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Timbre

What does an acoustic guitar sound like when you strum it at the bridge? How about at the 5th fret? What happens when you mute the strings by laying your palm on the bridge? Play a chord progression that you know, and switch between these techniques.

Each is a unique timbre. Timbre means the sound-character of the instrument. And you can change the timbre simply by strumming in different places on the guitar.

 

Adding life to your writing

Emphasizing timbre changes the way you think about your playing and your writing. Make timbre a focus, and you may find yourself introducing subtle changes in your songs that give them more life.

A simple idea is to strum over the sound-hole on the verse, and strum close to the bridge for the chorus. This kind of idea adds a quality that isn’t obvious, and introduces an organizational element without getting needlessly complex.

Just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean that people won’t notice. It means that the noticing is unconscious. They’ll keep coming back to the song to figure out what they’re hearing without knowing that that’s why they’re coming back.

 

Electric guitar

If you’re using the electric guitar, there’s way more choice of timbre given the amount of effects available.

Try relating timbre to emotional content. For example, distortion can be related to anger, anxiety, or confidence. A clean sound might make you feel more relaxed. Figure out what different effects mean for you, and then figure out how they might relate to the lyrics you’re writing. Thinking this way allows you to make decisions based on supporting the song with timbre instead of just using an effect for the sake of it.

 

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Ostinato

The ostinato is related to the riff. It’s a short, repeated melodic phrase. The difference lies mainly in how many times you repeat it.

 

The riff is often used as a hook played a limited number of times at the beginning of the song. It can also be played elsewhere in the song. Its purpose is to draw the listener in, and give them something to remember.

 

Length

The ostinato is something that can go on for a long time. Its function is to act as an accompaniment to melody or improvisation. It’s used in both instrumental music and sung music.

 

Here’s an example. The first piano you hear plays the ostinato. Listen for a couple of minutes. It can get kind of hypnotic. Then move to different places in the video; you’ll hear a variation of the ostinato. To hear how it changes, listen to first 10 minutes or so.

 

 

 

Using ostinato in song

A simple ostinato technique is to play the riff during a solo. A more interesting technique is to extend the riff and use that as the ostinato. This creates variety and more interest in general.

 

You can extend a one bar riff by simply extending it by a bar. Or you can just add a couple of beats of new material. This creates a feeling of surprise. The listener is expecting a continuation of 4/4 and you give them a bar of 4/4 followed by a bar of 2/4.

 

Time signatures

Here’s a link to an explanation of time signatures if you need it. If not, you can skip this.

http://www.musictheory.net/lessons/12

 

The explanation of the bottom number may not be totally clear. In case it’s not…

 

If the bottom number is a 4, it indicates a quarter note; an 8 is an 1/8 note; a 2 is a half note.

 

…and back to ostinato

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

This is a riff. Repeat it endlessly and it’s an ostinato.

ostinato riff1

 

Here’s the same riff (bar 1) with an extension of another bar of 4/4 (bar 1 with a variation).

ostinato riff

 

And finally, the same riff with an extension of a bar of 2/4. The return to the beginning of the riff comes as a surprise.

riff extension

 

 

Experiment with extensions of different lengths: a bar of 3/4, a bar of 5/4, etc. Or shorten the first bar to 3/4 by erasing one of the beats.

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Idea density

How many things are going on in the music you’re listening to? How much is going on in the music you’re writing? In other words, how many ideas are you using at the same time?

 

A common mistake is to use too many ideas in the same song. For instance, the guitar plays three different riffs, plays the bass line for one of the verses, and the whole song changes from a rock to a funk feel in the chorus while changing keys a couple of times.

 

None of these are a bad idea on their own (although three different riffs is a bit much). Put them all into one song and you get a mess.

 

Isolating ideas

Try isolating each idea, and using it as the basis for an entire song.

 

  • Having the guitar play the bass line is a nice idea. It varies the texture by eliminating chords for one verse. That simple move is memorable if it’s not surrounded by a bunch of other things competing for attention.

 

  • A key change shifts the listener into a different world. This can be really effective, but not easy to do convincingly.

 

  • A change in feel is a good idea if done well. Changing the genre is difficult to do convincingly, and can sound contrived.

 

Instead of a straight up genre change, try changing the amount of activity in some way.

For instance, the verse might have a driving guitar rhythm while the chorus uses longer, held chords. The art is in finding the right balance between rhythmically busy and relaxed. Finding it requires work and experimentation.

 

Opposites

A good tool for generating ideas is to come up with musical opposites. Then come up with ideas based on those.

 

For example:

  • Loud/quiet
  • Solo performer/entire band
  • Busy/sparse
  • Legato/staccato
  • Clean/distorted
  • Arpeggiated chords/strummed chords
  • Muted/resonant

 

Come up with some of your own. They don’t have to be specifically music-related.

