Subtle Helps

Pointers on the transition from an adequate player to being a truly tasteful one.

by: Elena Corey

(From Elena’s Music Matters column originally published in the Bluegrass Breakdown.)

At a recent workshop I attended, a number of tips were presented regarding how to climb from the level of being an adequate player to being a truly tasteful one. It was amazing to me that so many of the fine-tuning specifics revolved around sensitivity. From playing better back up to creating improved improvising breaks, heightened sensitivity is seen by experts as of paramount importance. I took notes. Here are a few of the pointers that were mentioned.

If you are playing rhythm for a lead player, unless told otherwise, strike your notes and then quickly mute the strings. Don’t let your sounds decay naturally, because that invades the sonic space of the lead player—who may want to put some especially tasty morsel into that space.

Unless otherwise directed, make your chops even. That is, if the time is 4/4, strike four even beats–not emphasizing any one of the four chops over the others. Let the bass have the downbeat emphasis.

Unless otherwise directed, stroke your back up chops downward with no audible upstroke ‘clutter’ sounds in their wake.

Within a chord chop, unless otherwise directed, create one solid ‘chunk’ sound, not a ‘boom-chuck’ with one string leading the others. One chop is cleaner than an arpeggiated strum, and it aids tight timing.

If you’re playing in an ensemble and a chord progression walks, e.g. from the tonic (I) to the relative minor (vi), let only one person actually ‘walk’ the leading tones chromatically. Otherwise the effect is too heavy-handed–even if all the players are precise in timing, which seldom is the case. .

If you’re playing a break, try to begin and end it with notes that are obviously linked to the chord-progression–especially if you’re playing with people who do not know the song well. I.e. If you are demonstrating a brand new song, and you take an instrumental lead, do not begin or end the break on a 9th or 13th interval of a chord, since such intervals seldom link the ear directly to the melody. .

If you are going to take a break, make your entrance firm and definite enough that other people playing with you are not left in doubt regarding your intention. Don’t just noodle, put some energy and definition into your break. Flash would be nice, too, but showing a sense of purpose regarding taking the lead is fundamental to a cohesive whole in the song’s presentation. When you take the lead, if someone else is playing rhythm for you, you can let yourself off of that hook and trust that the other person can handle the chore. This frees your mind so that you can offer some interesting rhythmic variations in the notes you play. You can anticipate beats or let them almost get past you before you pounce on them. You can leave bits of silence occasionally and slice and dice those 16th notes with ample room for other increments of duration. If you’re playing fills while another instrument or vocalist holds one tone, beware of duplication if you want to play with those folks again.

I hope these tips are already being practiced systematically and habitually, but being human, we do forget occasionally. These are just gentle reminders to be sensitive to the music and to each other. Happy picking to you, Elena