Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mastering the 11 1/2 bar blues

My musical schooling taught me a lot about music theory and song structure. Everything I studied and practiced was in nice, logical, symmetrical phrases -- four bars, eight bars, 12 bars -- until it was totally ingrained in my playing.  So when I found myself in a situation that had a large contingent of unschooled performers, my training wasn't always helpful. There are musicians who don't appreciate that phrases are ?supposed to be? four bars long. These people are inclined to think that a line is a line, and once it's sung it's time to move on. Hmmm. The result is something I like to call 11 1/2 bar blues.

I learned the hard way that sitting at the back of the bandstand and expecting -- even insisting on -- 'correct' doesn't fly. Untrained musicians are sometimes not skillful enough to pick up on any irregularities and make an adjustment. So it's up to the rest of the band to cope. As a professional, I sought to work out these occasional wrinkles so they would come across as seamless. All it takes is a bit of thought and mechanical work.

First of all, start listening and counting. What is the basic structure of the tune? Most of it will be logical phrases. Then watch for the oddities -- usually an extra half bar or a dropped half bar at the end of a phrase. And despite this little bit of creative license, singers/songwriters rarely go out of time by adding or dropping a single beat (but watch out for the occasional bar of 3).

Now, where does that odd bar occur? Likely it's consistent: the end of the phrase leading into the chorus, for example. Once you're aware of the adjustment, all you need to do is remember it's there and play it as if it's a normal part of the tune ... which it is.

This is not meant as a criticism of musicians who weren?t ruthlessly schooled in traditional phrasing. I played with a songwriter who threw in all sorts of creative phrasing. It took some effort, but I managed to cope. It wasn't until I had a chance to sit in the audience and listen to these same tunes that I was able to hear that the phrases were perfectly logical given the nature of the song's lyrics.

And really that's all there is to it. It comes down to learning the tune, no matter how unusual the phrasing and structure might be. And if there's no chance to rehearse and learn the tunes beforehand, let your ears be your guide. And remember to count.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

There and Back

I don't play a 'kick' drum. I don't even own a kick drum. What I have instead is a rather old-fashioned item called a bass drum. It's a lot larger than my other drums. It lies sideways on the floor. I play it with a pedal -- a 'bass drum' pedal.

My bass drum is tuned to a lower tone than my other drums, but it's a tone that complements them. I play it strategically, that is, it's a voice, just like my other drums. Sometimes I play steady time, just marking the beats. Other times I use it in combination with other drums to create rhythms. I can play it between other notes for contrast, or at the same time to add emphasis. I can play syncopated rhythms between my hands and bass drum. I can do all sorts of things. What I cannot do is 'kick' it.

Kick is not even a musical term. My theory is that it comes from early sound technicians who didn't think in musical terms. Perhaps they thought the drummer more or less kicked the drum. Now, if you look back at the evolution of sound reinforcement, you'll find that sound technicians did a lot of nasty stuff. That's OK. It was a young technology back in the 60s and 70s, and it was a challenge to fill an arena with sound. Still is. Many times the solution was to remove all semblance of the instrument's character. Listen to a bass guitar that's been plugged straight into the 'board', for example. It sounds pretty bad, but it works very well for the sound technicians.

When it came to amplifying drums, drummers didn't want to give up their prized instruments in favour of something like drum triggers (which were barely available back then). So the technicians worked their magic to get microphones, drums and stage monitors to behave. It started with removing the bass drum head. No longer able to produce lush, round tones, the bass drum was demoted to a thud or -- worse -- a splat ... ugh!

Next, the toms: way too much ring (something we used to call 'tone'). So let's cover them with crap to keep them from producing any unwanted sounds. Tape, foam, sanitary pads ... you name it and it was stuck on the toms in order to kill the resonance. Even better, take the bottom head off. Then the drum can't resonate at all! We can even shove a microphone up inside and capture just the 'splat' from the toms as well as the bass drum.

Thankfully, sound technology has progressed to the point that we can once again use real drums on stage. The missing bass drum head has been replaced by an access port, restoring some of that lovely depth and resonance. We're even seeing bass drums with added resonators, something that would have terrified the sound crew of 40 years ago. Toms are now praised for their rich resonance, and modern microphones deftly capture all the nuances of the drum set.

Now, if we can just get the terminology to reflect this wonderful progress, maybe we can get back to playing a bass drum instead of kicking a wet paper bag!