 

For instance:

  • Gritty/smooth
  • Hard/soft
  • Airy/dense

 

These kind of practice can inspire good musical ideas.

 

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Noise

I did a Mile Zero Dance show called Sho-tel a while ago. Mile Zero does a lot of really interesting things in this city, bringing together dancers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, archivists, folklorists.

The show I did happened at a motel in the west end, seedy and gradually falling apart.

I made noise.

By noise I mean that I played with timbre. I didn’t worry about melody, chords, or playing in any conventional way. In other words, I concentrated on the sound character of the instrument. Check my soundcloud page under experimental guitar if you want to hear examples.

https://soundcloud.com/stream

Timbre and the electric guitar is an insane topic. There’s just so much you can do.

 

Effects

 Here’s a basic list of effects:

Distortion

Phaser

Chorus

Delay

Reverb

Ring modulation

Filters

Harmonizers

Equalizers

Compressors

 

Each effect has a range of intensity, so you can get a variety of timbre out of just one of them. When you start combining them…

 

You can also get interesting sounds out of your guitar without effects.

 

Prepared guitar

All of this applies nicely to abstract or avante-garde music. But how do you use it to write songs?

Try re-conceptualizing the guitar as a different instrument. Make it a percussion instrument by weaving some felt through the strings and tapping the strings with a chopstick. Can you hear this in an intro, or as a coloristic device in the chorus?

When you use timbre this way, it’s a good idea to start simple. Don’t overplay. Play the sound once and let it ring (if it’s a sustained sound). If it’s different than the sounds around it, it will draw focus. Think of it as highlighting important events – beginnings of verses, choruses, etc.

If it’s a percussive sound, you could use it in place of the drums, or as part of the drum sound.

These are suggestions for where to start. As you work with this, ideas will occur to you. Follow them.

Experiment by making sounds that don’t normally fit in the stuff you normally write.

 

 

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16th notes in Lebanon

This is the Masmoudi rhythm from Lebanon. It’s particularly interesting because of the simple rhythmic activity in the first bar followed by more complex activity in the second bar.

 

lebanon rhythm

 

 

Make sure that you start this one slow. Base the tempo on the second bar. If you play the first bar fast, the second bar will sound rushed.

Using any of the scales that you know, invent a riff with this rhythm. Try using only one note in the first bar, and 5 notes in the second bar. This reflects the simple/complex thing that’s happening rhythmically. Use only one note whenever there’s a string of 16th notes. This will keep it focussed.

Then do whatever you want. This is a good way to work: restrict yourself first, and then stretch out.

 

 Common 16th-note rhythms

At this point, you’ve seen four different 16th note rhythms. Here they are

4 16ths

8th, 2 16ths

2 16ths, 8th

16th rest, 16th, 8th

These are all really common, especially the first three.

 

Here’s one more. It’s also really common, so you should know it, too.

shuffle

 

Using these rhythms, create a one bar rhythmic idea. Follow it with the first bar of the Masmoudi rhythm.

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More West African rhythm: Nigeria

This rhythm is from Nigeria. It’s called Frekoba.

nigerian rhythm2

It’s trickier than the last one. The reason for this is the syncopation on beat 4.

 

Isolation

Let’s isolate the last two beats and repeat them.

nigerian rhythm

 

The rhythm on beats 1 and 3 are the same rhythm that you saw in the last post. It’s the rhythm on beats 2 and 4 that are a challenge.

You’ll notice that two notes from each of the second and fourth beats are bracketed. Count the “2 ee and uh” and “4 ee and uh” but don’t play a note on the number (the 2 or the 4) or the “uh”.

This will take some practice. Start slow. Once it feels comfortable at a slow speed, gradually make it faster.

 

Guitar problem

Here’s a riff with this rhythm using A dorian. Don’t try this until you’re comfortable with the rhythm.

 

nigerian riff

 

There’s a difficulty in this riff aside from the last two beats. The good news is that there are two ways to play it. The bad news: they’re both problematic.

It’s that F# on the 9th fret of the A string. It’s a bit of a stretch. If it’s uncomfortable, you can play that note on the 4th fret of the D string. To do that smoothly, you’ll have to play the D on the 5th fret of the A string (the four 16th notes on the second beat) with your middle finger. This allows you to play the F# with your index finger on the 4th fret of the D string at beat 3.

nigerian riff2

 

Either way, that point in the riff presents a challenge. This is a common type of problem. It will come up again in other things you play. Learn how to do it both ways, and you’ll have a greater range of possibility in the things you can play.

Just be patient, work on it every day for about a week, and you’ll see it get better. Always start slow with new things.

 

 

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