It’s all about rhythm?

How is it that the great blues masters can say so much with so few notes? How can BB King tear out my heart with just four notes? I can play those same notes, maybe even get creative with them and use them in the right place and the right way - but have nowhere near the same impact. Most people will likely agree that it’s the feel, but what is that that makes a great and effective ‘feel’? I think it’s great food for thought.

I’m pretty confident that most intermediate players can ‘play the notes’ in the BB King Blues Box or Minor Pentatonic Scale, it’s not hard. Most people realize (some sooner than others!) that the scales are just alphabets and they need words to communicate, so they learn licks. But a handful of licks does not a BB make! 

Most people need to start with the notes because without getting the notes right, it’s hard to develop the rest! But getting the notes right really is just the first step IMHO.

The volume of individual notes is a very strong expressive device that all good musicians can and should use. Expressing a tender feeling with a gentle pick or anger through and aggressive thwack should be fairly obvious, though often lost when people are still thinking too much about notes. Less obvious but just as important is the volume of notes within a phrase; which notes are accented, which are ghosted and the range of volumes used. 

So after getting the notes right, I think the next stop on the expression train should be dynamics and exploring the impact of dynamics. It’s a very hard thing to learn any other way than listening and imitating – which is the way it’s been done from the beginning, so don’t be afraid of it. 

Micro tonalities. 
What I’m referring to here is the way many great musicians manipulate pitch in a subtle (or not so subtle) way to help express themselves. Be it the use of vibrato, string bending or the use of things like the common blues ¼ tone bend on the flat 3 – they can have a very powerful emotive effect. Many of these techniques would not be immediately obvious to someone not musically trained but removing them often drastically ‘flattens’ music (hear someone play a blues solo from a tab rather than listening to the original recording!).

Some of these devices require the study of technique, the mechanics of performance and repetitive practice of these techniques until they become instinctive. If you have to think about stuff like this while playing, it’s unlikely that you will get truly ‘in the zone’. Make sure your string bends are in tune (assuming you want them to be!) and that vibrato is confident and feels natural (even if you had to work on it!).

The more time I spend studying music, the more I believe that it’s the rhythm that really makes the biggest impact on how we feel about music and is the most potent ingredient in a performance. The subtle nature of rhythm is quite fascinating; a mathematically perfect beat doesn’t feel good to most people – there is something that needs to connect with our humanity. The rhythms of the blues are most fascinating to me because they can be so free – try accurately writing down a slow blues solo, and you’ll soon know what I mean (you’ll get the same idea from looking at a transcription, but it won’t be as painful!).

I’ve long been wondering how it is that some people seem to naturally have a great feel while others don’t. Over the years I’ve seen people with a very tight and uncomfortable feel grow into super musicians by working on it, so I’m certain that it’s possible to develop it. Though how it happens naturally remains a mystery.

My own experience was that even in my early teens I could ‘feel’ something deep in music that connected somewhere in my subconscious - I spent most of my formative years transcribing and playing along with songs I liked, and I’m certain that is one way to develop that kind of connection. 

But I’ve still spent a good deal of time in the last ten years or so trying to learn about feels, particularly trying to work on my jazz ‘time feel’ – something I’m aware I need to work on. I had a fascinating conversation with legendary jazz teacher Les Wise about it, and he strongly suggested that it can be learned by picking solos that you really connect with the feel of, and then playing along with them until you could not distinguish your playing from the original. I’ve been exploring this a while, and with some experimenting, you’ll find a volume where if your time is bang on then you don’t hear the original part, but if you’re late or early, you will notice. Try it with a 4 or 8 bar section that you think has a great feel and see what happens. It’s at the very least, a fascinating experiment; at most, it may change how you practice!

I found the above particularly effective for learning blues too – and while notes, dynamics and micro-tonalities are important for sure, I think the study of the rhythm is the most effective and beneficial study you can do, and the intense listening required will mean you pick up information about dynamics (and more) without even trying!

Like most of these things, until you try it and see benefits for yourself it won’t really make sense – so go grab your guitar and see how you feel about working on your feel! ;)

Food For Thought