Book Review: The Acoustic Jazz Guitarist by Sean McGowan

There’s a lot of method books for learning jazz guitar. The problems I’ve encountered are a lot of books present the material in a dry manner or far removed from the actual practice of playing and performing jazz.

Personal approaches are what I love nowadays as I look for how an artist approaches learning a style. In this new book by Sean McGowan, he presents an interesting take on learning acoustic jazz guitar.

It’s a big book! Not only is it a 152 page book but it also includes audio examples (mp3 files) and nearly six hours of video! Just that alone blew my mind since it’s arguably more than most DVD and video courses I’ve studied.

The official page describes the book:

Delve deep into the world of jazz guitar with this book of 10 extended lessons from master guitarist Sean McGowan. You’ll learn vocabulary for soloing over essential jazz forms like the 12-bar blues and rhythm changes, as well as virtually any chord progression you encounter. You’ll acquire a broad palette of chord voicings, along with the rhythmic ideas for smart comping. And you’ll absorb techniques for playing everything cleanly and efficiently—not just for jazz but any style.

Lessons include audio and video downloads, as well as standard notation and tablature, for all examples.

This comprehensive guide is available in two different formats:

  • Book and audio/video package. 152 pages with notation and tab, plus free audio downloads—and nearly six hours of accompanying video instruction—for all music examples, performed by Sean McGowan.
  • PDF and audio/video package. Downloadable version featuring the complete written instruction (including standard notation and tablature) from the book, free audio downloads, and nearly six hours of accompanying video instruction, performed by Sean McGowan.

There are 10 chapters which are:

  • Getting Started
  • The Toolbox
  • Thinking Vertically
  • Jazz Guitar Technique
  • Chord Voicings and Comping
  • Modal Improvisation
  • The Chromatic Palette
  • Improvisation: Engineering a Great Solo
  • Rhythm Changes
  • The Blues in Jazz

The book begins with two sections, Gearing Up and Notation Guide. Gearing Up gives an introduction to equipment that a jazz guitarist may need. In the Notation Guide, Sean McGowan gives a primer for sight reading basics and tablature notation.

A nice touch to the book are 5 Preludes which are beautiful miniature compositions that McGowan wrote incorporating various jazz sounds. The 5 Preludes could easily be a small volume by itself. It’s a great example of how you could assemble the material that is covered in the book. No real explanation or breakdown is given for the preludes but I find them a charming addition to the book. They are definitely worth playing and could be great for a solo guitarist’s set or even as etudes for those who might want to find a way to internalise the jazz sounds taught in the book. They also remind me of the solo guitar pieces that are included in the classic Berklee Modern Method for Guitar series by William Leavitt. McGowan’s harmonic sensibility is more modern though which is great.

In the first chapter, Getting Started – McGowan introduces the fundamentals from intervals, triads, seventh chords, major scales, modes and diatonic seventh chords. These are the bread and butter of understanding jazz harmony! There’s enough material here for the newbie to dig into and for the intermediate player to get a good refresher before going into heavier material.

In the second chapter, The Toolbox – McGowan introduces horizontal, symmetrical, vertical – position playing or ‘regions’ as he shares various fingering for scales and arpeggios. This is an extension of the previous chapter as we get away from just the theoretical framework and into a player’s perspective of looking at the guitar fretboard.

For chapter three, Thinking Vertically, McGowan introduces playing through changes with arpeggios. Approach notes, phrasing, space and arpeggio substitutions are introduced in this chapter as we start getting into the real application of what he covered in the previous chapters.

Chapter four, Jazz Guitar Technique presents warm-ups, technical picking exercises, synchronisation exercises, a Bach Invention, an introduction to various picking techniques and exercises/etudes for playing through chord changes. This is a huge topic that I’ve personally studied via many videos and books. It’s good to see how McGowan manages to distill the main technical elements here.

Chapter five, Chord Voicings and Comping is an examination of voicing types, chord voicings including quartal voicings, a summary of common rhythm guitar approaches including some examples for basic bossa nova rhythms too. Closing the chapter is a cool etude over the changes of Body and Soul that provide a harmonic workout using many of the voicing types covered in the chapter.

In the chapter for modal improvisation, McGowan demonstrates 5 etudes including over landmark modal jazz compositions such as ‘So What’, the A section of ‘Green Dolphin Street’, ‘Inner Urge’ and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Fall’. These etudes are a good way to have a feel for the overall vibe of modal music. The serious aspiring jazz musician will benefit from listening and studying to the tunes referenced as they study the material from this chapter. The etudes from this chapter are not my favourite from the book but they do give good ideas to work on.

The Chromatic Palette goes into many practical strategies for navigating through chord changes and including chromaticism in your lines. Common strategies like guide tones are covered and guitaristic ones like ‘Shape Shifting’ and pentatonic superimpositions are discussed as well.

In ‘Improvisation: Engineering a Great Solo‘, McGowan shares ideas for different textures for soloing including using octaves, double stops and block chords. In discussing phrasing, he include concepts like space, density, question and answer, comping, expansion and repetition. In closing the chapter, he shares 2 solo etudes demonstrating his concept of being the architect of a great solo.

Rhythm Changes is covered with an explanation of the chord progression, comping and soloing strategies as well as an etude to demonstrate possible soloing ideas.

In the closing chapter called ‘The Blues in Jazz‘, McGowan shares idiomatic voicings for jazz blues, the chord progressions and how the chord progression becomes a jazz blues via the added chords. He shares both comping and soloing strategies with written examples. The 4 examples from the soloing strategies alone could be the basis of many improvised solo ideas. There’s a lot of deceptively simple looking ideas shared but for the intrepid melodic explorer, you can gain a lot from closely analysing and studying the examples. Closing the chapter and the book are four etudes over different jazz blues progressions.

There’s definitely a blurring of content now with books being accompanied by audio and video. Sometimes in cases like book, it could have been a video course with an accompanying book. I guess it depends on who is selling the product.

All in all though, this is an awesome investment for the aspiring jazz guitarist to get an  overview of the different aspects of developing your acoustic jazz guitar skills.

For jazz guitar teachers, this is a worthwhile addition to your reference library and might even be a good choice for a main textbook for a college level jazz guitar course. There’s more than enough material here for students to work on and the audio/video elements provide tremendous value and help for the student.

Pros: Massive amount of content: 10 chapters of instruction in 152 pages with notation and tab, audio downloads—and nearly six hours of video.
Cons: Downloading the audio and video content was slightly time consuming since the download failed a few times for some files. It was about 6 GB total, 10 video files and a zipped file with all the audio examples.
TLDR: If you’ve been looking for a good and friendly guide to learning jazz guitar, this might be a worthwhile investment. At USD$24.99, you will be getting A LOT of quality material to work with!

How to Buy:
You can get the book here:
https://store.acousticguitar.com/products/the-acoustic-jazz-guitarist

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[Submissions for Review Consideration]

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