What I Learned from Hollering Blues for an Hour

Last week I mentioned my growing interest in the kind of melodies I might naturally sing. So I decided to sit down (in a soundproofed area) and record myself singing freely.

I soon realised there were no original “natural” melodies inside me waiting to be mystically released. Everything I sang was familiar. I ended up using one basic pentatonic melodic skeleton:

Blues Singing Skeleton 1

Which tended to grow into something like this:

Blues Singing Skeleton 2

What “I felt like singing” turned out to be often unnotateable: blues material relying on fast, gliding ornaments, flexible pitch areas and emphasis on overtones.

What’s more, these effects were all highly reliant on the physicality of my voice, i.e. they combined:

  • switching between head, throat and chest voice
  • use of vocal fry (growling)
  • yodelling-type leaps
  • nasal tone
  • humming
  • breathiness

I’m no singer of course, but if you’re curious what I was sounding like here’s a fragment:

My conclusion – and this is a familiar theme here – it’s just as meaningful to understand these blues phrases as body movements (i.e. in your throat, lungs and mouth) than as melodies.

That’s all very well to say, but the nice thing about doing this exercise just once is that I can feel a new awareness of this physical basis. When I was singing I imitated some familiar sounds: John Lee Hooker’s “hey hey”s and Andy Bey’s hiccup-y pentatonic noodlings. Now I know how those sounds feel to perform.

Also, since doing the exercise, melodic fragments have been coming spontaneously to my mind together with an impression of how they feel to sing. Seeing as melody has been a weak point for me in the past, it’s cool to have little ideas springing to mind fully formed (heard and felt) like that.

It was also nice to grapple a bit with the different registers of the voice. That’s a singer’s bread and butter, but it was novel for me to feel different parts of the blues scale as inhabiting different registers of my voice, e.g. everything above the octave was in my head voice when singing in B, and I could use this to create breaks and yodels.

I noticed one really interesting thing trying to sing these blues phrases. A lot of the mannerisms I’m imitating clearly signify emotion: wails, groans, fall-offs. However, to make them work, they have to be practised till they’re in muscle memory. So they’re practised patterns and not spontaneous outbreaks.

This invalidates the (completely patronising) myth that blues was a direct, naive expression of the pain of the black folk. Emotions in blues are only as sincerely felt as an actor’s performance. Although the performer may completely inhabit the persona, he/she can snap out of it at will.

This explains how ostensibly depressive blues has always been party music. The performer makes a game of its seemingly dark emotions – ambiguously either lampooning them them through exaggeration and stylisation, or seriously inhabiting them. Weariness, sickness, defeat are turned into stylisms subject to slick manipulation. Thus, the bluesman or woman can both conquer them and yield to them. (Albert Murray makes a similar point in Stomping The Blues.) That keeping-in-tension of alternate mindstates recalls Dubois’ “Double Consciousness”. (African Americans’ survival ability to simultaneously navigate white and black cultural values.)

The use of dark emotions has sometimes confused outsider fans of black music. For example, in the awesome slide-guitar blues I discussed a few weeks ago, by white rockers Canned Heat, we can hear singer (and blues collector) Bob Hite call for a “real quiet and ghostly” vibe from the band. This phrase comes from a white record collector tradition of interpreting deep blues as “eerie”, “ghostly” or “weird”. But performers like Skip James, Tommy Johnson or Robert Johnson – who did indeed use wailing, plangent sounds and sing about death and the devil – did not think of their songs in these terms, as far as I know. To them it was probably mostly about sex: “sinful music” was its well-documented reputation.

I think certain rappers in more recent decades generated a similar confusion. For example, Big L’s lyrics seem depraved and appalling on their own terms. However, in context, I believe they were mostly a stylistic innovation to keep Big L ahead of the competition.

