february 2010

Learn how to use implied harmony, syncopations, chord voicings, chord textures, tritones and more in your arrangements, plus a full, original arrangement from Bill Piburn.

Welcome back to another installment of "That Can Be Arranged." We are going to take a look at “City Blue,” an original written for this column. We are going to look at chord voicings, chord alterations, chord texture, ornaments, syncopation, tritone 7th and tritones used as altered dominate sounds. We will also discuss implied harmony. At times these points of topic may overlap, because multiple things can happen at once.

Implied Harmony
When dealing with harmony, one could say that a chord has to have the major or minor third to define the quality of the chord, and that is true in a textbook definition. In the real world of hearing music, whether or not a chord is major, minor, diminished, altered, etc. is often determined by the context; what follows or precedes is just as important, if not more important. Perception becomes reality because our ear perceives the sound. This perception is not only based on what precedes and follows a sound but is also affected by the expected harmony of the key center we are in at the moment.

A few examples of implied harmony are as follows:
Measures 1 through 8 imply a harmony, even though it’s just a bass line with no chord or full chord structures. This is a perfect example of implied sound. It’s about where the line leads and what precedes it. Notice the chord symbols in these measures and see if you agree.

In measure 9 the chord symbol indicates C minor; however, there is no minor third in the chord. Why does it sound minor? The answer is in the preceding bass line and with what follows. The second chord in measure 9 is indicated as an Ab7. Why does this imply the sound of Ab when there is no Ab note in the chord? The answer is in the key center which contains Ab. The flat 7th and third that follow also affect the perception. It’s about context and perception. You’ll see the very same thing happen on the G7 in measure 10.

The last implied sound I will point out is an altered sound that happens in measure 12. On beat three, you’ll see the chord symbol G9#5. The altered sound happens on the upbeat. This sound is perceived as an altered G only because of the reference of G that happens in the first beat of the measure. You see, we retain that musical reference. If I had played the same notes alone you might hear it as a B7th chord – why? They contain the same notes. The answer is reference; in other words, implied harmony. As you play other arrangements and arrange for yourself, keep it in mind to look for these implied sounds and use them to your advantage.

Syncopations are nothing more than playing the note or chord on the upbeat, a.k.a. the weak beat. They can be cut short or tied over into the following downbeat. Musicians refer to this as a ‘push.’ You can make the personal choice as to pushing the top of the chord, bass only or whole chord. For single note references take a look at the intro. Chord syncopations happen in several places within “City Blue.” First, take a look at the Ab7 in measure 10 going into measure 11 and then, take a moment to spot other syncopations. I encourage you to start using syncopations in your arranging and playing. It’s really a feel thing. Don’t overthink it, feel it.

Chord Voicings
Chords can and should vary in texture, meaning density or number of notes played. At times I choose to play full chords and other times just two or three notes. I like to vary the texture. This is always a choice done by ear. Use your ear but be aware of the choices you have.

Chord Texture
I only used a couple notes to outline the chord sounds in measure 9. As it moves into measure 10 ,you’ll see three note chords. In measure 14, you’ll see a four note chord on the Amin7 b5 and at the end of the piece in measure 35. I used several five note chords for a bigger and more dramatic ending.

A tritone is an interval a raised 4th. This interval distance is created and found in all dominate 7th chords. The interval of a tritone happens between the third and the flat 7th of the chord. It’s a great tool to use and understand that we can outline the sound of a 7th chord by only using those two notes. The root of the chord can be left out. Take a look at the Ab7 in measure 9 and the G7th in measure 10. Look for the tritone shapes on the fingerboard. They are very useful; built off of the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings.

Tritone Used as Alterations
I’ve found that the tritone shapes can be moved around the guitar to imply altered sounds. The key is to first establish the the chord sound, as I did in measure 12. Beat one outlines the G7th while a tritone shape moved up to D# and A outlines the sound of G9 (#5). This is a powerful tool! If you incorporate it into your arranging and writing you’ll be amazed at the sounds you’ll find.

