Saturday, January 15, 2011

Timing, Tone & Technique

I received an e-mail from Mary several weeks ago asking me if I would post about the "Three T's - Timing, Tone and Technique."  Here are some of my thoughts.

Of the three, timing (rhythm) is certainly the most important in my opinion.  I don't care how beautiful you can make your instrument sound, or how perfect your technique might be -- if you can't keep time, you are lost, musically speaking.  Maybe you are saying, "I'll never really play with anyone other than myself, so what does it matter?"  It still does!  What distinguishes one song from another?  It's not just the notes, but also the timing.  Think about the first six notes of Jingle Bells.  They are all the same pitch - jingle bells, jingle bells.  If I play these six notes with the correct rhythm, just about anyone can identify the song even though the notes (pitch) are exactly the same.  If you ever want to play with others, even if it is just playing along with a CD or the radio, you can't do this if you don't have timing.

So, how do you improve your timing?  The best way is by playing along with a recording of the song, by playing with others that have good rhythm (especially if you have a guitar player on hand that is willing to practice with you on a regular basis), and/or by practicing with a metronome.  (If you don't already have somewhat good timing, you will find practicing with a metronome totally useless.)  When my students tell me they can't play with a recording because it is too fast, I suggest they use a computer program to slow down the recording.  Windows Media Player has this option, though it doesn't always work, and there is a free program called BestPractice that can be downloaded from the internet.  There are even devices you can purchase that will do this for you.  These will all change the speed without changing the pitch!  If you can't stay with the recording even when it is a good speed, then you need to keep practicing until you can.  You need to be able to pick up and keep going when you make mistakes.  You need to learn how to come back in.  If you can't do this, you need more practice doing exactly that.  Practicing by yourself isn't going to make you better at doing anything other than playing by yourself.  You have to practice what you want to be able to do...even if it is embarassing, frustrating and difficult.  Unless they've forgotten or are some kind of musical genius, every single musician alive has had to go through this!

Tone and technique are somewhat related.  If you don't have good technique, you probably aren't producing a good tone.  If you have an expensive instrument, you might be getting a passable tone quality, but imagine how much better it would be if your technique was better! 

How do you make your technique better?  The obvious is practice, but even before this, how do you know what to practice?  How do you learn new techniques?  There are quite a few ways you can do this.  There are free YouTube videos available, there are books and magazine articles, other pickers, workshops, classes and lessons that can help with this.  As you start studying technique for your particular instrument, you are probably going to find there are many opinions on this.  Sometimes it might be hard in the beginning trying to figure out who is "right."  Not everything is right or wrong (just different), and not everything will necessarily work for you.  Keep this in mind as you read and learn, and most importantly -- don't give up!  When you hear conflicting ideas, it could be differences in styles.  For instance, what is valued in classical violin playing is not always what is valued in traditional fiddle playing.  Two people can play the exact same notes, even with the same rhythm, and yet the song won't sound the same.  You'll be able to tell it's the same song, but you might prefer one over the other.  This is one of the ways that technique can make your playing better.  For fiddle players, it could be as simple as changing the bowing.  For banjo players, it could be how you accent with your right hand.  For guitar and mandolin players, it could be your left-hand techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs, use of capo, or angle of pick attack to mention a few.  For bass players, it could be something as simple as right-hand position and which finger(s) you are using to pluck the strings.  For dobro players, it could even be what bar you use and how you hold it.

Now for tone quality.  There are many things that affect tone quality, some of which I've already touched on, such as the quality of the instrument you are playing and your technique.  If your technique is poor, your tone quality is most likely suffering.  Tone quality is affected somewhat differently for each instrument, because the techniques for each instrument will be different.


If you are a banjo player, you should work to improve your left-hand techniques.  This includes making your notes clear, and playing slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs cleanly. 

Tone quality itself is directly affected by the instrument you are playing and how it is set up.  Banjos are the easiest instrument to modify the tone quality of out of all of the instruments, in my opinion.  Simply changing the tightness of the banjo head can result in a much different tone quality.  Make sure your banjo is setup properly to help you get the best tone possible.  Take your instrument to someone who specializes in banjo setup, not just your run-of-the-mill music store.  Many times, banjo camps offer this service as well. 