Well, this week’s post was mostly just re-emphasising some ideas. But this kind of thing helps me form my artistic direction. For example, if I was to start a new art music project now (say along the lines of my old band Nature) I would immediately ask myself – should the vocal lines be notateable as written music? Or is there another way to create them that would suit me and the singer better, and afford more expressivity in the areas I like? Or, for instance, why not base the melody around the singer’s range, using the breaks between registers as part of the music? And why feel the need to deviate from one mode/scale? What if I wrote write in my key, and then transposed so that the same effects happen in the singer’s preferred key?

Interesting stuff. Pretty basic too, of course, but trying to sing for myself hammered it all home nicely!

Blues Parallelism

Ever since last year when it clicked that parallel chord movements are probably an essential part of blues, I’ve been working them into my bass style. As a musical force, parallelism is probably familiar to jazz listeners from the style of guitarists like Wes Montgomery. Check out his playing from 4:16 in this iconic performance.

What I’ve been trying to do relates very much to jazz guitar and even more so blues guitar traditions. I remember how refreshing it was to hear Simon Jermyn once point out that bass guitar and guitar are closely related instruments. Rather than model my approach on double bass or synth bass, I’ve often taken guitaristic paths in my playing. So, to my mind, the parallel chord movements I’ll look at today are completely native to fretted bass guitar.

“Parallel”, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, means that each new chord has the exact same inner structure (distance between its component notes) as the one before, but starting in a different place. So, each note moves in “parallel” with the others to reach the corresponding notes in the new chord.

The reason this is native to guitar and bass guitar, is that you can form a chord shape, and then easily slide the whole shape up or down to make a new chord. (You’ll see it in the solo I do at the end of the post.)

The first time I really noticed parallelism was in electro house tracks with basslines doubled in major 10ths. Remember this one?

But, actually, since childhood I’ve loved hearing blues slide guitar which is built on completely parallel “open-tuned” chords sliding up and down. Guys like the hippy blues savant Alan Wilson (seriously check out that magnificent performance by his band Canned Heat!) or George Thorogood.

Not all chord shapes are equal for this application. The strongest shapes are those that resemble part of the overtone series. This similarity causes the notes to interact and buzz. Gerhard Kubik calls acoustically resonant chords like this “timbre-harmonic clusters”.

D Harmonics to 11th

So, the first interval (counting up from the bottom note) in the series is the octave. Wes Montgomery is famous for his use of parallel octaves, for example at 2:50 in the first video above. But I don’t particularly like the sound of them on bass. This is partly due to the lack of a satisfying way of sounding them – Wes strums them with a muted string between the root and octave, but that doesn’t work for me. Also, they don’t achieve that chiming sound in the bass’s register.

The next interval is the perfect 5th found between the second and third harmonics (D and G). This one is, again, completely guitaristic – the “power chord” of rock and metal. As an interesting demonstration of a distinctive resonance, if you play a power chord on bass or guitar with distortion, a strong difference tone an octave below appears.

(Sorry for the poor sound quality by the way – I’ve upgraded my microphone but forgot to plug it in here.)

Without distortion, the phenomenon is much weaker, but still noticeable as an extra fatness/bassiness at gigging volume levels. (Actually I think that’s due to the slight distortion in the preamp stage of my amp.) So I do use power chords sometimes at gigs to augment a simple bassline.

Okay so some quick thoughts on the use of the other intervals available… 4ths are very buzzy and strong, and obviously easy to play on an instrument tuned in fourths. Major 3rds are strident and bright, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but it can be used for some parallel cliches. In particular, the blues scale fragment b5 4 b3 can be harmonised a major 3rd away by b7 6 5, another bluesy cell.

Another interval I use a lot is the 10th – it’s good for “prog house” or “electro house” sounds. One interesting thing about lines consistently harmonised in major 10ths is that it becomes unclear whether the top or bottom note is the “main” one, despite the fact that a single 10th interval definitely sounds like the root is the bottom note. Try it!

Minor 3rds are a flexible interval for parallel cliches, and I wrote an article about one of those. Major 6ths are used in the classic blues chromatic descending run, but can also be extended into half-whole diminished sounds like Scott Henderson’s. Minor 6ths basically can work as the 3rd and octave of a dominant chord or its 2nd and b7th. Minor 7ths sound good but can only really function as the 1st and b7th or the 3rd and 9th of a dominant chord. So minor 7th and minor 6th parallelisms in blues are basically targeting these landing points.

