Issue # 407 June 2016
How do you, dear reader, prefer to play your guitar? I reckon there are only two answers – ‘by myself’ or ‘with other people’. Each has its own set of advantages, and in this month’s column, I’d like to address those of us who enjoy playing in an ensemble. The way I see it, even two people playing together constitutes just that. There is musical interaction, two (or more) brains and hearts dictating what needs to be played in order to service the piece of music being performed.
Personally, I tend to favour playing with other folks. I can still remember how terrifying it was to sit on a stage – solo (I was 13 years old), and play Malagueña and Tico Tico to an auditorium filled with my Junior High School peers. Later that year, I became the guitar accompanist with a Doo-Wop singing group – and as part of a team, found the conditions much more to my liking. Within that year, I was playing with bands. I saw the future!
So that was it – the ensemble truly captured my heart. As years progressed, and as I developed my skill set, I found that playing fewer notes and chords often fit better than trying to fill all the gaps. I also discovered that finding the appropriate tonal range meant a great deal in shaping the overall sound of the group.
The two major areas I’ll address here are 1. soloing and playing accompanying / complimentary ‘doodles’ to the featured instrument or voice, and 2. being a part of the rhythm section.
The first, (and I broached the issue of ‘your personal voice’ in my first column – Issue 402), has to do with your personal sound and harmonic/melodic approach to making your statement(s). Some players enjoy big thick loud sound, some prefer a crisp clean, even pristine sound. Some make statements with multitudes of notes in very fast order. Others find their way to touching hearts and souls with fewer, longer notes and phrases. At the end of the day, what matters most to me is appropriateness (there’s that word again). Ask yourself ‘Is what I’m playing servicing the song as best as it can? Are the notes I’m playing relaying the feeling of the lyrics? The intent of the composer? The impact of the visual?’ I would not think of telling you which approach (or tone) to choose, but I say that based on the above criteria, that you choose well. It’s about the piece of music more than it is about the guitar player. And you know what? Audiences pick up on this stuff. You’re judged by what you are adding to the mix, and the more team player you are, the more the listeners will love you!
And now to the second, and arguably more complex task of being an ensemble rhythm player. There are so many ways to approach playing rhythm. Depending on the material and on the groove, there can be many ways to branch out. Whilst some might say that there is no right or wrong (because it’s ‘interpretation’), I would argue that if a part does not tastefully add to the main substance of the piece, then it detracts. Not a good thing,
Throughout the history of recorded music, we can find many examples of inspirational rhythm guitar playing. Freddie Green, with his non-stop quarter-note comping absolutely drove the big bands be played with. Moving forward to the days of the old ‘soul’ records, newer styles were being introduced. There are ‘chox’ where a guitar would land squarely with the snare drum on 2 & 4. Then there’s ‘popcorn’ – a technique wherein you play muted single string, often not more than 2 or 3 notes that remain mostly constant (both rhythmically and tonally), and are a cross of percussion and inside pitches that ‘tie it all together’. There are others, but let’s focus on these for now.
‘Chox’ (also called ‘chix’ and a few other choice descriptors) are some of the most challenging techniques to master. Believe me, it took me a very long time before I felt truly comfortable and confident performing this all-important task. Landing in perfect sync with the drummer is, in itself, a most interesting study. Why? Because different drummers feel time differently. Billy Cobham is a great example of feeling time slightly forward of the beat. Steve Gadd is absolute perfection metronomically. Unsung hero Al Jackson (all those wonderful Stax-Volt recordings) felt the time slightly behind. The differences in the 2 and 4 of these three drummers differs in only milliseconds, and all would be totally correct when measured against a click track. I find this fascinating. To synchronize your chox with each of the above-named (or players of like rhythmic interpretations), you need to feel their time; to get into their rhythmic psyche, and adapt accordingly.
For those of you who don’t perform chox on a regular basis, here is a wonderful excersise. If you have a DAW (even GarageBand), Record a click track, then record a few minutes of your chox. Now on the edit screen, compare the waveforms of the click sound and your chox. Your goal is to get them as close as possible to the clicks. It’s a very informative and helpful excersise.
Oh my goodness, I’ve run out of space for this column, Come back for the next issue, where I look forward to continuing ‘The Ensemble’.
Carry on making sweet sweet music…