4 Great Chord Melody Jazz Guitarists Part 1: Ed Bickert
In the second half of the 20th century, four of the most exceptional chord melody guitarists emerged on the jazz guitar scene.
In this four-part series of posts, you’re going to learn about these important players lives, their style, and how they each of them made a huge impact on jazz guitar as we know it.
You’re also going to learn classic licks and transcriptions of these players so you can incorporate their ideas into your own playing.
As you’ll discover, chord melody allows for a lot of individual expression and creativity.
Each of these players had a groundbreaking approach to chord melody with a sound totally unique to their own.
Let’s see what’s possible with chord melody guitar, starting with one of my favorite players, Ed Bickert.
Handy PDF Download: Get access to a print friendly pdf version of this article including all the lead sheets, chord diagrams, backing tracks and instructions.
Part 1: Ed Bickert
Though he was not well known, I consider Ed Bickert to be one of the trailblazers of jazz guitar.
I’ll go even further to say that Ed Bickert is one of the greatest jazz guitarists the world has ever seen – I think his name deserves as much recognition as Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery.
Bickert had very innovative approaches to chords and chord melody playing, as you’ll see in some of the examples below.
Ed Bickert’s Life & Career
Ed Bickert was born in Manitoba, Canada, to a family of farmers. His parents were musical, with his father being a fiddler and his mother a pianist.
Deciding to pursue music instead of farming, Bickert quickly established himself as a success, becoming one of the top jazz and studio guitarists of the scene in Toronto in the 60s.
But Bickert’s real lucky break came when he was introduced to Paul Desmond by Jim Hall, (Ed and Jim were friends), which led to several collaborations between Desmond and Bickert.
Bickert continued to play until the early 2000s, when he then retired.
Unlike other jazz masters, Bickert quietly pursued his art and didn’t overtly seek fame or success.
I think this is one of the reasons why Bickert developed such a uniquely personal style, as genuine as it is groundbreaking.
Now, let’s check out some of his playing.
Ed Bickert’s Style – Smooth As Silk
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
But a video is worth a million.
So, check out this video of Bickert playing in a trio of the classic jazz standard Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me as a fine example of his silky smooth style:
If I was only allowed to choose one player to emulate in a trio setting it would be Ed Bickert – laid back yet refined, I could listen to him all day long.
As Bickert plays a solo he often interchanges between single line, chord stabs and full chord soloing, skilfully creating interest and variety as you can hear in the video above.
What I love most about Bickert’s playing is his unique approach to chord voicings: easy on the hands, but very sophisticated.
Bickert was the master of implying harmony with chords.
His chords give the impression to the listener of many more notes being played in the voicings than what is actually there.
For jazz guitar, it’s usually only practical to play three or four note chords, so you need to make sure you get the most ‘bang-for-your-buck’ out of the chord tones for each shape you hold down.
Bickert’s voicings live on the upper structures of the harmony: he rarely plays the root or 5th in his chords and often uses quartal approaches.
Here’s the thing:
If you try to play Bickert’s voicings unaccompanied, they can often seem quite dissonant and unrelated to the given harmony.
But, in the context of a trio, they blend in beautifully – giving a warm, listenable, and attention grabbing sound to your comping and chord solos.
3 Ed Bickert Licks
No more armchair jazz guitar! It’s time for you to get to work now.
Get started by learning the following 3 licks in the style of Ed Bickert, which are strong examples of his key ideas.
Ed Bickert Lick 1
Listen & Play:
This first lick, based on a I – vi – ii – V turnaround, features colorful chord voicings at every turn.
Notice the skillful ‘smooth as silk’ voice leading that Bickert employs in this lick as he moves from chord to chord.
Also noteworthy is that all the chords in this lick are rootless voicings.
If you’re playing in a trio, the bass player is usually playing the root notes, freeing you up to play more colorful tones on top.
Whilst this lick might sound a bit strange unaccompanied, try it along with the recording and it will make sense.
Ed Bickert Lick 2
Listen & Play:
In this lick, Bickert employs open strings to great effect.
Bickert liked using chord clusters, i.e groups of notes very close together. Employing open strings results in a chord cluster which can be otherwise be too tricky to play on guitar.
Again you’ll see the use of entirely rootless voicings, with Bickert playing exclusively in the upper structures of the harmony.
Also, notice that deliciously smooth voice leading that Ed Bickert is renowned for.
Ed Bickert Lick 3
Listen & Play:
I love this one.
The first chord is a sub of the iim7 chord, becoming a V/V7.
There’s also lots of chords in this lick with a b13 tension, giving it a really hip sound.
As this lick finishes on a I7 chord in the harmony, it’s a good one to use for a jazz blues progression.
Great Recordings of Ed Bickert
This list isn’t exhaustive, but is a good place to start checking out Ed Bickert’s playing at his finest:
- Paul Desmond & Ed Bickert – Pure Desmond (1974)
- Paul Desmond Quartet Live (1975 )
- Out of The Past (1976)
- Ed Bickert with Don Thompson: At the Garden Party (1979)
Despite being the musical equivalent of a ‘hidden yogi’, Ed Bickert is a master musician and essential study for any serious chord melody jazz guitarist.
His chord voicings are sophisticated yet easy to apply, which will give you a dynamic sound in your chord melodies and will help break you away from the more stock standard drop 2 and drop 3 chord voicings.
I encourage you to find out more about this fabulous player, one who should be more well known to jazz guitarists everywhere.
Now the exciting bit:
If you're keen to have a structured, step-by-step approach to learning jazz guitar, it might be worth checking out my online learning system, the FretDojo Jazz Guitar Academy.
Here's what you get when you join up:
- Detailed step-by-step video lessons on new classic jazz tunes and essential jazz guitar skills added to the club website each month. Includes listening recommendations, demonstrations of the melody, analysis of the harmony, and detailed explanations on how to solo over the tune.
- Key improvisation concepts and techniques for soloing, and classic licks and example solos that relate to each tune, so you can continue to expand your jazz vocabulary and have more options when it comes to soloing.
- Detailed comping ideas to suit the style of each jazz standard covered
- Lessons on how to make chord melody and solo jazz guitar versions of tunes featured - play a complete jazz standard completely on your own like Joe Pass!
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- Massive searchable database of jazz licks and soloing concepts - the ultimate idea "grab bag" for your solos.
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The best part:
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My New eBook, The Easy Guide To Chord Melody Guitar – Out Now!
I’m pleased to announce that Matt Warnock of Jazz Guitar Online and myself have spent this year co-writing a comprehensive guide on arranging chord melodies and how to master the art of chord soloing, entitled The Easy Guide To Chord Melody Guitar.
This brand new eBook is a complete
A-Z guide on creating your own great sounding chord melody arrangements for trio and solo guitar situations, and you’ll also learn how to chord solo (i.e., improvise with chords) like a pro.
We’ve heavily referenced Ed Bickert throughout this book, so check it out if you’re keen to learn more about this genius of jazz guitar.
I hope today’s post has inspired you to learn more about Ed Bickert. Let me know what you think about this article by leaving a comment below.
In the next installment of this 4 part series, you’re going to learn about a guitarist known as the ‘Chord Chemist’. Do you know who it is?
Keep a lookout for the upcoming post to find out!
Greg O’Rourke, BMus (Hons), ANU