An interesting larger shape is one using the fourth, seventh and ninth harmonics, which ends up as a root, minor 7th and 9th (a dominant 9th with no 3rd or 5th):

9th no 3rd no 5th

This shape has a lovely resonance. Other 3-note shapes that are nice for parallelism are the 3rd inversion of a major triad (fourth on the bottom) and 2nd inversion of a minor triad (fourth on top). These are both particularly compact shapes on bass. And of course the skeletal dominant 7th, 1st 3rd b7th.

I busted a blues solo using many of these shapes in parallel movement. Have a listen and let me know what you think! I’ve timelined the appearance of different chord/interval types below.

0:02 6th

0:06 minor 3rd

0:12 minor 6th

0:22 dominant 7th (no 5th)

0:27 minor 7th

0:31 major 3rd

0:47 4th

1:02 major 10th

1:08 dominant 9th (no 3rd no 5th)

Thanks for reading/watching!

6 Bassline Strategies

I had the privilege recently of writing bass grooves for two awesome bands, Zaska and Mescalito. When I pondered over the lines I’d composed, I noticed certain techniques recurring. Today, I’ll briefly explain each technique. Plus I’ll link to a nice example of it in the reggae, funk, jazz or hip hop repertoire.

(If you want to hear the actual lines I wrote, come see Mescalito on March 24th in the Opium Rooms supporting Vernon Jane, or on April 14th in Sweeney’s, or see Zaska’s single release on April 23rd in the Sugar Club!)

1. Space

Silence can be one of the most attractive features of a cyclical bass groove. A gap, whether for half a beat or a full bar or more, lets other parts emerge, particularly drum hits. (Cutting off a bass note right on a snare backbeat is a cliche example.)

A short gap works as punctuation, giving the groove more of a shape, and therefore, it seems to me, more physical catchiness/danceability. For example, the “Stalag” riddim (which you may know as the groove for Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), here underpinning Tenor Saw‘s hit “Ring The Alarm”…

 

Strat 1 Stalag.png
The “Stalag” bassline

Here’s another awesome 1-beat-ish gap in a reggae groove (beat 3 in the 2nd bar):

 

 

Strat 2 Sly & Robbie
Robbie Shakespeare’s line on “Computer Malfunction”

Longer spaces have a call-and-answer effect, as in this afrobeat groove…

 

Strat 3 Soffry.png
Leaving space for call-and-response (I’m not certain that this is really where the 1 is, by the way…)

2. Funky Melodic Cells

Like any other musical part, a strong bassline should be melodic. In a funky context, though, the tendency is usually towards blues melody rather than diatonicism. Out of the pool of blues notes I discussed a while back, a few 3- or 4-note cells emerge that are by far the strongest for constructing basslines. For example, 1 2 b3, 1 6 b7, 5 6 8 9, and the definitive cell for funk basslines, 1 5 b7. A catchy hook (i.e. with an intriguing rhythm) made from one of these cells can easily be a strong enough bassline to carry a tune.

 

Strat 4 Holland.png
The opening bass riff on “Not For Nothing” uses the 1 6 b7 cell

 

Strat 12 Hunter
The basic groove (coming in around 0:32) played by Hunter on 8-string guitar, using the 1 5 b7 cell

Here’s an example of a hook-y bassline built off the 1 2 b3 cell followed by a sequenced, retrograded version (that is, the first three notes are then transposed up a fifth and reversed in order).

 

Strat 5 ACR
Slap riff from A Certain Ratio’s “Waterline” (0:21)

More important than the motivic derivation, though, is the space in every 2nd bar which is used for call-and-response (in the form of improvised fills). Check out that nasty double-tracked slap sound too.

