– Why It Works –
Preface To Original 2004 Article
In the latter part of 2004, I wrote the following article and sent it to Robert Conti with a request to have it published on his website with the intention of sharing insights of my learning experience with other aspiring jazz guitarists. Since this article was first written, there has been an increase in the number of guitar instruction books that emphasize the use of melodic phrases and licks as a means of enhancing improvisation skills. As an avid reader of JJG, I also see other respected players who are now advertising a change in philosophy to a No Modes No Scales™ theme in their new educational products.
I believe there is even greater significance in this development, as that ideology has been the ongoing and well documented building block of the Robert Conti approach to teaching since 1966. Although previously considered a radical and unorthodox approach by many of Robert Conti’s peers, it appears the successful methodology that he has steadfastly embraced over forty years is now being strongly advocated by other important jazz players and educators.
The breakthrough for me was Robert’s explanation of how simple melodic phrases can be applied to various tone centers to create an endless variety of professional jazz sounds. His No Modes No Scales™ approach is far superior to scalar and modal techniques because it utilizes interesting musical phrases rather than boring scale lines to create musical building blocks that, with minimal effort, will quickly elevate one’s playing to a professional level. As evidence, ask yourself when was the last time you paid a compliment to a great musician by saying “Wow, that was a great mixolydian scale”? When you grasp that great music is more about the melody than about the scale, you’re on your way to mastering jazz.
During my early playing days, I was very fortunate to have talked with many well known jazz and soul musicians including Stevie Wonder and Wes Montgomery about how they approach music. In recent years I have met many talented gypsy jazz players that seem to also have a gift for creating melodic improvisations. What do they have in common? Many of the best do not play using scales and modes – but instead rely on using rich musical phrases and impeccable phrasing to create their unique playing styles.
Robert’s approach to jazz takes this approach to a new level. His simplistic view of teaching/learning can be captured with one of his quotes:
“Absolutely no one will ever come to hear you play modes and scales or talk about theory.”
The following article will present some of my background and how I discovered Robert Conti, as well as how his learning products have made such a positive and ongoing impact on my skills as a jazz guitarist.
Paul Getty, San Francisco
The Robert Conti Approach To Teaching Jazz Guitar
– Why It Works –
A Reprint Of A 2004 Article By Paul Getty
Perhaps like yourself, jazz guitar has been my passion since childhood. My name is Paul Getty, from the California Bay Area. Although I am now a businessman, my primary interest remains the pursuit of playing jazz guitar. One of my career highlights was the opportunity to perform with Stevie Wonder during the 1960s.
In 1990, while working my way through the bustling lobby of a Marriott Hotel in Southern California, the sound of some great jazz guitar playing followed by applause caught my attention. This was quite unusual, it was great to see a guitarist, as one can almost always count on a boring piano player in most hotels. I was so taken by the virtuosity that I actually cancelled my early evening meeting to hear, and hopefully meet this guitarist, Robert Conti.
During my stay at that hotel, I arranged to take a lesson from Bob. That three hour exposure to his improvising and chord melody approach became the major turning point in my ability to play jazz guitar. In addition to the material I learned very quickly, one of the things that amazed me was his ability to quickly redirect some of my previous knowledge from my head to the neck and into meaningful music. In fact, I can honestly say to you, that no other event, teacher, book or video has had that much impact or improvement on my playing skill.
As the result of my first hand experience, I became a huge fan and one of his continuously growing list of supporters. At a past NAMM Expo, Bob mentioned that his website would be soon undergo a restructuring. As I and all my musician friends are continuously impressed with his impact on my playing, I requested permission to write this for other aspiring jazz guitarists, as it a pleasure to introduce others to Robert Conti’s talent as a performer and educator, indeed a rare combination.
I believe your experience will parallel mine, as you are about to discover what I can only describe as the Rolls Royce of jazz guitar learning products!
The Conti Jazz Guitar Methodology
During that first lesson in 1990, I was quickly exposed to the cornerstone of his methodology. At that point in time, I was still struggling with modes and other non-playing activity. So, at the beginning of the lesson, I asked Robert Conti about his approach to modes, scales, theory etc. He stated to me, “I don’t know anything about modes, very few scales and just enough theory to cause trouble! But there are two things that I do know for sure: Absolutely no one will ever come to hear you play modes and scales or talk about theory. And, every learning product or lesson should have an immediate impact on your playing skill.”
Robert firmly believes that a student’s approach to learning jazz guitar should be as pragmatic and consistent with their approach to acquiring other skills. For instance, to learn how to ride a two wheel bicycle, one must actually ride the bike; to learn how to swim, one must get into the water and swim; to learn how to ice skate, one must get on the ice and skate. Consider how many people learn to drive a car with no knowledge of how the engine actually functions. That simple and reasonable logic also dictates that one can only learn to play an instrument well, by actually playing the instrument. As Robert says: “Invest your time in playing your instrument and that everything else will assuredly take care of itself. It is much easier to comprehend and understand the nuts and bolts of chords, lines, theory etc, when you can first play subject material. Play it first, analyze it later!”
In line with his philosophy, his learning products are focused on a “hands on the instrument” approach to produce immediate results that are gratifying to the student, as the great feeling of self-accomplishment always raises one’s level of self-confidence and desire to achieve even more. Robert’s long-term teaching experience has clearly proven to me that his approach is far more productive than wasting time talking about, modes, scales etc. Ultimately, it all comes down to playing jazz guitar, as “absolutely no one will ever come to hear you play modes and scales!”
You might be asking, “What makes Conti’s products so much better or different than everything else? One of the traits that make Robert a superb teacher is his ability to present extremely complex material in a such a way that even an intermediate guitarist can play the subject material. After investing much time and thousands of dollars in numerous jazz instruction products, I eventually discovered the most effective books and DVDs provide ideas that you can take to the gig that night.
