Monday, November 17, 2008

Textures, Pt. 1

My latest kick in writing or playing music has been experimenting with textures. This actually isn't a new thing, but I'm spending more time at home, on my own, trying to figure out ways to play the same passage differently.

For starters, a song needs to be good. If your tune is lame in it's most naked form, it's going to be lame no matter what smoke and mirrors you apply. My yard stick is my wife. If I write a tune for my trio and have been honing the melody for a while, and then hear her humming it later that night, mission accomplished.

The next step is adding texture. How can I make the "A" section sound different from the "B" section? Do I need a bridge or vamp to add more interest? Who plays the melody? Is it doubled? Is everybody playing?

Since my trio is basically an electric jazz ensemble, many of our textures happen on the spot, but I try to write some of it into the music. I think one of the problems a lot of people have with jazz music is that it kind of sounds the same to them start to finish. The same instruments and sounds and feel basically the whole time. It's really easy for someone like me to forget about this perspective because my ear picks up on the other things happening. Specifically, what the soloist is doing.

When it comes to the other music I make, very specific textures play a larger role. Take, for example, a chord progression of G to D. Repeat. Ad nauseum. There are many great songs written with these exact two chords. Lyrics and melody definitely create interest, but what can you do to pull it away from the Kumbaya-fireside-I-learned-this-song-from-online-tabs sound?

A lot.

First, take stock of how the song is performed. Most of the time I'm playing with somebody else who can play guitar and sing. I can play a variety of instruments, sometimes at the same time. At least in theory, it's physically possible. I've got some practicing to do.

But I always start with what I do best, the guitar. I start with playing inner voices on the guitar. Then it's a matter of rhythm and attack. Fingers or pick? Strum or pluck simultaneously?

Next comes tone. Acoustic or electric guitar? There are many ways to change your tone before using various effects pedals, so I do whatever I can with a straight, clean tone (the fewer effects I use, the less I have to drag to the gig!). Right and left hand position make a huge difference here.

With your left hand (or whichever you use on the fretboard) the further up the neck you voice a chord, the shorter the string becomes. I call this choking up, like a baseball player. But if your other guitar player is playing in a lower position on the neck, choking up will create a distinctive tone and prevent the music from getting too muddy.

Your right hand has even more control. Pick close to the bridge and the tone gets "tinny" while the picking close to or even over the frets produces a "warmer" tone. You can also change your angle of attack by flat picking or using the edge of the pick for a smoother release. I try to maintain my fingernails on my right hand, which has come in handy many time. If I shape them right, it's like having five guitar picks. Each has it's own tonal character as well, just because they grow differently. This is where some classical chops come in handy, even though I rarely play classical music.

I'll expand further on effects and other instruments I've found helpful in future posts. For now, just playing with an acoustic guitar should keep you busy!

1 comment:

Alex Athans said...

Brilliant post Cameron! So many ways to change a song's "sound" without going overboard on the effects.

I like how you describe playing high on the neck as "choking up." It's amazing how different you can make the same note or chord sound. I do that on the bass a lot: some songs call for an "E" on the 2nd fret of the D string, but if you play that same note on the 12th fret of the E string, the timbre is totally different.

I can't wait for part 2!