Contour

Another important aspect of that line is the clear direction of movement – up and then down, quite simply. A clear, uncomplicated contour like that strengthens the riff. For instance, the ascending bassline off the classic Scofield/Metheny collaboration…

Strat 6 Swallow.png
The A section groove for “Everybody’s Party”, with an ascending contour in each bar

As an aside, I would bet that this groove and the Dave Holland groove were both originally notated using 8th notes where I have 16th notes. Jazz musicians like reading 8th notes. It’s purely a notation decision with little or no musical impact, but I think 16ths are a more accurate reflection.

Octave Jumps

Steve Swallow’s bassline ascends a minor pentatonic scale before jumping from the b7 (Eb) back down to the root (F). We can imagine a variation of the where the scalar ascent continued, so instead of a jump down a minor 7th we would have a step-wise movement to the higher F:

Strat 7 No Displacement
Steve Swallow’s groove without the octave displacement at bar 2

The played line uses octave displacement of what would otherwise be step-wise movement. Another example of this is Marcus Miller’s nifty elaboration of the classic “Red Baron” groove (composed originally by Billy Cobham).

 

Strat 8 MIller.png
Octave displacement of step-wise movement

The Meters’ “Funky Miracle”, here sampled by DJ Premier for an early Gang Starr track, features both a (pentatonic) stepwise melody and then its octave displacement.

 

Strat 9 Meters
Octave displacement of expected high Ab

Even simpler than octave displacement of step-wise movement, is a plain leap of an octave. This James Brown sample (1973’s “Blind Man Can See It”) has a downwards octave leap to the tonic note:

Strat 10 Brown
Sampled bassline used in “Funky Technician”

(Note also the clear contour and the use of space, albeit with the note ringing out rather than silence.)

Here’s an upwards octave leap from the IV note. (Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns’ “Four Play”, sampled by DJ Premier.)

Strat 11 Wesley.png
What a rugged groove! Premier’s sub-bass and scratching helps of course.

5. Circularity Via Pick-Up

Emphasising the cyclic nature of a groove creates a hypnotic, trancy effect. One way is to use a phrase that starts before beat one. I read somewhere that landing on, rather than starting from, the downbeat is a characteristic of African-derived music. That’s surely a huge generalisation, but it does tie in well to how bebop improvisation and alternate paths are based on directionality towards target chords.

Starting basslines on a pickup in this way is not a very common technique, but here’s a nice example:

 

Strat 13 Headhunters.png
Paul Jackson’s line on “God Make Me Funky” (drops around 0:50)

6. Circularity Via Dynamic Balance

This is a concept I picked up from Steve Coleman’s writings, but I’m not at all qualified to say much about it. As I see it, it’s a characteristic of African-derived rhythms such as clave… basically, the quality of having points of rest alternating with points of tension in a syncopated rhythmic cycle, producing forward motion (“dynamic”) and also a self-contained, universal circularity (“balance”). Hmmm, my prose is not really up to the task here! Anyway, do we find clave-like rhythms in the funk repertoire? Of course we do, in these classic basslines:

 

Gonna sign off here! Hope you picked up some groove wisdom from all of that. Like, follow and share!

The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

 

In part 1, I talked about blues melody and how it relates to timbre/overtones. Today I’ll look at blues harmony and its relation to timbre. Rather than presenting any grand thesis, I’ll go through a bunch of timbre-harmonic techniques, with examples, and make some tentative connections.

I also thought as I was making this how odd it is to approach music in such an analytic way. My main motivation here is that these are really beautiful songs, in case you were wondering!

Drone
Delta blues commonly features guitar notes that function as a constantly sustained drone. This tends to pull away from tonality and towards modality and timbralism (explained in part 1), for a few reasons. The dominant V7 chord function (i.e. the tendency of G7 to resolve to C) is obscured because the droned tonic note obscures any seventh-to-tonic voice movement. Notes tend to be heard in the context of the drone rather than as forming chord progressions – this means that certain notes, and certain intonations of those notes, will be much stronger than others.

In Skip James’ “Cypress Grove Blues”, the drone note, D, only stops briefly for a switch to a V root (e.g. at 0:30). And even there, James doesn’t use a full V7 chord and the drone note slips back in after three beats of the V root. During most of the verse, the accompaniment consists only of the drone and a simplified version of the vocal melody.