Ornaments are slides, slurs, hammer-ons and pull-offs that can really help the phrasing and feel off the music. Especially when it comes to the blues sound. Where would Ray Charles have been without slurring into the notes, both in his voice and piano? Where would B.B. King be without the bent slurs? In “City Blue” I do not use bent notes, but I do use many other ornaments.

I’ve discussed several topics in this article that I believe will make you a better player and arranger/composer. I personally use this every time I pick up a guitar. Give it consideration and, if you apply it, you’ll open new and exciting possibilities for your music.

Download PDF of notation - Download MP3 of "City Blue"

Howard Robinson hand-builds Lindsay Wilson guitars in the UK with Grit Laskin-inspired inlay

By trade, Howard Robinson is a period furniture designer, fitting some of the United Kingdom’s finest period homes with gorgeous, expertly built pieces of furniture. In his spare time, he’s the talented luthier behind Lindsay Wilson Guitars. Though known as a furniture designer, Robinson has been building guitars since his youth. It all began with a Rosetti Lucky 7 acoustic that went through numerous conversions as he went through school—electric bass, SG bass, double neck guitar, and eventually two cricket bat basses. It would be decades before this hobby would turn into a craft. Ten years ago, he was inspired by a magazine cover featuring a Hollywood actress holding a stripped mahogany Fender Precision Bass. Soon after, he began building guitars one at a time.

“I am not really pushing it as a big business,” Robinson says, “I want to get [the guitars] absolutely dead right, so I have a lot of patience.” Robinson makes six instruments, guitars and basses, per year on specific commissions for clients. From the headstock to body work, fingerboard, frets, inlay and even pickguard, each piece is handmade by Robinson, except for the neck blank, which he buys from a specialist. His background in high-end furniture is evident in the instruments’ high polish and attention to detail, from the smooth curves to the meticulous inlay. Robinson credits his intricate inlay to three places: his experience as a cabinet maker, a book by “the awesome” Larry Robinson (no relation) and inspiration by Grit Laskin. “[Grit] uses the neck as a window looking out at a snippet of life, and I love this concept,” Robinson explains.

This guitar is a six-string mahogany solid body built with reclaimed Cuban mahogany, a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, and Karelian birch pickguard and headstock. It features Bare Knuckle Apache single-coil pickups, 7-way switching, Sperzel locking machine heads and a Fender LSR roller nut. He says of the guitar, “I wanted to concentrate on the most basic of principles, and that is a wonderful piece of wood with simple single coils to try and get the very purest sound from the combination of all those materials.” The result is a guitar based in the Strat-style with influences from Rickenbacker, Mosrite, “and a lifetime of looking at various shapes, forms colors and textures.” He adds, “There is no such thing as an original thought.”

The inlay on the guitar came from a Japanese print of two Samurai in a duel. “I have always loved Japanese art, so it was a natural progression from there,” says Robinson. The inlay is composed of mother-of-pearl, abalone, briar, end-grain oak, aluminum, brass, reclaimed ivory and tortoiseshell, bone, bamboo, red and oyster buttons and birdseye maple.


Kevin discusses his outlook on purchasing as bass player

Last month I discussed two sides of my buying spectrum, as a collector and as a dealer. This month we will visit Kevin the player, the side that has the strongest demands as a purchaser. I will also give you some tips on purchasing a vintage bass.

The Player
As a player in my late 40s, my instrument demands are unwavering and very focused. As a player in my younger days, I used every vintage bass for no other reason than that I could. I’d gig with every brand, every model—it really didn’t matter. Now after 35 years of solid, steady playing, my instrument demands are pinpoint. This is due to physical demands and as well as ease and consistency. Some of you younger guys have not experienced back problems, tendonitis, wrist issues, etc. For gigging and recording, 100 percent of my basses have to meet the following criteria: they must play like a vintage Fender, hang like a Fender and have the Fender neck radius; they must engage the muscle memory of either a P or a J bass. I guess I’m only using vintage Fender products!

