Mark McKnight
Guitarist Composer Educator

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Ben Eunson – 10 Questions / 10 Lines

Ben Eunson’s angular but melodically focused take on contemporary jazz guitar marks this NYC-based Australian as a player you’ll likely be hearing a lot more about.

Already touring with the likes of Grammy award winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Eunson’s 2014 debut ‘Autumn‘ suggests the emergence of an improvisational voice with the potential to plot an increasingly singular course.

This week we sat down to discuss, amongst other things, Ben’s influences, approach to practice and outlook on developing identity as an improviser. Following the 10 question Q&A below, I’ve included a short analysis of Eunson’s recent performance on Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, notating and explaining 10 lines which highlight significant aspects of his high-energy playing style.

So, before we begin, let’s take a moment to listen and appreciate exactly why Ben Eunson is a guitarist and improviser worth paying attention to…

10 Questions

MMCK: Can you us give a brief rundown of your set up?

BE: For a while now I’ve been using a Fender Stratocaster from 1986 as my main guitar. I preferred semi-acoustic 335-type guitars for many years but around 2 years ago I walked into a guitar shop here in New York City and played this particular Strat – somehow it was the most comfortable I’d felt playing on any guitar in a long time. I’ve used it on everything from gigs at Jazz clubs here in town, to performances in concert halls around the world, to various Jazz, R&B or Pop recording sessions and it really does the job.

I’ve tried many different brands of strings over the years but I randomly tried Ernie Ball 11-48 gauge strings for the first time last year and have been using them ever since. I use Jim Dunlop ‘Sharp’ picks, 1.14mm.

I play through a Mesa Express 5:25 amp and use it on all of my gigs – it’s proven to be a really perfect combination with my Strat. As far as pedals go, it changes pretty constantly but the ones that stay on my board are:

  • Jim Dunlop DVP3
  • Tech 21 Oxford
  • Xotic SP Compressor
  • Boss OC-2
  • Empress Tape Delay

MMCK: If you had to plot the construction of your sound as an improviser through 3 influences, who/what would those be?

BE: It’s difficult for me to narrow it down to three but in this case I would say Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and John Coltrane. Pat Metheny was the first guitarist I seriously listened to. Specifically, his albums from the late 70s/early 80s made a huge impact upon me – I was taken aback by the originality and uniqueness of his voice as an improviser and the remarkable presence of melody in both his improvisation and compositions. I have definitely learnt and continue to learn from these aspects of his musical world.

Keith Jarrett is also someone who has had a massive influence on how I approach music. He’s a brilliant melodic improviser and whether I’m listening to ‘Sun Bear Concerts’, ‘Spirits’, ‘Tribute’ or any number of other Jarrett albums that unifying quality of melody, coupled with his overall musical identity, is always present.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to saxophone players and John Coltrane was the first that I studied in great depth. There were so many things relating to his harmonic concepts, his linear ideas and the sheer power of his playing that affected me. It’s hard to describe the full impact that his music has had on me. I have spent a lot of time particularly listening to anything he recorded between 1959-1964.

MMCK: How do you think about developing improvisational vocabulary?

BE: I think that it starts with listening to the musicians that resonate with you the most but also not being afraid to check out new things. From there, you could take a phrase or full solo as played by someone you admire and learn how to play it yourself. You can take it to an analytical level and figure out exactly what notes were played, where those notes were placed within the beat and how they relate to the harmonic context of the music.

I think that regularly playing music with people is incredibly important. Also, I think it’s worth making sure that you approach playing with a sense of imagination and think seriously about what YOU specifically like the sound of.

MMCK: You include a lot of harmonic colour when soloing – can you talk about your use of chromaticism?

BE: Harmonically, I think that you can do just about anything ‘outside’ as long as you know exactly how it relates to the original harmony and how to resolve it. Many of my concepts relating to implied or outside harmony originally came from listening to soloists who were very good at that type of playing. I would hear something that didn’t sound strictly diatonic or consonant and it would intrigue me so much that I’d figure out how to play it. From there, I’d work out how to implement these concepts in a way that was personal to me.