Alternately, the worst products always took me down another endless path of boring exercises and modes that essentially do nothing to improve one’s improvising skills or musicality. The art of jazz is about creating and playing interesting music, not mindless scale and mode exercises. The magic of Conti’s approach and products is they effectively deliver tools and ideas that can be easily integrated into one’s playing to yield rapid improvements.
However, rather than trying to answer that question with a descriptive monologue, I will defer to Robert’s approach of “don’t talk about it, play it!” As you can then see his methodology and determine the answer for yourself. If you can play a chord grid, you can play these harmonically rich arrangements! See the samples of Robert’s “Pro Level” chord melody arrangements of Misty, and the classic Over The Rainbow both well known standards. Play any row of chords for five or ten minutes. When you hear your results, you’ll become as excited as I was!
Every chord solo arrangement that I’ve ever seen is written in notation and Tablature, which (to me) is often discouraging and even more confusing than notation, and perhaps, the very reason why most guitarists steer clear of solo playing. As you can see, Conti eliminates any guess work on your part because he is concerned enough to take the time to include the correct chord grid for every note in the melody line.
In several arrangements, Conti includes multiple rows of chord grids to demonstrate harmonic choices for the player. The choice is always left to player preference, as either upper or lower row is acceptable. Players are also urged to experiment with varying combinations of the chords to create new harmonic palettes. While many guitarists do not read notes, every guitarist can read a chord grid, and the ability to play that simple grid will allow any guitarist to actually play a great arrangement. I’ve spoken with numerous guitarists who have played his arrangements. Everyone agrees – like the sample below, every Conti arrangement offers clear proof of his determination to be certain that guitarists of even minimum skill, will be able to play his arrangement!
IMPORTANT: If you are at the beginning level of solo playing, Conti says “it is perfectly acceptable to eliminate several chords and simply use single melody notes to connect the remaining chords. By doing so, you can adjust the arrangements to YOUR level of playing skill.” In essence, the Conti Arrangements are intentionally designed to be played by an extremely wide range of guitarists starting with those at the entry level of solo chord melody. In fact, there are several professional “working players” who actually utilize Conti’s arrangements in live performances. The more advanced players generally choose to play each of the chords to create lush harmony. Again, if you can play a simple chord grid, you can play Conti’s arrangements.
Also, keep in mind that for ease of reading notation, the melody line is written one octave lower. If you do not read music, simply play each grid with a slow legato feel and you will hear the subject melody very clearly.
(Incidentally, for those who are unaware, Conti’s chord melody arrangements are a favorite reader feature in every issue of Just Jazz Guitar Magazine. If you are not a subscriber, it is a great resource for jazz guitarists!)
Prior to 2000, Mr. Conti’s teaching skill was only available to regional players who were able to take a private lesson with him in Florida or Southern California. However, the international jazz guitar community quickly responded to the common sense approach embodied in his first group of book releases in 2000. As everyone is aware, there are endless numbers of unverifiable advertising claims. However, everyone would reasonably agree that only products that deliver results survive the test of time.
Repeat purchases from prior customers presents a very reliable indication of customer satisfaction from a high quality product. Can you ever recall making a second purchase of an unsatisfactory product? Please, take a few minutes to read through the comments in the Customer Testimonial section of his website. Those accolades were placed by actual customers who included their name and email address and clearly verify the effectiveness of Mr. Conti’s Jazz Guitar DVDs and books.
After the release of his first video in early 2002, the news quickly spread amongst aspiring jazz guitarists worldwide and the response was suddenly overwhelming. The proof? Consider that the cost of a quality DVD production is very high and most other educators may make one, and rarely two DVDs. Then, ask yourself this question: Why would Robert Conti make 15 DVDs if there was no customer demand? The answer is in the question. Very simply, intense customer demand for his ability to place desirable and high quality information under your fingers quickly has justified the production of fifteen DVDs – and there are six new titles currently underway. Without question, that undeniable fact is a reliable measure of his product quality. In fact, as another clear indication of Robert Conti’s impact on the industry, I continue to notice that several other educators have made subtle attempts to imitate his methods!
If you’ve had your fill of theory, modes, scales and you’re ready to play jazz guitar, then it’s time to have a pro show you exactly where to put your fingers to make music, not scales. Unlike the majority of DVDs that present theory and scales and require leaps of your imagination to try and make music, the Conti DVDs get right to where every guitarist needs the most help – at the song and performance level.
I sincerely hope this narrative has been helpful to you in your pursuit of playing jazz guitar!
Best regards and much good luck with your studies,
San Francisco Venture Capitalist & Jazz Guitar Enthusiast
P.S. A November 2007 Update
At the time this article was submitted to the Just Jazz Guitar magazine, Robert’s production company was completing the video session for his Twenty-Fifth DVD. As a businessman observing, since the January 2000 launch of his website and publishing company, the growth has been and continues to be phenomenal. If this had been an IPO, I submit that it would parallel a Wall Street high flyer!
In addition to maintaining his ideology of No Modes No Scales™ for over forty years, I asked Robert if there was any single element that he could cite for the success and growing demand for his learning products. His response:
“The mission and most important core value of every product I produce is to deliver complex data in an easily accessible format. By doing so, every intermediate level player with a modicum of ability is quickly able to play meaningful chord melody arrangements and begin developing a vocabulary of useful improv lines. Without question, the ability to actually play music (instead of scales and modes) creates a high level of self-satisfaction and achievement, which in turn, is the definitive turning point that fuels higher levels of learning.” Robert Conti