Other things that will affect your tone will be your choice of picks.  How thick are the picks you are using?  A thinner pick will generally produce a brighter tone, but this also depends upon the actual composition of your pick.  Thumbpicks and finger picks can be made out of metal, plastic, bone and all kinds of synthetic materials.  Even the type of metal will make a difference in tone quality.  Finger picks can be solid metal or plated, and I have seen brass, cobalt, stainless steel, nickel, nickel silver, sterling silver, and probably even more that I'm not listing right now. 

Banjo players have to be aware of how hard they are picking the strings, and whether they are accenting the melody notes to make the melody of the song stand out from the rolls.  The attack of the strings is also very important.  Are you slapping at the strings with your picks, or are you coming up from under the strings and truly picking them?  Are you hitting the strings at an angle as you pick them, or are you hitting them squarely, perpendicular?  How close to the bridge do you pick?  Do you anchor on the bridge?  Do you anchor one or two fingers?  (Probably the most controversial of everything, but I don't think this makes a big difference.)

What gauge of strings do you use?  Lighter strings generally result in a brighter tone quality, but you will also lose volume.  For banjo players in particular, lighter strings can result in distorted notes.  I've heard quite a few banjo players complain about their banjo not playing in tune, when in fact it is the player torqueing the string(s) with the left-hand by fretting too hard or by stretching the string slightly up or down as they fret it.  If you pick hard, light gauge strings may distort with every single note!  A heavier gauge string, especially on the 3rd string, will help with this.  Proper technique will also help with this!  Different brands of strings will also affect your tone, as will coated strings, phosper bronze, and other types of strings.


Please remember that I am trying to keep my comments to bluegrass playing.

First off, see the previous paragraph for banjo players regarding strings.  This also pertains to guitar players!

The type, composition and thickness of your guitar pick will make a very big difference in your tone quality and in your technique.  Most beginners start with a lighter gauge pick because it is easier to strum both up and down without getting the pick stuck in the strings.  A lighter pick can cause excess pick noise, though, so many players end up going with a thicker pick as they get more experienced.  This is not necessarily true, as it really depends upon what tone quality you are going for.  As for composition of pick, I suggest you try a bunch of different kinds of picks.  Ask other players what they like.  This is really going to be a personal preference, and can also be determined by the actual tone quality of the instrument you are playing.

Once again, your attack of the strings (pick to strings) will make a huge difference in the sound you are getting.  Even something as little as how you hold the pick:  Do you use the thumb and one finger, or the thumb and two fingers?  How much pick do you leave "sticking out" of your hand as you play?  Do you keep your other fingers curled under as you pick?  How close to the bridge do you play?  Bluegrass guitar pickers tend to play a little closer to the bridge than country players.  The tone quality is very different in these two positions.  Also included with the attack of the strings is the speed of the attack.  When you strum the strings (during a chord), do you hear all the individual strings, or do you strum with a speed that tends to make the strings all sound at once?  I'm not talking about speed as in tempo of the song, but speed as in quickness of your wrist flick.

Guitar players -- What type of strum pattern do you use?  Are you using the simple boom, chuck pattern, or are you using boom, chuck-up?  The faster the song, the simpler the strum should be.  Otherwise, it all tends to jumble up.  For waltzes, there is also the difference of using the simple boom, chuck, chuck or the boom, chuck-up, chuck-up.  In case you aren't familiar with what I'm writing, the boom is the single bass note.  The chuck is the down motion of the strum, and the up is the actual strumming the strings upwards.

How hard do you actually pick your instrument?  This also directly relates to where you pick the strings (closer or farther from the bridge).  If you pick really hard, and especially if you are farther away from the bridge on a guitar, this can result in a less distinct sound and more distortion in your notes and chords.

How do you make your chords?  There are different ways to make the same chord, and these result in a different sound.  A G chord is still a G chord no matter where or how you make it, but it certainly can make a difference in the tone you get.  For instance, do you make the G chord with two fingers, three fingers or four fingers?  Do you use a barre chord?

As with banjo players, it is important that you work on your left hand technique:  clean notes, clean chords, clean pull-offs, slides and hammer-ons.


It's all in the bowing!  Learn all you can about bowing and continue to work on it no matter how long you've been playing.  A huge majority of your tone quality is going to come from your bowing technique, or lack of it!

Do you play on the edge of your bow hair, or do you play with the bow hair held flat against the strings?  Edge bowing produces less friction which can make your long bow strokes sound better.  If not used correctly, it can result in a weak sound.

