Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Road to Cello - Chapter 3

The festival gave me incentive to pursue an instrument. Something other than trombone, my high school/college instrument. It had served me well, but now it was time for something different, but what?

The memory of the washtub bass thumping in the mist persisted. The music of that weekend was dominated by high range instruments. String bass and washtub bass, along with just some guitarists who emphasize bass notes, were the principal exceptions.

I did a little on-line reseach into washtub bass and found that, while there are no instruction guides at all on how to play one, there are many variations and plans on how to make one. One design in particular appealed to me, dubbed Tub-o-Tone by it's inventer, Lauren Miller. It has a fixed neck, a single tunable string, and a simple, to-the-point, no-frills, sound efficient design that appealed to me.

In my research I learned that washtub basses and harps share something unique in the string instrument world. Other instruments, i.e. those with bridges perpendicular to the string, transmit vibrations to the sound chamber at the same pitch as the string itself vibrates. One cycle to one cycle.

Harps and washtub basses, on the other hand, don't have bridges. The string attaches directly out of the sound box. In those cases the top of the sound box is pulled up and let down twice for every one cycle of the string. The pitch one hears from the sound chamber is twice the actual pitch of the string. Oooo, Cool! So that explains how those guys can play notes in the string bass range with ordinary clotheslines at low tension! It also explains how those long thick nylon harp strings sound higher than it appears they should.

By the end of the summer of 2002 I was in the Home Depot selecting materials and building my very own Tub-o-Tone. By fall I was attending local jams. Suffice it to say my unique home-made instrument got a lot attention and compliments; my playing, well, not nearly so much.

But it turned out to be a super way to start learning how fiddle tunes are put together, and start developing an ear. I got two of the most common tune books: Dave Brody's Fiddler's Fake Book, and Susan Songer's The Portland Collection.

At first the chord progressions seem to just fly by without making much sense. Sometimes it's as fast as one chord per beat at 2 beats per second. But some things began to make sense:

- Most fiddle tunes have two sections, with one or more contrasting characteristics. One section might be low in the fiddle range, the other high. One section might have very few chord changes, the other many. One might have all major chords, the other mostly minor. Usually, each section begins on the tonic and ends on the tonic (Even that is not always true, but it starts to become obvious when it isn't).

- Ancient modal and gapped tunes can often be accompanied with only two chords so they're the easiest for a beginner to follow: i (or I) and VII chords. E-dorian and A-dorian tunes are fairly common; consisting mainly or entirely of just E-minor/D-major or A-minor/G-major, respectively. A-mixolydian tunes can typically be accompanied with just A-major/G-major.

- Modern tunes (ie, within the last 300 years or so), tend to have at least 3 chords, usually I (or i), IV, and V. For me, hearing the V to I was easiest to hear first. It especially comes just before the end of a section. Then comes I to V. Picking out the changes to/from IV are harder. vi chords even harder.

- One thing you discover quickly is not everybody harmonizes the same tune the same way. There's a lot of variation. The most commmon variation seems to me to be the I vs VI chord; for example, G vs Em in the key of G major. Also, the ii vs the IV; for example, Am vs C in the key of G major. In many places you could play either one. Often, both of them together can be compatible enough that most people don't notice in a jam situation. But another that's more problematic is the IV vs VI; for example, C vs Em in the key of G major. Here the difference is much more noticeable and the two at the same time are not at all compatible.

- Fiddle tunes don't usually have chromaticism so when it happens it stands out. One of the examples is the VII chord built on the minor seventh degree. For example, a G major chord in something that's decidedly A-major. Does that ring a bell? Ah, it's a throwback to old fashioned A-mixolydian. Purity of musical style is not a big concern for tune writers or accompanists.

- It's still way too hard for me to hear and identify every individual chord change. They go by way too fast, for one thing. But after awhile one thinks of a section as a sentence. Some tunes have the same or very similar standard sentences.

Like: I - - - - - - V - I - - - - - - V - I -
or: I - - - IV - V - I - - IV - V - I -
or: I - IV- I - V - I - IV - V - I -
or: vi - - - - - -I -V - vi - - - - V - I -

Even if it's not one pattern or another, picking a first draft guess can lead to finding the real pattern after a few trials and watching the senior guitarist's left hand.

- I was really thrown for a loop over places where the chord changes every beat. How can anybody hear and follow that? Well, it turns out in practice that happens for one reason: The melody is basically a scale fragment; up or down. So what's a thumpy ol' washtub player to do? The easiest thing to do is to also play a scale fragment, in unison or in parallel. Take, for instance, a melody is |G-BG|F#-AF#|EDC#E|D. When I know the tune well I might play the chordal roots: G-D-A-D, but it's easier and works well for folkie purposes to just play G-F#-E-D.

Ok, when am I getting to cello? Patience! It's coming up next time.


robjeny said...

This is a test. This is ONLY a test.

PinkFluffySlippers said...

You passed the test, robjeny.

I'm still in awe of people who can hear chord changes. I haven't learned that aspect of music at all. It just seems so hard to hear a collection of notes and make sense of it.

Terry said...

True, sometimes nearly half the melody notes are non-harmonic. Where's the chord" in that?

PFS, or anybody else who qould like to try this, I'd like you to try an experiment. If you have a CD of this kind of music, play one or more tunes several times to get familiar with it, then try to sing along with what you'd guess is a good bass or root note. No instrument. Can you find one? Be patient with it, give it at least 10 times or so.

Terry said...

One other thing. Sing those experimental bass tones long and as few as possible.