My main bass is my trusty ‘58 P-Bass. I will also use my ‘62 J-Bass on occasion. So what exactly do I look for when buying a vintage bass? I can tell literally in 20 seconds whether or not I will buy a particular bass. I like my action on the low side, but it cannot choke when played aggressively. The neck must have a consistent relief curve. I’m not a big stickler on originality with my player gear, especially when it comes to frets and other items that wear. However, the neck must have a proper set of old-school frets perfectly installed. I also will not play a bass with a refinished neck. To me, it drastically alters the feel. I prefer original hardware, but as long as I can revert back to vintagestyle hardware, I’m ok.

When I wrote a “5 Builders” piece for PG a few months ago [“5 Pre-CBS-Inspired Bass Builders You Should Meet” Sept., 2009], the vintage builders all agreed that you must use the vintage-style tuners and bridge assemblies or it alters the instrument. I agree. A must on an old Fender bass is original pickups. If a rewind was correctly done, that doesn’t bother me in the least. I guess what I’m saying is: as a player, give me a good pre-CBS bass, have it play great and let it be somewhat original and I’m okay. I use refins all the time, as long as the neck has the original finish. This sums up what I’m going to use—but what I will hold onto is a whole ‘nother story.

What I will keep forever and use consistently is my version of the “Truth,” a beat-to-death old Fender bass that has a perfect neck, original finish and mostly original components. My forementioned ’58 P fits the bill, except that bass is 100 percent original down to the case and the covers. This ’58 P is the second best P-Bass I ever played; the best was a ‘60 that I sold to Tino Sanchez in Boston in order to buy my ‘58. I’ve begged, I’ve wallowed— Tino will never sell this bass! This sums up what I demand in a personal player bass.

Tips on Purchasing a Vintage Bass
Let’s make something perfectly clear. No one needs a vintage bass. Putting an amplified bass through a PA system… lets face it, 99 percent of the people will not hear a difference. Quite frankly, other than other musicians in the audience, no one knows the difference between a P-Bass and a peanut. The recording studio is a different story, but realistically what’s your ratio between live and studio time? Buying a vintage bass is a purely selfish act—but boy is it ever fun! I do it all the time! This is a want, not a need. With that being said, here are the questions and tips for buying your next pride and joy.

Determine your budget: How much can you actually spend on your bass? Did you include sales tax, shipping and luthier work? Can you justify your budget? Avoid buyer’s remorse at all costs. I’ve seen many deals get unraveled when the spouse finds out or the bill comes in.

Know that you can use what you want: This is not a simple issue of whether you want a Precision or a Jazz Bass. This is more of a “I really want a BC Rich Bich 8-string bass, but I play in a traditional jazz trio” sort of question.

Don’t buy something you know nothing about: We’ve all done it, but play one first! We see the great looking bass that we have to have, but when it comes in from the big brown truck or we get it home, we ask ourselves “What did I do?” I see this a lot with first-time buyers of a bass they’ve never owned. It happens especially with Rickenbackers because the muscle memory is missing playing the neck. It also happens with Thunderbirds due to the sheer size of the thing, the neck dive issue, lack of intonation above the 10th fret and the subdued highs.

The Low Down Bottom line: Indulge! Enjoy!
There’s nothing like owning a great vintage bass. About two years ago I sold a deadly ‘64 “Truth” P-Bass to a friend in New Orleans. He was gigging at a bar and another friend heard the ungodly tone of this bass while walking down the street. He went into the club and was floored. This story made quite a few forums, and that’s what it’s all about. The tone and feel cannot be emulated, as demonstrated by my Custom Shop vs. Real Deal series done a ways back [“The Four Rs,” Feb., Mar. and Apr., 2009]. Next issue, tips on how to try out and buy vintage basses. Until next time, drop the gig bag and bring the cannoli!

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