of good wood for acoustic models. You don't need the highest quality wood to get a satisfactory acoustic sound. As long as the instrument is well made, the structure design and strutting is right - then the results should be satisfactory. For notes to sustain well enough, in essence, it's the sound vibrating between two fulcrums and how much stability we have at the peg head and tail piece that is important. The bridge must be rigid to transmit the sound and attention to all these details improves the quality. The volume is dependent on the acoustical body shape.
Choosing the right strings for your playing is a vital prerequisite. Strings have to be selected for their gauge — how thin they are, the kind of flexibility they have for bending the pitch, and also the metal content of the string which affects the pick-up sensitivity - nickel quality gives more volume, silver steel is not as bright in tone. So the more iron content, the better the string sensitivity. Tension across the strings should also be equal - and not many guitarists check out this and other points on their instruments with that essential care. On the other hand, instruments from some manufacturers are precisely set up so that they not only look good but sound good too - the weight, balance, general feel of the finger board and finger pressure on the strings are the first things a guitarist looks for when trying out a new instrument.
I also spent a lot of time working on solid electric guitars when I was with Jimmy Burns. We paid attention to design of rigid bridge and machine anchor points, correct weight, and a stable neck that did not move around. In other words the string vibration was very free, resilient and elastic, but with a strong stable fulcrum. We would often come up against problems when developing the instruments, such as extraneous sounds that usually came from the downbearing on the bridge and the nut. Nuts can be made of plastic, bone, and ivory but on the solid instruments they are often metal. The sharper the angle of the strings (or downbearing) is on the nut and the bridge, then the clearer the sound and the better the sustain. The bass end has to have a springiness that gives plenty of potential energy, and the Fender was very good for that even in the early days. Guitars have changed from picking, plucking instruments to ones that can sustain sounds like a blown instrument over several bars. Consequently, playing styles also changed. Sustain, for example, was first achieved with a solid guitar using light gauge strings, then later by means of electronic effects units.
There are three scale lengths of guitar: long, medium and short, altering the fret spacing and the overall nut to bridge distance. Short scale instruments help beginners and also make big stretch chords much easier. The long scale gives a much deeper sound and some classical guitars using this are very difficult to play because of the finger stretch required, but do give more sonority. I use the normal medium scale and sometimes the short scale (which incidentally, is used a lot on rock guitars).
I play my chords in different positions on the guitar without restriction according to the register or inversion I require. What is important is that provided your fingers are flexible enough, it's no harder really to play one open stretch chord from another - it's just thinking right. How you place your fingers is, of course, important too. A lot of people do not place their hands correctly and it becomes difficult to play the faster passages.
I've written a very simple book called "Photo Guide for the Guitar" and this gives you the fundamental concepts of holding the guitar. The first principle is that it is really the same as grasping something ordinary like an apple or orange. The general "fist" movement is the thing, as well as conceiving the amount of "grasp" necessary to play a chord. This concept is very important, so that a simple E major chord requires, a small grasp, and a barre requires something more — too many people over-press on the strings. Following my basic rules, I have taught pupils to play an F barre in just 20 minutes.
If I had a guitar and was given the ability to play the music of the kind that the kids are playing today, I'd have to use very light gauge strings along with all the gadgets. I'd have a certain degree of distortion, although for chords it is not very desirable so my chord playing would probably deteriorate. If you play chords, intonation has to be very accurate. With single line playing on a very low action guitar you can put your instrument out of tune while playing, but that doesn't worry the 'lead' player as he bends and stretches the strings to compensate. For the 'rhythm' players' chords it wouldn't be acceptable. So the solid electric guitar is totally different in concept musically and in its playing technique from the semi-acoustic.
When the solid guitar came in, it was immediately used for rhythm, bass and lead. Playing rhythm on a solid instrument requires a style completely different from the steady 'four' of the semi-acoustic used in the dance bands and early groups. The style is based on chords that punctuate and provide rhythmic effects. Variations in the decay of the guitar note has become important and so has the use of glissandi and note bending. The combination of single line phrases, chord patterns, detuning and other 'performance' effects that a modern guitarist uses either often far outweigh or are far more subtle than the keyboard synthesists' hand pitch wheel and foot control.