Here, in Bukka White’s “Fixin To Die Blues”, the tonic and fifth (F# and C#) are both used as drones. The pull of this home key is so strong that there is only a suggestion of the standard IV7 and V7 chords – the roots of those chords are sounded against the continuing tonic and fifth drone notes. If you’re familiar with blues, you’ll notice that the melody implies the IV7 and V7, not with chord tones but with standardised pentatonic movements with cliched meanings.

Boogie Riff
The boogie riff is a basic element of blues. In downhome guitar styles I think the simple root-and-fifth to root-and-sixth alternation is most common. This riff fits neatly into Kubik’s blues scale concept: the root-and-fifth (and root-and-flat-seventh if used) parts are from I harmonics, and the root-and-sixth part is from IV harmonics. Robert Johnson provides a canonic example in his famous “Sweet Home Chicago”. Listen to the vowel sounds as well – I’ll be talking about those in a bit.

(If you’ve heard Robert Johnson before, notice how much more natural the voice and tempo sounds in these speed-corrected versions compared to the faster ones that have always been circulated on CDs etc.)

Compared to Robert Johnson’s almost pop arrangement, it’s much harder to discern the boogie riff here. It’s not literally played, but the feeling of the I to IV alternation is there in the guitar comping, and at times an actual IV chord appears on those alternate beats, for example at 0:36 or 1:10.

De-emphasising the V7
Like Skip James and Bukka White, ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s “Black Pony Blues” avoids the conventional V7 chord at the 3rd phrase of his blues verses. (Instead he uses a sparse shape with first, fifth and blue/neutral third tones). Gerhard Kubik, in his book Africa and the Blues, claims that the V7 chord is widely de-emphasised in African-American music. He claims that African-derived pentatonicism and use of overtones fit well with the I and IV chords from the European system, but not with the V. Kubik advances this as an explanation for the replacement/substition of V7 sounds in bebop.

This track, “Left Alone Blues” by Ishman Bracey, is a really interesting example. Bracey plays a full V7 at 1:49 and quite possibly elsewhere in the tune – however a variety of strategies de-emphasise its sound. The second (lead) guitar and voice play V blues scale melodies, not V7 chord tones. The V7 chord is quiet and tends to get overlapped by surrounding chords. The root note of the V is chromatically voice-led upwards to the 3rd of the IV, a non-cadential movement. The result is that it doesn’t matter whether a V7 chord or some other partial chord (say fifth and flat seventh tones off the tonic) is played.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” shows that even on a non-12-bar form, Delta players avoided the V7. Melodically, bar 4 of each verse is clearly a V function. Blind Willie Johnson plays a skeletal I chord there instead. A V triad is used in the slide guitar break, however. This underlines that these players could and did play V chords – but the functional requirement for its voice-leading 3rd and 7th has been completely undercut.

Tommy Johnson’s classic “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” demonstrates all of the tendencies I’ve mentioned so far. The tonic note and the neutral 3rd (between minor and major) have a drone-like presence throughout the whole piece. Often there is a strong alternation on every beat between the fifth and sixth note in the low register, e.g. at 0:34 – an echo of the boogie riff. And we note that the V7 is not used at all, not even suggested melodically in this case.

Parallelism
Contrary motion, suspension and key modulation don’t have much of a role in Delta and Chicago blues, but parallelism is quite common. I can think of a few different types: harmonica effects, slide guitar, guitar moving with a vocal melody, and (typically more urbanised & in standard tuning) guitar comping patterns.

At 1:11, the turnaround of his first solo chorus in his hit “My Babe”, Little Walter repeatedly bends the third and fifth of the key simultaneously (B and G), for distinctive wailing sound. This is possible because the draw (sucked) notes on a 10-hole harmonica form a chord and can be bent downwards by altering air pressure. So, if a player has the ability to bend a note, unblocking an adjacent hole very simply adds a parallel voice to to the bend. This limited form of parallelism is a basic sound of downhome and Chicago blues.

