Howls From The Woodshed #3: Not Only Does It Take Time, It Takes Good Time!

People often say that music consists of three elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. To these I’d add a fourth element: timbre. The same melodies, harmonies, and rhythms create very different results when played on log drums, for example, versus a string section. Understanding all of these elements is important for the serious musician, but for me, particularly given that I mostly play dance-related music, concerns about rhythm predominate. Rhythm reaches everybody. The lyrics may be in a foreign language but if the rhythm is strong, the music will move you, and make you move yourself. So it’s critical to master rhythm to become a good musician.

Rhythm consists of the distances in time between one sound and the next. (When you record into a computer, you can actually see and measure these distances on the screen. It’s interesting, and sometimes frustrating.) So playing good rhythm means that you control the distance between each note you play to extremely fine tolerances over the entire duration of a piece of music. This is not easy! We’re all imperfect and even great players occasionally falter or miss slightly, particularly when everyone is improvising.

In order to play groove-oriented music well, it’s important to have a strong internal rhythmic clock, and to be able to play your part in an ensemble over long periods of time without slowing down or speeding up. A groove derives its effectiveness from the hypnotic effect of repetition. And the steadier and more accurate the repetitions, the more hypnotic and powerful the groove. In popular music, both in the recording studio and, increasingly, in live settings, musicians often play to a click track, which is an electronically generated beat that is perfectly steady. The listener doesn’t hear the click, but the musicians do, and align their playing with it. But even if you’re not playing to a click, everyone in the band internalizes the tempo of the song from the initial count off, and tries to hold on to it for the duration of the performance.

It’s also important to have control over where you place your part in relation to the other elements of the ensemble. Not only do you need to tightly control the distances between the notes you play, you also have to align your notes in a pleasing manner with all the other musicians who are also doing the same thing. You also have to place your notes in relation to the beat (either the click or your internal clock) in a way that fits the emotional content of the music and makes your part as effective as possible.

To understand this, imagine each beat as a mark on a ruler. Now imagine that you are drawing marks on a paper at each inch. These marks are the notes you play. You can draw the mark a tiny bit to the left of the inch line, directly on top of the inch line, or slightly to the right of the inch line. In each case, if your mark is close enough to the line on the ruler we can see that you meant each beat to be an inch apart and we accept it as such. But if it’s too far away from the ruler line, it looks wrong. The same thing is true with rhythms.

In the case of music, the relationship of each note (mark) to the click has an emotional component, that good musicians use deliberately. If you place your note a tiny bit ahead of the beat (to the left of the inch line), it creates a sense of urgency, tension, and drive. If you place your note exactly in the center of the beat (right on the inch line), it conveys stability and accuracy. If you place your note a bit late (to the right of the inch line), it conveys a feeling of relaxation. Of course, somebody in the group has to hit the beat dead on occasionally in order for these differences to be apparent. And for the music as a whole to feel good, everybody in the group has to be making decisions about how to approach the beat that sound good together.

Different styles of music have different approaches to the beat. Aggressive rock is often ahead of or “on top of” the beat. A lot of Brazilian music tends to be straight down the middle. Older jazz tends to be on the back side of the beat. The younger jazz players play more on top. Set drummers are playing as many as four rhythms at once; a very common approach that often works well is to play the high hat dead on the beat and have the back beat (2 and 4 on the snare drum) a hair behind. You can also take all three approaches in the same musical phrase! As you can imagine, this creates a universe of possibilities when a number of musicians are involved. Some musicians have instantly compatible approaches. Some musicians don’t, and a lot of times when the music doesn’t feel the way it should the problem can be traced to the differences in the way the musicians are approaching the beat.

Some musicians understand how to use this aspect of music instinctively. Others, like me, had to learn how to do it. I’m still learning! My recent work for David Garfield was a case in point. He sent me a song with a reggae flavor to it, with instructions to play what I thought would fit it. The track was recorded to a click (80 beats per minute, a good reggae tempo), and was played by world class studio musicians, none of whom were reggae players.

Musicians like these are masters of their instruments and they play with click tracks and drum machines all the time. Their playing has a lot of feeling and flavor but it’s also compatible with the demands of commercial recording, where everything is highly scrutinized and lots of money is at stake. So they often play right down the center of the beat, as it’s what producers often want. Their parts are super accurate and their deviations ahead of and back of the beat are usually pretty small.

