The Charlie Christian Method


Part 1: Introduction
Playing Over Chord Shapes
Part 2: More Chord Shapes
Part 3: Phrasing
Final Thoughts


This brief tutorial is intended as an introduction to the improvisational method developed by Charlie Christian. Although it is aimed at amateur guitarists just beginning to explore jazz, it assumes a basic knowledge of musical notation and chord composition. It also assumes a familiarity with fundamental jazz guitar technique, such as playing "swing eighths."

Note: Please keep in mind that this method of jazz improvisation is only one of many. It is not intended as a substitute for learning about scales, modes, or improvising on melodies. Absorbing the style of any single guitarist, even one as influential as Christian, is only a beginning. Most successful jazz guitarists blend a variety of improvisational methods into a personal style.

Playing Over Chord Shapes

The fundamental principle of Christian's style is surprisingly simple: visualize chord shapes.

If you're like most electric guitarists, one of the first things you learned was the two-fingered "power chord." You soon realized what a simple and effective tool that was, since you could play hundreds of songs just by moving the same simple chord shape up and down the fretboard, rather than learning a new fingering for every major chord.

The same basic principle applies to Charlie Christian's improvisational method. By basing solos on movable chord shapes rather than scales or melodies, Charlie could play effortlessly in any key. Improvising in 5 flats (Db) may be daunting for the beginning guitarist, but it's simple if you position your fingers in a familiar shape at the 9th fret.

Once your fingers become accustomed to soloing over shapes, it will be almost impossible to play a "wrong" note, no matter what the key (you may play boring notes, but not "wrong" ones). Eventually, you'll develop a vocabulary of licks and runs that will see you through most situations.

Shape 1
The Basic Position: We'll begin with a simple example. Let's say you're soloing over a "G" chord. You might visualize this familiar shape for a major triad (composed of the root, 3rd, and 5th):


You already know that you can move this shape up and down the fretboard to play any major triad: an Ab would be positioned at the fourth fret, a Db at the ninth, and so on. As long as you know where the root is, you'll at least have the triad notes at your fingertips. Although a solo limited to these tones would be stunningly boring, even a simple major triad arpeggio can be interesting with the proper phrasing. For example, Charlie often played the following arpeggio lick:

Example: An arpeggio played in the typical Christian style

Adding Chord Tones: Now let's build up the tonal possibilities by adding a few of the notes most often associated with "the jazz sound": the 6th, b7th, and 9th. We'll add to our shape any of these notes within easy reach of the third position.


Exercise 1.1 To familiarize yourself with this shape, play the following exercise until your fingers bleed:

Adding Approach Notes: We can build further on the same shape by adding chromatic and scalewise approach notes such as the b3, the b9, and the 11th (or 4th). Since these are all passing or approach notes (indicated by the white crosses), they are typically used to lead in to the nearest chord note, and usually are sustained only for special effects. Note that the 4th/11th (a C, in the case of our G major chord) is an unusual case, and Charlie generally uses it in an appoggiatura: 4-b3-3 (C-Bb-B, over the G major).


Exercise 1.2 Now practice the following exercise, which demonstrates the use of passing tones:
A tempo

An Example: The following fragment of Charlie's solo in "Grand Slam" is based on the above shape positioned at the first fret (i.e. the familiar "F" shape). Note the use of passing tones as well as the appoggiatura (Bb-G#-A) between bars 2 and 3.
A tempo

Practice Break

Before we go on, here are some ideas for practicing what you've just learned:

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