Probably the most important element for me is that you can take it as far out harmonically as you like but you should know how to resolve it – it comes back to the basic compositional principle of tension and release.

MMCK: Your melodies include diatonic 4th leaps with great fluency – is this something you have targeted with specific technical practice?

BE: I have spent a lot of time working on 4th-based ideas. I didn’t hear a lot of guitarists extensively using those kind of intervals and I’ve always found it very striking when great improvisers, especially saxophonists, play more intervallic material.

It’s hard for me to explain exactly how I’ve worked on this aspect of my playing but transcription of instruments other than the guitar has played a big part.

MMCK: A further standout feature of your playing is what I could best describe as a ‘pushed double time triplet’ feel (see examples 7 and 9 below). Can you explain your inspiration for this sound and how you practise its ‘floating’ time feel?

BE: I have always been very taken with saxophonists using an idea referred to as ‘sheets of sound‘. I think these triplet-based ideas in my own playing are intended to create a ‘sheets of sound’ type effect.

As for the floating time feel – I do like to have a sense of looseness within the time, while still trying to maintain a defined sense of rhythmic placement. I think this particular time feel has developed as a result of getting to play with excellent drummers/rhythm sections that have essentially allowed me to take chances and try a lot of things within the time.

MMCK: If you had to choose just one idea/exercise which is fundamentally important to your practice of improvisation, what would this be?

BE: I try to breathe, stretch and make sure that all tension is removed from my body before I play a note. I’ve found that this helps my playing, my creativity within the moment and my overall contribution to any musical situation.

MMCK: What are 10 jazz standards you think every guitarist should know?

BE: I think there are particular standards that have been notably, if not famously, played by certain guitarists throughout the history of the instrument and are important for guitar players to be aware of. Some of these would include:

  • All The Things You Are
  • Body And Soul
  • Donna Lee
  • How High The Moon
  • Solar
  • Without A Song
  • Four On Six
  • Ask Me Now
  • Billie’s Bounce
  • Tenderly

MMCK: What topics are you working on today and how do you see your playing changing over the next 10 years?

BE: I am working on some new harmonic concepts that are a little difficult to explain right now but I’m hoping these will begin to emerge in my playing in the very near future. I’m not entirely sure how my playing will develop over the next 10 years and, for me, that’s part of what keeps it exciting.

I still spend a lot of time practising and feel like I discover new ideas and ways to approach playing on a daily basis – so I’m very curious myself to see what direction my playing will take!

MMCK: What projects can we look forward to hearing from you in the coming 18 months?

BE: I’ve got some exciting shows coming up with Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project which I’m really looking forward to. I’ll also have some great shows with David Weiss & Point Of Departure, which will feature either Myron Walden or JD Allen on saxophone.

Aside from those, in the coming months I’ll be premiering a new video project of my own music featuring saxophonist Troy Roberts.

There are several big recording projects that I’ve either played on or am in the midst of playing on that will be released next year, which I can’t really discuss right now but am very excited about!

10 Lines

These examples showcase ideas I hear as stylistically definitive to Eunson’s improvisational voice, highlighting recurring and/or distinctive motifs from the Instagram performance below.

Bear in mind that the fingerings/articulation shown are my own and, although very similar to those Ben employs, deviate where appropriate to match my technical preferences. Use these as a guide but feel free to adapt details as you see fit – if it sounds right, it is!

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Ex 1

Eunson quickly establishes his saxophonic influence, with the doubled B at bar 1, beat 4 mimicking a ‘false fingering’ (two fingerings for the same note which vary slightly in terms of timbre and/or pitch).

Numerous perfect 4th leaps throughout bar 2 (blue) reinforce this sense of departure from ‘traditional’ jazz guitar language.

The line concludes with a wide F# augmented arpeggio (green).

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

1)-Eunson-Spain-Ex1 USE THIS

Ex 2

An opening of F#7 altered (G melodic minor) passage includes additional use of ‘false fingering’ (grey).

