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Article : Tone

"The Tone"
By Bill Barret

BillIt's easy to find books on playing chord changes, sight reading,
transcriptions of famous solos etc... but it's harder to find books on tone production, on just improving your sound. That's too bad, considering how much we obsess over it. Perhaps the lack of material on the subject is a reflection of how difficult it is to discuss. Tone is an emotionally charged topic for harmonica players. One that takes on mystic properties. A common view on practicing tone goes something like "your tone is your soul, and either you have SOUL or you don't. It's certainly not something you can learn or practice."

I disagree, issues of "soul" aside, you can learn to do things that improve your and to add variety to the way you play the notes. You can practice effects like throat vibrato, and learn to beef-up your tone. When we discuss a players tone I believe we mean more than just timbre. I intend to use the term tone in it's loosest meaning, as a players overall sound. Tone as used here includes all the details that attend the notes such as vibrato, articulation, ornamentation, and phrasing. It's that quality that makes great players of all instruments easy to recognize within a measure or two.

Take Miles Davis, and Dexter Gordon for example, in addition to the distinctive timbre of both player's notes, there are other features of their respective sounds that identify them. Miles intentional lack of vibrato, or his use of a Harmon mute are aspects of his tone that make him immediately recognizable. Dexter's inimitable sound comes as much from the way he plays behind the beat as the rich timbre of the notes pouring out of from his tenor. The subtleties in the way these two geniuses shape the notes are amazing. "The devil is in the details". Still, which details make for a pleasing sound seems to be in the ear of the beholder.

I feel that a variety of timbre with other shifting details make for a memorable solo. My favorite players come across "3D" to me. Let me take three contemporary masters as an example-Take Paul Delay, his solos are full of diversity. The subtle way he opens "the cup" of his hands lending a shrill bite to the end of a phrase, just as his vibrato gets more choked etc... Or how Stevie Wonder's scoops into a note and sets it into an driving rhythm with rich ornamentation. Or Brendan Power's ability to decorate his notes with endless variation. Can you learn to do that? well..... no (just kidding... sort of). You can learn some of the features of their respective sounds though. In doing so you can sound a lot like them, or just borrow (steal) the details you like, and craft your own sound.

"In european (art) music a standard timbre is aimed for- that is, there is an ideal violin or trumpet sound that the player within narrow limits, aims for. in jazz timbre is highly personal and varies not only from player to player but from moment to moment in a given passage for expressive purposes, just as european players swell or diminish a note to add feeling. in european music each note has a fixed pitch (some slight variation is permitted the leading tone) that can be measured by a machine. in jazz pitch is flexible to a considerable degree, and in fact in some types of jazz are invariably and deliberately played "out of tune" by european standards."---Nat Hentoff (the making of jazz). By "european" i'm believe Nat Hentoff meant, as opposed to african. "european" being so called western "art" or "classical" music. Jazz is obviously a marriage of the two. Also, there are of course many fine traditions of improvised music with large tonal variance outside of jazz and blues, and many fine jazz and blues artists that are european, etc... anyway...

How do we go about working on our tone, making it more "3D"? i think the best place to start is with our ears. We need to learn to appreciate diversity, and open our ears to the subtleties. By truly perceiving these details, by hearing the differences in these various features of tone, we make our first step.

One effective tool you can use to facilitate perception of these sonic "differences" is called Binary Opposition. "binary opposition is simply the idea or the perception of two things being antithetical to one another, 180 degrees apart. yes and no are binary opposites. so are black and white, on and off, day and night etc..."---Bob Ors (home recording magazine).

Here a few examples of how to appropriate this concept for our purposes-

I. Play a note with the thinnest possible timbre you can muster up, with no vibrato or bending etc... just one very clean and really thin note, now play one that's as fat as you can. Then go back and forth between the two of them (thin, fat, thin, fat, etc...). Really listen to the difference between the two notes. Once you've done that, try to play a note between them. Then try to play as many timbres at points between the two extremes as you can hear. Treat the exercise like you're using an effect pedal. Imagine a virtual pedal that you're turning the knob on. Be conscious of what your mouth, throat and jaw are up to, but above all listen to the sound, hear the

II. Play a note without any vibrato, then play a note with vibrato that's as close to say five beats per second as you can. Now use binary opposition to vary the rate at will. Do the same thing with pitch. (i.e. Treat your own throat vibrato like a virtual vibrato pedal).There are two aspects to vibrato i recommend listening for:
A. the rate (how fast it's beating), and
B. the depth (how much the actual pitch is changing within each beat). (playing at a rate of two or three beats per minute is hardly vibrato at all. it's more an exercise in staccato, and rhythm, but valuable none the less.)