The first chorus of “I Feel Like Going Home” is a masterclass in the timbre-harmonic possibilities of slide guitar. Minor 3rds then major triads are used in parallel. Muddy Waters does some cool stuff with the upper notes in his timbre-harmonic clusters, giving them a heavier vibrato at 0:04 or re-plucking them at 0:16. It reminds me of how great blues singers hone in on particular overtones in their long notes, and has a similarly beautiful, ghostly effect. I’ll come back to that at the end of this article.

Okay I’ll try be quick in describing the third kind of parallelism – guitar comping patterns. Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Chess recordings are an absolute goldmine for these. In “Fattening Frogs For Snakes” the guitarist plays minor 3rds that are part of the standard blues 7th chords, but he uses a double chromatic approach to each one.

Fattening Frogs Minor 3rds Parallelsim

I really like that sound.

In “Decoration Day” we get chromatic parallel shifts of an entire C9 chord at 0:23 and 1:08 (played by Buddy Guy). I think harmonically-oriented music education can make us disregard these effects as trivially simple – yet in this context it sounds amazing.

Here’s a great example of parallel chords… white blues-rockers Canned Heat build a burning version of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” over Alan Wilson’s deeply-researched guitar shapes. I think what fascinates me about these sounds is how, emotionally speaking, they embody blues’ paradoxical mix of cool and sad and sensual, and, technically speaking, they have a simultaneous melodic, harmonic and a groove role.

Like Alan Wilson, I believe that “the blues essentially is vocal and various instrumental simulations of [vocals]“. And I think this is down to the huge timbral possibilities of the human voice.

This stuff is hard to talk about, even though, along with microtiming, it’s the main expressive channel in blues – and one without which electronic dance and rock wouldn’t exist (i.e. without wah wah, bends, power chords, parallelism and distortion – all timbral techniques popularised by blues).

How can something that influential be so hard to discuss? I’d say:

  1. Our hearing system automatically assembles harmonics into the impression of a “tone quality”, meaning we usually don’t consciously perceive them.
  2. In the Western world we are typically acculturated to focus on the fundamental tone of a note rather than its overtones.
  3. Jazz and rock/pop education tends to focus on the more easily measurable chordal and melodic aspects of music over microtiming, group interaction and timbre.

Well, I won’t get into a rant about this, but suffice to say our vocabulary for describing timbral music is inadequate. But I’ll try anyway.

Muddy Waters’ “Country Blues” is a really, really fine track. The vocal displays remarkable control of harmonics throughout, but I’ll point out some identifiable techniques. Muddy Waters has a mannerism of letting his lyrics break down completely into an open-voweled wordless expression, and he uses it at the same point in each verse, 0:22, 0:56 and 1:29, and elsewhere, e.g. “child” at 1:32. This effect creates a trembling 3rd harmonic (which is an octave and a fifth above the sung note). But actually this kind of expression is present throughout the song, for instance the whistling accentuated harmonics in the words “ole” and “now” in the line “well that’s a misery ole feeling now” at 1:08.

Muddy Waters also uses breaks into a higher register of his voice, e.g. in the very next line at 1:12. This technique is taken to a yodeling extreme in Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, embedded above.

There’s loads more to say about that Muddy Waters track but I should wrap up now. Listening to all these tracks really brought home to me that there’s a whole other way of listening to blues, which, despite a lifetime’s exposure to the music, I never really did before. It is to listen to the overtones.

Doing this helps to explain bending, melisma, use of vowels, use of vibrato, and more. I even think it may connect with the widespread use of parallelism. Slide guitar and harmonica allow parallel notes to follow the same exact microtonal contour – just as an accentuated harmonic in the voice follows the microtonal contour of the fundamental.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the holidays! As always, comments and criticisms are very much appreciated.