Roots reggae, on the other hand, has a different lean to it. (Contemporary dance hall, on the other hand, is very much on the beat, as it’s mostly done with machines.) The bass line is often back, as is the 2 and 4 on the drums. Sometimes the ska (the piano and rhythm guitar part) is back too, particularly if the bass is more on the beat. It’s more idiosyncratic than pop playing, so it can be a challenge to make the two worlds meet. I came up playing reggae sessions, so I never really noticed that this could be a problem until the late great producer Denny Cordell played me some tracks where he had combined Brazilian musicians with reggae players. The idea sounded great in theory but the tracks were unsatisfying, despite the high quality of the musicians involved. The Brazilians and the Jamaicans had incompatible approaches to the beat. I was amazed when I heard how clearly it didn’t work. Denny was not a musician; he could hear that there was a problem but he didn’t know what it was. When I explained what was going on and why, he decided to shelve the tracks.

David’s track didn’t have this problem. Everybody on it sounded great together. The track just didn’t have a reggae lean to it. Of all the parts, David’s piano playing was the closest to a reggae feel, so I focused on locking with that. After quite a while, I came up with something that felt pretty good, and I decided to examine it on the computer screen to see where the notes were falling. To my surprise, I was just a hair ahead of the click! I was expecting that I’d be a bit behind. I was in an obsessive frame of mind so I thought the part might sound even better if I quantized it. In non-geek terms, this means using the computer program to line your notes up directly on top of the click. I did so, and checked my work. The notes were lined right up on the click. Then I played it back and it didn’t feel good at all. Making the track perfect had taken all the flavor out of it. I hit “undo” and the notes went back to where they had been.

I went through all the tracks very carefully, fixed a few notes, and listened to them with just the click track, muting the other instruments and vocal. They wobbled a tiny bit in relation to the click at times but they felt good together, and the wobbles added interest. I added the rest of the band back in and realized that I was finished. Playing a hair ahead made the rest of the band sound a bit back and drew emphasis to the reggae element that David wanted. I sent the tracks to him and he liked them. Hopefully they make the final mix and you can hear them for yourself.

On the other end of the placement spectrum, later that week later I played bass with the Cannabis Cup Band, a group that does a Bob Marley tribute every year with strict attention to detail. Normally I play guitar with CCB, and it doesn’t require a lot of thought because I know the music well and where the guitar fits. But bass is a different issue on that gig. Family Man Barrett, the bassist with Bob Marley, plays notoriously behind the beat, and the group’s regular bassist, Blacka, is a master of the style. My tendency is to play on top of the beat or slightly ahead, so I was quite nervous about being able to capture his feel.

To my surprise, after a song or two it was fairly easy to place the bass lines where they were supposed to be, way back on the beat, because the rest of the band was playing and singing the songs as they were played on the records. This was further proof, if I needed any, that it’s really critical to make the right choices in rhythmic placement to fit the context in which you appear.

Once your ear gets attuned to the subtleties of what musicians do with rhythmic placement, it makes your listening as well as your playing much more rewarding. This is true regardless of the idiom. It’s as important in classical music as it is in R&B or salsa.

One of the great joys, and frustrations, of music is the fact that it’s infinite. There is always room for improvement, and always new things to learn, even about things you’ve spent your entire career doing. Rhythm in particular is so important.  I make a real point of emphasizing it with my students for this reason. Out of all the things I’ve practiced, I’ve benefitted most professionally from the time and effort I’ve spent studying it. Good time, and good placement, makes everything about the music better.


Howls From The Woodshed #2: It Takes Time. It Just Takes Time

I’ve been studying jazz off and on for decades. My parents loved it, so I’ve been hearing it since the day I got home from the hospital. Over the course of my musical life, I’ve devoted extensive periods of time to studying it, then gone on to other things, usually work-related skills. Around five years ago I decided to really devote myself to mastering the idiom. I began taking jazz guitar lessons with Peter Prisco, a world-class player who has devoted his life to teaching rather than playing. (He plays me under the table every week in spite of this.)

Shortly thereafter, I started playing with Monty Alexander, one of the greatest living jazz musicians, in his Harlem-Kingston Express reggae/jazz fusion project. This unusual group features two complete rhythm sections: upright bass and a small jazz drum kit and electric bass and a larger reggae drum kit. I’m in the reggae section on guitar and stationed right behind Monty’s piano, the best seat in the house. The music alternates between rhythm sections and sometimes both sections play together.