Now try it with other components of your sound (e.g. articulation, duration, dynamics, "du" to "wah" hands etc...). take articulation as the final example- pick a short phrase play it very legato, now play the same phrase very staccato... apply binary opposition.

The goal of Binary Opposition is to hear the difference, and widen your own ability to play those differences. That way you can make choices in these various minutia of your sound more consciously. With practice you can sculpt a phrase of music in a more 3D way. You could become a more authentic traditionalist, and /or create your own unique approach. At the very least it'll add to the appreciation to your growing record collection. Speaking of which-

The next tool for adding depth and variety to your tone is Attunement. This is an easy exercise. In fact, you're probably already doing it. To become more Attuned to an idiom or player-- lounge around and listen to lots of good records of that player or style. That way you "put it in your ear" (another excuse to buy more CDs!). I got the concept from an excellent jazz educator Jerry Coker (practicing jazz). He wrote "attunement to anything depends upon our exposure, attentionality and personal preference for the subject." That is to say, if you want to become Attuned to the sound of blues harmonica you need to listen to a lot of blues harmonica, and love it. Which segue ways nicely into-

A more specific listening skill is Active Listening. It's the "attentionality" of attunement. Pull-out a recording of a player you admire, and listen to his playing. I mean really listen to them, down to the details. Very carefully pick out what is going on with his playing. First listen to the production. How is harp mixed? How is the level- is he louder than the rest of the band? (doubtful, unless it's his record). What about effects- is there a ton of reverb or delay on the harp, a quick "slap" echo or is the track dry? Just listen to the amp sound?

Now just listen to the harmonica playing. Listen to the acoustic features of his tone, separate from the amplification, effects and production. Does he use a lot of vibrato- the whole time or just at the end of a phrase? How does he phrase things- Is he playing on top of the beat- or way behind? are his phrases long or short? How is his articulation- does he play consistently very staccato, or legato, with a particular repetitive internal phrasing? How about ornamentation- does he use the same couple of mordents, trills and/ or tremolos- or a variety of ornamentation? You get the idea. Without taking the magic out of a treasured record, try to hear the details. Then try to play them. The overall effect of a given record may still feel "greasy" but now you know why.

Playing Long Tones is a standard practice for other horn players. There is probably a lot written about it already. Here's a simple way to get started. Play one long note with as big a timbre as you can. Set your jaw, throat and hands to maximum fat. start softly, slowly get as loud as you can, while keeping that big timbre, and then let the note grow soft again. Think aboutyour tone, not about how bitchin' the chicks will think you look with your new pompadour, or how delicious another beverage would be (that's a tough one for me). Just the tone.

In addition to these exercises and conceptual games, I'd like to add a bit about the instrument and yourself.

Good Posture is so important, and my biggest problem. Try to sit up straight or stand when you play. It's hard to play well, or even take a deep breath when you're hunched over. It's more difficult yet to concentrate on the "details" when your back hurts.

Make sure that you have a Decent Harmonica. It will save you a lot of trouble trying to get a good sound, and it's just more inspiring to lay. If you can afford it, I recommend having a custom repairmen go through your harp. Either way, you should learn Harmonica Repair.

It's important that you get Good Compression. It'll be very difficult to get a good sound on a leaky ax. Your harmonica should be as airtight as you can get it. The alignment, and gapping should be set-up just so. That is set for your style of playing. Chromatic players- be aware of your lever finger. Make sure you don't rest it on the button too heavy. You could be slightly depressing the lever, and getting a dreadfully leaky harmonica. The windsavers should be laying flat (I recommend voodoo).

There are a number of resources these days to learn about repair. If you want me to recommend a good book or repair person feel free to write me. Sure it seems like a lot of effort, a lot of time, and/ or money but it could be worse, you could be an oboe player, and have to cut your own reeds or a drummer and have to haul your kit around. Hell, the heaviest thing we have is the guilt we carry when we are packed and leaving, and the drummer is unscrewing that first wing-nut.

The last thing i'd like to say about tone is well.... just Play Often. The more hours you log behind the harmonica the better. Play with others as much as you can. Working on details like your mic technique by yourself important, but it's also valuable to work on it in a live situation.

These should be fun exercises, not dry intellectual abstractions that kick the life out of a nice practice session. Basically, sit-up straight, and play a decent harmonica. Listen to lots of good records carefully and with love. Try to be conscious of you own tone, and add variety to the details with binary opposition. By being conscious of these details you'll gain an appreciation for the variety of fine tone in others. With practice you can sculpt your own unique sound. I believe this will all add depth, and dimension to your appreciation of music, and to your own playing.


Bill Barrett can be reached at:
P.O. Box 642590
Los Angeles, CA 90064