The Real Blues Scale? Part 1

Two years ago I read Gerhard Kubik’s Africa and the Blues, and immediately liked how he explains blues melody. His emphasis on timbre (which for today’s purposes I’ll define as the distribution of overtones in a note) echoed Vijay Iyer, as well as my own experience. I’ll go through Kubik’s approach today using my own examples.

Skip James DGMW V 2
Verse 1 of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” (1931). In the key of D.

I did my master research last year on this song. It doesn’t fit the typical explanations of blues melody: the minor pentatonic scale and the related six-note “blues scale”. Devil Got My Woman uses strong 5th and 6th tones (E and B) which aren’t in those scales.

Gerhard Kubik, an expert on African music, has perspectives other than Western harmony and melody. He claims that blues uses “timbre-harmony”.

I’ll do some lazy binary thinking for a moment to explain this concept, by comparing (timbre-harmonic) blues with (tonal) classical music.

In tonal music, harmony is considered separate from timbre. A chord or progression of chords is judged to be the same no matter what instrumental tone quality is used. The undeniable effects of tone quality are considered technicalities within the crafts of arranging and instrumentation (e.g. the “low interval limit”).

In timbre-harmonic music, there is no such distinction – the presence of overtones in the field of sounds, and the effects created when played chords resemble an overtone series, are a part of harmonic expression. Changes in timbre are potentially as meaningful as playing different notes. Chord tones may be employed more for their acoustic resonance than for voice-leading or functionality.

In tonal music, there is a fine gradient of dissonance leading towards the stability of triads. However, in timbral music, higher overtones such as the 7th, 9th and 11th may be heard as stable parts of a chord, while the general acceptance of (multiple) overtone series means that semitones or tones are less likely to be heard as clashing, and more likely to be “tasty”, desireable phenomena. Compare the typical highly altered final chord of a jazz piece, or the final chord of a traditional blues with its stylised b7th, with the triad closing a classical piece.

(Once more, this kind of binary comparison is lazy thinking. As counter-examples, African-American Scott Joplin used tonality; European Claude Debussy used timbralism. Composers like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Darcy James Argue among many others have brought great sophistication to music that bridges both approaches.)

How does Kubik explain blues melody from his timbre-harmonic perspective? Well, the overtone series of the tonic note can explain the major 3rd, 5th, b7th and 9th (2nd)…

D Harmonics
Overtones of D from fundamental to 9th. Then arranged in one octave.

… but not the 4th and b3rd. These are a crucial part of blues melody, as in the Fs and Gs in Skip James’s “Cherry Ball Blues”:

 

Skip James Cherry Ball V 1
Verse 1 of Skip James’ “Cherry Ball Blues” (1931). In D.

How can these notes be explained? Kubik’s insight was that blues melody combines the overtones of the tonic note with the overtones of the fourth degree (IV, the subdominant).

 

D Blues Scale
Gerhard Kubik’s system

Kubik posits that around the 1890s, African-descended musicians familiar with pentatonic field hollers, West African use of the overtone series, and European chord progressions on guitar, synthesised these into a new melodic and harmonic system. I and IV chords could be used to accompany minor pentatonic melodies. Cultural retentions of timbre-harmony strongly influenced guitar and vocal technique. Knowledge of the interference between the overtone series (where two tones are close, e.g. the 7th harmonic of IV, F and the 5th harmonic of I, F#) led to variations of pitch around the 3rd, 5th and 7th.

We’re still far from a full explanation, though. What about the use of bends and melisma? Kubik ascribes this to an “Arabic/Islamic influence in the western and central Sudanic belt” of Africa. I would add that guitar and vocal bends have a strong timbral effect: they change the distribution of overtones, and they can be used to “tune into” pleasing resonances. (A basic example is Skip James swooping up to the tonic note at the start of “Cherry Ball Blues”.) Sliding while modulating a sung vowel can strongly emphasise a particular harmonic. These techniques help explain the near-supernatural blend of voice and guitar in Skip James’ music. (Which characteristically uses “heterophony” to achieve this: the guitar doubling, with variations but in the same register, the vocal.)

This is getting pretty technical. Before we finish let’s see if Kubik’s concept shines any light on Skip James’s vocal lines.