Since I’m often listening, not playing, while Monty is playing with the jazz section, I decided to make the most of the experience by imagining that I am playing with them. This means keeping track of the song, where they are in the form, and also trying to hear what the chords and substitutions Monty and Hassan Shakur, the upright player, do as the song evolves. Not only is this a lot of fun, it’s been tremendously educational. Both Monty and Hassan have perfect pitch, which allows them to make remarkably adventurous substitions together. The gig is a wonderful lesson in the art of the possible, as no matter how wild they get, they always swing and sound like they are playing the tune correctly. Monty doesn’t often ask me to solo in the jazz sections, but it does happen, so I have to be ready if it does.

Of course, I’ve also been studying on my own, and I’ve also been playing electric bass with Robert Silverman, a fine NYC-based jazz composer/trumpeter/singer/pianist for the last ten years. I’ve also started playing bass with Earl Appleton, a wonderful keyboard player on the reggae circuit who also plays with Monty on occasion. In Earl’s group, we do a wide variety of music: straight-ahead jazz, soca, R&B, and reggae. I haven’t played much soca bass so I’ve been practicing that instrument as well as guitar. So I’ve been attacking the subject of jazz from a wide variety of angles recently, on and off the bandstand.

I love playing bass for a variety of reasons. It’s a lot more powerful than the guitar in the sense that you can instantly reharmonize the entire band. If the rest of the band is playing a C chord and you play a D, well, it’s now C/D and a very different sound than if you add a D to your C chord on the guitar while the bass is playing C. Your interaction with the drums is very powerful, and you also get to hear the music from the bottom up, which makes you hear the chordal instruments very differently. Instead of trying to find your place among the chordal instruments, you’re trying to find your place under them, another problem entirely.

Last week I went to a Guitar Center and tried out guitars. This is one of my favorite recreational activities. I just love playing unfamilar instruments, and occasionally I find one that makes sense for me to buy. They had a cheap jazz hollowbody that looked interesting. I took it off the rack and didn’t even bother to plug it into an amp, I just started playing it. All of a sudden, all the work I’ve been doing on jazz over the last ten years came together. I found that Monty-esque ideas were flying out of the instrument. I was swinging hard, and it felt like I had a whole band backing me. I must have played for an hour without realizing it.

The next time I listened to a jazz record, I concentrated on the piano player for a minute. All of a sudden, I could hear the inversions and extensions he was using, rather than just the basic chord. When he put in a substitution, I could hear what it was. This was exciting. But when I started my regular practicing I realized that other changes had taken place as well.

I’ve been working on a Lee Konitz tune based on “What Is This Thing Called Love.” It’s called “Sub-Conscious-Lee” (beboppers, like me, love puns) and I’ve been able to play it, but I never felt I understood it. I was just learning a sequence of notes and playing them correctly. I couldn’t hear it emotionally and I couldn’t memorize it. This time I played it and realized that I now understand it, the same way that I understand tunes like “Donnalee” that I already play well. Even better, I can actually remember it mentally, though my fingers don’t totally have it down yet.

So why the breakthroughs? I think I can identify several things. First, in learning any style of music, long periods of listening are essential. Listening isn’t a substitute for practicing. You can listen to Charlie Parker all day and you won’t be able to play any of it without practice unless you are already very, very accomplished. But listening helps you internalize the sound and feeling of the music you want to play.

Second, working on seemingly unrelated musical issues pays off in unexpected ways. There is very little musical relationship between soca bass and jazz guitar. But for some reason, practicing soca bass made me a harder-swinging guitarist.

Third, if something really interests you, don’t stop working on it. You will get somewhere eventually. One of the things I love most about music (though not the music business) is that it’s one of the few areas of life where you are guaranteed to get out of it what you put into it.

Howls From The Woodshed #1: The Left Hand and The Right Hand Should Be Friends!

There are a blessed few musicians who don’t have to practice much. I work for one: the great Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander. He never warms up. On the few occasions when a piano is available for him backstage, he looks at it and laughs but doesn’t touch it. His wife, a fine musician herself, claims he doesn’t practice much at home either. I don’t know how he manages this, but he does. (Monty’s explanation is that he played long gigs practically every night for decades, so he doesn’t need to practice much. He just has to get his fingers moving once he’s on stage.) For the rest of us, practice is the iceberg of which performance is the tip.

