Friday, August 19, 2011

Another tuning thought: what about CGDAEC?

A quick post to document a thought that hit me last night.

What about C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-C4?

  • First string is lower in pitch than the second;  which could theoretically get confusing.
  • Without a fourth interval between the second and first strings, you do lose that beautiful ascending V-I option (especially with harmonics).
  • Low C may be optimistic with nylon strings (but is fine for steel).
  • All the fifths relationships of the Guitar Craft tuning (C2-G2-D3-A3-E4-G4).  Two complete four-string groups in fifths, allowing lots of fifths-based scale thinking and chord construction with no need to "skip strings".
  • For fingerstyle, a minor triad on the top three strings.  With this voicing, at least some common alterations may present very convenient left-hand fingerings.
  • First and sixth strings are two octaves apart.  Lots of people playing standard tuning and DADGAD take advantage of this.
  • The first string becomes a simple pivot between CGDAEC (root position Am triad on top 3 strings) and CGDAEB (GAD intervals on top 3 strings).  Or, for that matter, CGDAEC# (A major triad) or even CGDAED (which is theoretically another GAD variation).  Total retuning movement for the first string here is a minor third--very do-able--and well within the range of appropriately-gauged strings.  And, the GAD variations re-capture the ascending V-I arrangement.
  • The possibles of using these intervals with partial capoing seem immense, almost intimidating--and yet above whatever capo(s) are placed, I've still and always got five strings in fifths to work with.
Hm.  Velly intellesting.

I will have to try this out.  Since I don't have years of fingerstyle under my belt yet, it may be that I can adapt to this easily enough to take advantage of the benefits.  The more I think about it, the more interesting it seems:  the first string is the only thing that ever "moves", and yet it seems like there are four very individual tunings there. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Django and Stephane.

Say what you want about YouTube--it's probably true.  But this--this--has to go way, way up in the plus column:

Just magnificent.

And because I'm just so fond of the tune, here's audio of Minor Swing:

What a treasure.  Two of the most important musical influences of the twentieth century, and you can immediately see and hear why.

Rest in peace, fellas.  We miss you.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Kaki King, stylist.

There is a reason this woman is such an important stylist.  More than anyone else in the "percussive acoustic" genre that I've heard thus far, she throws in unexpected little phrases that are unsettlingly "not right", and yet they are perfect.  If you only heard it once, it would be tempting to call it an elegantly-handled mistake (via Tom Redmond:  "If you play a wrong note, play it again"), but no, this happens too often to be unintentional.

The following contains a couple examples of this, and is otherwise just a beautiful piece, excellently played.  She lulls you in, and then hits your ears with a "wait, what was that?" and then is back.  It's a nice touch here, too, on a reasonably conventional fingerstyle composition. 

The more I hear from King, the more that I hear this as what makes her unique among her peers.  You get the same sort of thing in her flashier, percussive work, or in her brooding improvs--all of it.  I think at some level I just like her particular choice of dissonances (and love the fact that she seems to improvise them), but still:  when the "wait, what was that?" question arrives from the ears to the brain, it's reliably King who is playing.

Flat picker Dan Crary has long impressed me with his stylistic signature of inverting the third in a common tune, after the melody has been firmly established:  suddenly, he's playing the same piece in parallel minor, which is a really nice aesthetic touch in bluegrass, and he'll usually return to the original arrangement to close out.  It's a simple device, really, but Crary has made it a recognizable style point, and it's almost always effective without being ham-fisted or even "leaving the genre".  What King does strikes me as very similar, but she'll charge right out into chromatic territory without warning (rather than employ airbrakes with more "tonal approaches" like parallel substitutions and quick modulations), and, well, your ears just need to keep up.  That can very, very easily fall flat on its face, or quickly get cliched and predictable (e.g., if the chromatic phrase always leaned on the flat-five), but somehow King avoids it, and it usually works.

I'm impressed, and aspire.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Take Five: the reunion

I am really happy to be working with a mandolin student (I'll call him G.) again.  Not only does it give me a way to help with all the noise in my head, but it gives me an excuse to start looking for repertoire that will be useful in multiple contexts:  performing, technique, theory, and improvisation.

This is where Dave Brubeck's (actually Paul Desmond's) "Take Five" is an absolute masterpiece.  For starters, it's already a masterpiece;  probably the catchiest tune counted in five that most people will ever hear, it's a beautiful vamp with a brilliant chorus, and capped off by an astonishingly beautiful and compact alto sax solo.  But it's also a total treasure trove of examples and illustrations;  if you need to explain a concept in basic music theory,  this tune may well have it. 

Like many string players, I prefer it transposed up a half-step (to Em) for convenience, but a great way to test yourself once you're comfortable with the piece, is to go try it in the original E-flat minor (which is what's convenient for the alto sax).  Most of us find that using all closed shapes takes a real conscious effort, and it's worth testing yourself on.  (I'll consider it G.'s 'final exam' for the piece.  Poor guy.  :-)

So tonight, after a long time away from Take Five (which I first approached with Guitar Craft Standard Tuning guitar, CGDAEG), I sat down with the mandolin and hashed a bunch of things out.  First and foremost:  man, what a fantastic piece of music that is.  Improvising on it is simply intoxicating

I worked through the melody in the first two available octaves, and will eventually work into the third.  Here, I let the horn phrasing determine the right fingerings, which can be a little more convenient on the smaller instrument, and it will be good to be able to show G. an example of how you get to choose which fingerings you want to use.

G. is currently working through diatonic triads, and I will probably just use the "trust me" logic in trying to go through the vamp chords (Em and Bm7);  I can't decide whether it would be better to explain the Bm7 itself, or just tell him to play a D chord instead.  (The root-in-bass voicing of the Bm7 is easy;  it's the other inversions that may get confusing at speed.)  At any rate, there are plenty of Em and Bm7 chords available on the neck.

I'll have G. improvise over this simple two-chord vamp;  that alone could take a goodly amount of time and lots of questions.  Not only does he have to figure out where his Em notes are, but he can't fall back on a four-count as a crutch!  (On the other hand, if he can hold in 4, I just might jump in with a 5 and we'll get us a polyrhythm going.  :-)

The chorus, of course, will take a little time;  first we'll work the chords:

Triads first:
C - Am/C - Bm - Em/B - Am - D/A - G - G
C - Am/C - Bm - Em/B - Am - D/A - F#m - B

Then, the chords as written:
Cmaj7 - Am6 - Bm7 - Em7 - Am7 - D7 - Gmaj7 - Gmaj7
Cmaj7 - Am6 - Bm7 - Em7 - Am7 - D7 - F#m7 - B7
(on the mandolin, we do tweak voicings a bit to deal with "only" four strings)

and once he's got that, we can go over exactly what that beautiful descending movement of chords is actually doing.  On the melody side, there's a chromatic example in every measure which is great for listening, and again we'll try it in at least two octaves, ideally with different fingerings.

At some point we'll deconstruct the solo too, especially Desmond's delicious phrasing, and the various techniques that one can use to play that on the mandolin (yes, vibrato is possible on the little beastie, and worth it!). 

It will be interesting to see how he handles it--and I have to remember, myself, not to try and do too much too fast.  First, a score he can read and chords he can see.  Then, setting the vamp.  Then the melody.  Then improv.  Then the chorus, either melody or chords first (don't know which yet) and finally the solo and improv over the chorus.

All followed by E-flat minor, which all but removes his open strings as options.  (I'm a stinker, that way.)