This is a reprint of an article printed in GUITAR PLAYER, September 1997
Thelonious Monk on guitar! Some say it can’t be done, but I’ve been working at it for 20 years and have learned more from this process than from all my music college education. The point isn’t necessarily to sound like Monk, but to introduce distinctly non-guitar concepts and techniques into your playing, thus making your voice that much more individual. And if there’s one thing we can agree on about Monk, it’s that he was quintessentially individual.
ACCENTED SECONDS. We usually think of a solo’s notes as having various degrees of tension. This tension is created by the relationship between a given note and its accompanying chord: C natural against a c major chord has no tension, while D or B has more, and F sharp or D flat more still.
Monk, however, went a step further. He was able to create tension in that C natural against C major–or even in a single note with no chord! he did this by playing a secondary note a major or minor second above or below the primary note for a brief instant. By releasing the secondary note, he’d accent the primary one.
The tension is created by the interval between the two notes and the relationship of each to the chord of the moment. However, if you lift off the secondary note quickly enough, the effect is that the primary note has tension by itself.
GET TENSE. Play Examples 1-5 to experience “single-note tension.” The half-note is the melody or primary tone, the eighth-note is the secondary, tension-providing tone. Each example lets you hear major and minor seconds first below and then above the melody.
Play both notes and then lift off the tension note while letting the melody note sustain. Playing fingerstyle gives you more of a piano sound. Pick players: An upstroke accents the upper note, while a downstroke emphasizes the lower.