How much pressure do you exert on the strings with your bow, and how fast do you pull the bow across the strings?  I am referring to bow speed, not tempo of the song.  These two things, bow pressure and speed, are interrelated.  The more pressure you use, the more speed you will need to sustain the tone.  No pressure at all produces a weak tone quality and can also result in bow bouncing.  Too much pressure or lack of bow speed can produce a scratchy sound.  Two people can play the same instrument and it will sound very different.  If you have the right combination of bow speed and pressure, you will be able to "pull" the sound out of the fiddle.  It is really amazing when you hear this "live and in person"!

How close to the bridge do you play?  You should be no closer to the bridge than halfway between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard.  The closer to the bridge you get, the harsher the sound.  The farther from the bridge you get, the more likely you are to play multiple strings at one time.  You also may not be able to maintain proper bow pressure if you are bowing over the fingerboard.  If you notice rosin on the corners of your fiddle, it could be that you are bowing too close to the fingerboard, or that you are bowing at an angle.  The bow should remain perpendicular to the strings.  Angled bowing may also cause your bow to slide around as you are playing.

How much rosin do you use?  Too much rosin can produce a scratchy or a hissing sound as you play.  Too little rosin will cause your bow to slip and you won't be able to use the proper amount of bow pressure due to the bow slipping.

Are your fingers and wrist loose?  This is a must.  Remember the "valley, mountain" of bowing.  The valley position is when your wrist is farthest away from the fiddle.  Your wrist should be straighter in this position.  The mountain position is when your wrist is closest to the fiddle.  Your wrist should be bent up in this position.  Loose fingers and wrist produce a smoother sound, especially as you play faster or play shuffles.

Okay, so there are a few things you need to know about your left hand, too!  If you want to have a decent, controllable vibrato, you should work on your left-hand wrist position.  Don't let it touch the fiddle.  Please note, I'm not saying you CAN'T do this without proper position, but it's generally easier and the result is generally better and more controllable if you  have the proper position.  Also, note the position of your thumb.  The shorter your fingers are, the more important it becomes for you to position your thumb under the neck rather than to the side of the neck.  Don't grip the neck!  Don't wrap your thumb over the top side of the neck!  These two things alone will cause you to sacrifice speed.  Over-gripping the neck can also cause nerve pain (neuritis).  I learned this personally the hard way.

If you are having trouble with squeaking, this is most likely your left-hand barely touching a string that you are not supposed to be bowing.  It is not caused by lack of rosin.  Make sure that your bow does not play strings that you don't intend to play.  I know this sounds simplistic and like it is common sense, but it happens all the time.  On other fretted instruments, if you pick a string that another finger is touching but not actually fretting, it will result in a dull thud.  On a fiddle, it will result in a squeak...and that squeak will last for the entire bow stroke!  If you hear squeaks on open notes, it most likely means you need to change strings.

I know I didn't cover all instruments or even all scenarios, but I hope that this has helped you out!  If you've made it to the end of this blog entry, you did good!  I think this is the longest one yet.


Steve Dibbert said...

Chris, Wow what a good article and long. I did not make it all the way to the end because I do not play fiddle. I thought that was interesting about how the banjo pick attacks the string. Just several days ago I looked at the wear pattern on my thumb pick (I thought the sound I was getting was a little "scratchy") and it was on one side. I guess that indicates that I was not hitting the strings perpendicular as I should. I have since been concentrating on the thumb position and noticed the wear pattern looks more square on and the sound is different.

Steve D

Mary Hebert said...

Wow, lots a good info here and as usual, you do a great job of telling us the "how to". Just the simple act of playing in a group even if you don't know squat, is one that will pay off. I play in groups once a week (you talked about this in your New Year's article). I've been playing rhythm guitar all my life but I'm new to bluegrass music (6 months). I don't know the songs well but I try singing and playing when it's my turn to play. You know, people in bluegrass are the nicest people you will ever meet. They always help me out when I'm stumbling over the timing of a verse or messing up a chord run, etc. You know, no body is holding up score cards!!! Bluegrass playing has differences in the way you play guitar. You need special bluegrass strings which are stiffer than I like but I'm used to them now. You're strumming and picking firmer which requires a thicker pick. People want to hear the guitar's boom chuck along with the upright bass player. I think timing is everything, too!

Thanks again, Chris, for your awesome coverage of this important topic! P.S. My IPod is loaded with bluegrass songs and I'm looking forward to your sixth CD to add to my collection.