Recently I’ve increased the amount of private teaching I do. I’ve also started playing bass in a group that performs a lot of soca tunes, requiring me to go back into the shed myself. For both these reasons, I’ve started thinking about the practicing process more, and I thought that some of you might enjoy reading about some of the things I’ve discovered recently.

The Left Hand And The Right Hand Should Be Friends

One of the wisest insights I’ve ever read about the guitar is the following (I’m sorry that I can’t give credit where it’s due, I just don’t remember who said it): “Your left hand is what you know. Your right hand is who you are.” It follows that developing as a guitarist requires both increasing your knowledge of music and your understanding of what kind of person you are. Unlike the piano, where both hands are doing different things most of the time, playing the guitar well requires the fretting hand (the left hand if you’re a righty) and the picking hand (the right hand if you’re a righty) to be perfectly synchronized. Most guitarists have more facility with one hand than the other. In my case, my left hand has always been ahead of my right hand even though I’m right-handed. This makes sense on some level because as a person my level of knowledge about music is far ahead of my personal development in some areas. So musically, I spend a lot of time on developing my right hand to try to help it catch up. As to personal development—it’s a secret!

Recently I’ve been working on two separate projects, one for each hand. For the right hand, I’m practicing the chromatic scale, A to A over two octaves, four fingers per string, one finger per fret. I’m using alternate picking and working not on speed, but on making as little extraneous noise with my left hand as possible when shifting. I’ve discovered that for some reason the work I do on minimizing noise, while useful in itself, also seems to increase my speed and facility. My two hands get along better after some time playing chromatic scales. I don’t know why yet. I just know that it works for me.

For my left hand, I’m doing exercises to expand my reach. I start high up on the neck at the twelfth fret, playing a root position major seventh chord on the top four strings. (From bottom to top, I’m playing F A C E, with the E on the twelfth fret). Then I move each finger in turn down a fret, leaving the other fingers where they are. So I play F A C Eb (F7) next. Then I play F A B Eb (F7b5). Then I play F Ab B Eb (F-7b5). Finally I move the F down to E, which gives me E major 7th (E G# B D#), the same chord I started with a fret lower. I continue this down the neck as far as possible. Then I go back to the top and try the same thing, this time moving each finger down two frets, one at a time, while keeping the other fingers in place.

A word of warning: If you haven’t tried anything like this before, go slowly! Unless you have huge hands (mine are of average size), this will hurt a bit. A bit of discomfort is normal, but if it really hurts, stop! Wait until the pain goes away and then try again.

If It Hurts, Why Bother?

I’m glad you asked! The first reason is simple: these chords sound good. I first realized this when I saw a picture of the great guitarist Johnny Smith fingering a major 6th chord in root position. The six fret stretch looked impossible. Why would anyone even try it? There are plenty of ways to play 6th chords on the guitar. But I figured if Johnny could do it, I could do it. So I tried. It took a few minutes and I had to go way up the neck to do it, but I was able to play it. As soon as I heard it, the answer was obvious. It’s beautiful! I was an instant convert.

So the next step was to try the other seventh chords in root position. I got similar results. Hard to play, but worth the effort. But I really got serious about this when I encountered the Barry Harris method of improvisation, which is based on sixth chords of various types and diminished chords. I found that being able to play a sixth chord in root position put diminished chords close at hand, and that I was able to harmonize an entire diatonic scale with sixth and diminished chords. Now I was off. What other chords lay close at hand?

As you may know, lowering any note of a diminished seventh chord one step gives you an inversion of a dominant seventh chord. So when I started lovering notes of diminished seventh chords in root position. I started uncovering piano-like four note chords, along with a system with which to organize them. I love making the guitar as piano-like as possible when I can, so this was a big step toward the goal of harmonic mastery.

All this was very exciting. However, there was a bonus. When I went back to playing single string phrases, all of a sudden I was faster, clearer, and more articulate. How could learning new chords improve my facility with single notes? I don’t know! But I’m going to find out. Perhaps the increased left hand strength I was developing had something to do with it. But my right hand seemed more controlled also. Why? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I’m onto something very useful.

More to come…