I've got relative pitch - I hear a B easily and I can pick up a guitar and tune it accurately to concert pitch. It doesn't matter whether it's A440 or not. Of course, the weather and your own hearing that day and so on can affect the way you tune. The best way of tuning is 'by ear' providing your guitar is completely 'in tune' to begin with as regards frets, bridge position etc. The bridge point-of-contact is important for correct tuning for the octaves. One way of tuning accurately is to take the harmonic on the 12th fret, sound it, and depress the note. If the note is sharper than the harmonic, you move the bridge point-of-contact so that they coincide (and forward if the note is flat). To get a greater degree of accuracy you take the 19th fret (a B on the E string) and do the same thing. I also check the pitch and generally try chords over the guitar to verify what I have done by ear, and from the harmonics. In certain keys, I will readjust the strings slightly e.g. to make an A chord have more of a C# than a Db.
"In many respects the 'Guitar Age' is not ending - for me, it's just starting all over again."
Many people don't bother to use the wide range of chords possible on the guitar, but "Why do you want to speak in sentences when you can have command of the whole language?". All those major sevenths, minor ninths and 13ths etc. should be avidly explored by any serious guitarist, no matter what kind of music he plays - and the musician that uses a computer to make music has to know his chords and harmonics to explore additive and subtractive synthesis. It's a visual thing as well. For example, a keyboard player going from G13 to C#13 has to reshuffle his fingers to suit, but the guitarist can use the same visual shape of his fingers up or down the frets for G13, Ab13, A13 and so on - a big advantage. Each type of chord has its own visual shape.
Jazz players like to use fast chord changes with minimum hand movement. Solo players like to add harmonics, but you don't hear harmonics used too much in rock music because it's a physical thing you have to practise. Also the rock players' often using a plectrum to strike the strings. Actually there are many fret positions on a solid guitar that you can pick with a plectrum that give a 'whistling harmonic'.
The string's internal stretching is another important aspect in bending notes. In a series of notes you can either have a straight or bent note (pushing or pulling the string on the fret end). On my Aria guitar you cannot get very much inflection as the strings are medium grade, but on a solid instrument the light strings produce an internal stretch that gives a livelier sound. Some electric strings are flat wound, but they are not used a lot these days in pop music - it's a jazz player who likes these because they cut down the finger noise.
The rock player can also extend his range of sounds using effects such as phasers, flangers, wha-wha, distortion, fuzz, overdrive, sustain, echo and chorus etc.
The word 'jazz' is a flexible word. Jazz is an idiom - the ingredients it takes to be a good jazz player is the same as for a good instrumentalist. It makes demands on harmonic sounds, scales, arpeggios and the general playing of your instrument, certainly as much as classical music does.
Although jazz music has come to imply the use of extended chords, the major seventh and so on - the important aspect in its early stages was simply its 'idiom' - the way one played a 'blue' note (one that was slightly out-of-tune or out of the key tonality) and made general inflections. Modern classical music has also had an influence on jazz players. For instance, Charlie Parker was a major voice and he listened a lot to Stravinsky and other modern classical composers. Thus every avenue of music is worth exploring as it can influence your own style of music tremendously.
The guitar is surprisingly accessible to older people too. A local man aged 64 asked to play, so I got him a secondhand £10 guitar, fixed up the action so it was adequate, and he came for an hour and was soon accompanying himself, busily playing 'Home on the Range'!
In many respects the 'Guitar Age' is not ending - for me, it's just starting all over again! One person can spend ten years working hard on the guitar - it's such an individual instrument, but some kid who has been playing for just six months can do something that he can't do - and that is frightening. I can play something that Joe Pass can't play - equally there may be some kid who can play a piece neither of us can play. Toots Theilman, a great jazz harmonica and guitar player became intrigued by the Chet Atkins style of music which was far removed from the usual style of jazz we played and thus gave himself yet another challenge on the guitar. So the actual styles of guitar playing are the things that govern the technical prowess needed to be able to perform on the instrument. The guitar offers far more technical difficulties than most instruments and that is why the guitarist is the perennial student. Mastering a passage can often be so close, yet so far!
From an interview with Mike Beecher.
'After Hours' is a finger exercise in jazz idiom that uses certain chord changes that are played in a series of fast passages. It demands the use of fingers in a different way, by using barres with the 1st, 3rd and little finger as well. It uses a pattern based on D major and A major harmony, with a middle section sequence from F# major. 'After Hours' appears in a book of music entitled 'Guitar Moods' - chord concepts by Ike Isaacs, and is available from music shops.
Ike Isaacs introduces and plays this challenging piece on his Aria guitar on demo cassette No. 6. It's a chance to hear the superb interpretation and technique of one of the great contributors to the art of guitar playing.
Interview by Mike Beecher
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