One day last March, I was on my morning drive, listening to the San Francisco Bay Area jazz station KCSM, when a gorgeous solo acoustic guitar piece, striking in its simplicity, came on the radio. I pulled off to the side of the road to have a closer listen. The artist’s identity seemed unmistakable—and sure enough, after the selection ended, the station’s host confirmed that it was Bill Frisell, playing a composition from his latest album, Music IS (OKeh).
Now 67, Frisell is a national treasure who has for decades been one of the guitar’s most original and influential practitioners. Though he’s generally classified as a jazz musician, he has left not one thread of American music unexamined in his work both as a leader and as a sideman, with improvising composers like saxophonist John Zorn and drummer Paul Motian, singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams, and many other collaborators.
Frisell is also known for his affability, and when I reached out for permission to run his composition in this magazine, he graciously agreed and even emailed me a picture of the original handwritten manuscript. Learning the piece—“Made to Shine”—not only will give you a lovely selection to add to your repertoire, its concepts will give you ideas that you can apply to your own music.
In the Collective Unconsciousness
Frisell woke up one morning in the early 2000s and quickly jotted down a folk-like melody with a main chord sequence that he realized was identical to that of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” “It felt like something out of the collective unconsciousness,” he says. “Just a tune that had been floating around in the air, or maybe similar to something I had heard the Kingston Trio do when I was a kid, buried very deep down in there in the far recesses of my memory.”
For his 2001 album Blues Dream, Frisell used this new-and-old tune as the source for two pieces with decidedly different characters, “Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming” and “Pretty Stars Were Made to Shine.” The former, a study in creative instrumentation, incorporates electric guitar with ambient effects, steel guitar, horns, bowed bass, and drums, and is played as a spacey waltz; the latter is a more straightforward country-and-western quartet version in cut time.
When playing a weeklong residency at the now-shuttered New York City music club the Stone in August 2017, Frisell revisited his tune in an unaccompanied context. “I’m not sure if disturbing is the right word to describe this, but after a show one night, a guy who was working there, Don De Tora, thanked me for playing Ry Cooder’s version of ‘Jesse James,’” Frisell says, laughing at the similarity to his own composition.
Not long after the Stone gig, Frisell recorded a new studio version of his tune—the one I heard on the radio. Where “Pretty Flowers Were Made for Blooming” is about a maximum of tonal colors and shadings, the more recent recording of “Made to Shine,” transcribed here, works in the opposite direction, stripping the tune to its essence.
Frisell more often plays the electric guitar than the acoustic, sometimes shaping his sound with a bevy of electronic effects, but he recorded “Made to Shine” on an early-’40s Gibson J-45, without any overdubs. (On the video here, guitarist and composer Mark Althans plays the piece on his custom Collings 01.) Scan through the music and you’ll see an apparent economy of harmony. In the A section, most of the chords are negotiated with just two notes, while in the B section the chords are comprised of three or four notes. The effect is a clear and singing sound, free from harmonic clutter.
Frisell says he arrived at this approach—which he makes extensive use of in all settings—through his studies with the late jazz guitarist Jim Hall. “Jim Hall is someone who would find the richest sound or imply something denser with just a few notes. I was lucky to take lessons with Jim Hall, and he would have me harmonize scales using different intervals. That showed me the power that just two notes at a time could have, rather than playing gigantic six-note chords all the time,” says Frisell, adding that the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk is another big influence on his harmonic thinking. (For more on Monk, see Adam Levy’s Weekly Workout in the January 2016 issue.)
Speaking of harmony, as is clear from Frisell’s manuscript, the guitarist uses a bunch of interesting substitutions in “Made to Shine” (with respect to the original composition), sometimes changing a chord’s character by adjusting just one note. In bar 2, he transforms the A chord into an A augmented triad by playing an F instead of E. This small adjustment lends a kind of haunting character to the piece.
The Techniques at Hand
On paper, “Made to Shine” looks approachable, and on one hand it isn’t so technically challenging. But on the other hand, it’s not easy to make the guitar sing like Frisell does on the recording. You need to play the melody, shown in the up-stemmed notes, louder than the other notes, but not too forcefully, as this is a delicate piece. This is especially important in a spot like bar 15, where you have to make sure that the fourth-fret F# and the open D string do not obscure the ringing second-fret A, held from the previous measure.
A good way to achieve the singing sound is to seek out the most efficient fingerings. For example, in bars 1 and 2, maintain a barre at fret 2 across strings 1–5, grab the fifth-fret E with your fourth finger, and, keeping that note held, stop the third-fret F with your second finger.
Of course, given its folk-like nature, “Made to Shine” is prime material for your own interpretation. Try playing it with different chord changes, in a different key, or even in an alternate tuning. The basic melody, as Frisell has demonstrated, is quite durable. As he puts it, the piece is ready to “sprout new branches.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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