Skip James DGMW V 2
The first bar of “Devil Got My Woman”‘s melody uses strong E notes (in the key of D). We might be tempted to call these the 9th harmonic of D. In context, though, they sound more like the 5th of a blues scale built off A, the dominant degree (V). This use of a full V blues scale over V7 chords is found in other blues musicians (Stevie Ray Vaughan, quite beautifully, for example).

Things get subtle here…. So, the normal, tonic blues scale uses notes from I harmonics and IV harmonics, and can be played over both I7 and IV7 chords. Notably, when the chord switches from I7 to IV7, this is not usually a trigger for transposing the whole melodic/scale structure up a fourth. However, when the chord is V7 (actually a V-7 in this and some other Skip James numbers), the scale does often transpose up a 5th.

(Tones and root notes regularly bleed between different chords in Skip James’ work. Here, differences between chords are less important than in tonal music – though still present. Analysis like mine eventually finds its limits in this cloudiness. Kubik uses the term “timbre-harmonic cluster” instead of “chord” to hint at this more suggestive than definitive role.)

In the melisma I’ve notated with a quintuplet, above, Skip James switches from the b3rd-3rd pitch area of an A blues scale to the 5th and 6th of a D blues scale – i.e. the IV part of the D blues scale. Then we get notes from the I series with ornamentations.

“Cherry Ball Blues” is simpler. We have a crystal clear laying out of the tonic note, then notes from the IV series, resolving to I series notes at the signature b3rd to 3rd (F to F#) bend. Again, a resolution from IV to I sounds. Then we can clearly see the switch from the I7 part of the D blues scale to an A blues scale in the move from F# to a G and A – made even clearer with the A pentatonic descent to a C to C# bend, b3rd to 3rd of A (IV series to I series of A).

Skip James Cherry Ball V 1
“Cherry Ball Blues”, verse 1.

“Cherry Ball” also uses b5ths. Kubik explains this note by including some higher harmonics in his system.

D + G w 11th & Intonation.png
Kubik’s system up to 11th harmonics, with intonations.

I’ve mentioned the tunings of notes this time. When I was first thinking through this stuff years ago, I was attracted by the “secret notes” with non-equal-tempered tunings. Now I’m kind of cautious. Skip James approaches many notes with a quick upwards slide of a fourth – the opposite of microtonal precision. In the flexible pitch areas caused by intersecting overtones, he chooses his tunings freely and almost always bends to and from them. So for me, those intonations are only important if they have a musical effect – say like Sonny Boy Williamson II’s unbelievably good flat 7th in his final chorus here:

 

 

I hope you got something out of this perspective on blues melody. I’m hoping to tackle how timbre-harmony applies to chords in Part 2. The stacked-overtone-series concept opened my mind on a lot of things. For instance, how both the b3rd-6th and 3rd-b7th tritones sound bluesy, but don’t work in a single chord. It’s also a good explanation of the power of bends such as b3rd-3rd, b5th-4th, and 6th-b7th.

To sign off, a final speculation. Steve Coleman calls attention to the “negative dominant” resolutions used in bebop, where IV-6 and bVI-6 melodies are used over V7 to I progressions. He calls them “alternate paths” or “invisible paths” (particularly when they are used in chains). Could the IV7 to I7 sound of blues melody be an earlier type of alternate path? That is, a way to resolve to the tonic, with cadential force, but disregarding the V7 to I resolution? I’m curious if these rule-breaking harmonic approaches could relate to a general African-American aesthetic of misdirection, trickery and evasion which crops up in folk tales (Signifyin’ Monkey, Br’er Rabbit), dance (the moonwalk) and sport (basketball moves).

Anyway! Comment if you like it, hate it, or if you have any blues thoughts of your own!

Oh, and, I had some things I want to say about the racist power imbalances involved in the categorisation of “country blues”, the fetishisation of unschooled part-time musicians like Skip James, and my position as a European analysing blues from records…. but I actually had too much I wanted to write so it will have to wait for another post!