Bar 3 transitions to E minor (Dorain) via common tones and a chromatic approach pattern (blue).

Note further arpeggio and 4th-based motifs across bars 3-4 and 6-7, before a delayed resolution to D major at bar 7, beat 3 (green).

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

2)-Eunson-Spain-Ex2 THIS

Ex 3

C#m7 is implied in place of the expected C#7 throughout bar 1 to create a standard II-V progression.

Bar 2 significantly anticipates the F#7 , which is established via an approach pattern (grey) and again treated as altered.

Notice sequential movement through bars 3 and 4, a common theme for contemporary improvisers as previously explored in relation to Jonathan Kreisberg.

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

Ben Eunson 'Spain' Lesson Ex 3

Ex 4

Developing an already established stylistic trait, Eunson engages significant displacement of the harmonic rhythm here.

Beginning with a tidy piece of triplet vocabulary (grey), B7 altered (C melodic minor) is established at bar 2 using a wide and intervallic motif.

Bar 4 anticipates Gmaj7 with a line composed largely of notes common to both that harmony and the expected B7 altered.

Again, 4th and 5th intervals are prominent (blue).

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

4)-Eunson-Spain-Ex4 THIS

Ex 5

Examples 4’s opening triplet figure features at the outset, here transposed to G major.

Application of G Dorian creates an F#7 altered-type sound at bar 2. A departure from the more typical choice of G melodic minor, this pushes the harmony slightly ‘outside’, however, strong melodic and rhythmic phrasing stabilise and direct the line.

Note the use of a recurring chromatic approach pattern (bar 2, beats 1-2), 4th intervals (bar 3-5) and a motif at bar 6 we see revisited at examples 7, 8 and 9.

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

Ex 6

Bars 1 and 2 imply F minor (Dorian), one semitone above the expected E minor of this II-V-I-IV progression in D major .

Transitioning to E minor via an approach pattern at bar 3 (grey), Eunson again significantly displaces the harmonic rhythm, moving through A7 altered to resolve at bar 6.

Notice bars 6-8 utilise the sequence of example 3, this time applied to major harmony.

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

Ben Eunson 'Spain' Lesson Ex 6

Ex 7

Extending a motif initially encountered at example 5 (grey), Eunson moves from an implied C#m7 at bar 1 to anticipate F#7 using diminished harmony through bar 2.

Notice a further iteration of the chromatic approach pattern from example 5, marked in blue.

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

Ben Eunson 'Spain' Lesson Ex 7

Ex 8

A strong 4th-based phrase at bar 1 (grey) leads to a further statement of the melodic motif seen at examples 5 and 7 (blue).

Notice motivic development using diminished harmony over F#7 (green).

Again the line concludes with an harmonic anticipation, this time of Bm7.

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

Ben Eunson 'Spain' Lesson Ex 8

Ex 9

Bars 1-3 see an extensive and technically advanced development of the rising major7 motif present at examples 5, 7 and 8 (grey).

Note use of chromatic approaches (blue), perfect 4th leaps and the reappearance of ideas from example 6 at bars 4-6, including the recurring sequence (green). This ability to reinterpret and vary an established vocabulary is key to Eunson’s stylistic clarity.

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

9)-Eunson-Spain-Ex9 THIS

Ex 10

The Instagram video above is limited to 1 minute, however, a slightly extended version of the same performance is posted to Eunson’s personal Facebook page.

Taken from this currently restricted video, example 10 sees mode 6 of E melodic minor (C# Locrian Natural 9) used during bar 1 to imply C#m7b5 in place of C#7, with the line subsequently transitioning to an anticipated F#7 altered later in bar 2.

Note the use of consecutive 4ths during bar 3 (blue), a ghosted natural 13 at the outset of bar 4 and anticipation of B7 by a full bar with use of diminished harmony (green).

Chord symbols reflect standard song form.

Ben Eunson 'Spain' Lesson Ex 10

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