The Four Ts of Bluegrass: Tone, Taste, Timing … and Technology
Earl Scruggs has long been lauded for the tone, taste, and timing of his banjo playing, and those same measures have been applied to bluegrass music as a whole. When bands exhibit strengths in developing and maintaining a tone, playing their music with exquisite taste, and carefully maintaining excellent timing, they achieve a level of quality that will carry them a long way. But a band doesn’t achieve these three qualities simply by being familiar with the bluegrass repertoire, coming to know the songs, and playing them, even repeatedly in informal jams. Rather, it’s developed when a band practices, negotiates, and works together to become something greater than each individual playing alone. Thus tone, taste, and timing must be the result of rehearsal – focused practice sessions, listening carefully to each other, use of a metronome to achieve accurate timing, and thoughtful analysis of phrasing, song selection, and appropriateness, all to achieve a level of taste which neither insults nor talks down to the audience. It’s really quite a journey, and it doesn’t “just happen.”
Contemporary bands are faced with another confounding variable that affects both studio and live performance: technology. Honestly, the whole technology of adjustable tone, tempo, and vocal tune eludes me, except I know that each of these qualities can be corrected electronically. Meanwhile, guest artists can mail in tracks to be mixed into a recording, which suggests to me that modern recordings are more about sound engineers manipulating computers than they are about the achievement of a band making music. For an engineer to be able to punch in a note or two – or even an entire phrase – while correcting for flat or sharp singing strikes me as a kind of artifice that can only lead to disappointment during a band’s live set. The use of hidden click tracks, even onstage, to hide the effect of much-needed work on accurate timing, also serves to insert the power of technology into the performance beyond what might be considered a warranted or accurate representation of the band’s capacity.
But new technology has made new modes of performance available, too, and many bands are taking advantage of what technology has to offer. For years, bands would sing and play into a single microphone, participating in an elaborate dance to get to the mic for instrumental or vocal solos. This onstage movement created good music. It also provided movement on stage, which kept performances interesting and vital. I don’t know when technology evolved to where we now line a four or five piece bluegrass band across the stage, with each member playing and/or singing into their own mic. I’m certain it required less choreography while improving the quality of individual instruments’ sound. Nevertheless, it’s led to a static line across the stage which rarely moves. Musicians placed this way spend large amounts of time trying to get the sound crew to adjust mic and monitor levels, so they can hear both themselves and a proper mix of the other band members. This process can get annoying and time-consuming, cutting into the amount of performance time available in the typical hour that’s set aside for stage setup and performance. Ear monitors have made this process a little quicker, but still dodgy, especially if one or more performers is trying to be particularly precise.
Now however, because of in-ear monitors and headset microphones, members of a band are free to interact with each other while they are playing, and move wherever they like. We are pretty much at the beginning of this practice of random movement. Few bands are using headset microphones for singing. Solo and trio singing is still, usually, done into microphones on stands. Meanwhile many bands have several instruments plugged in. Guitars – the quietest bluegrass instrument – often need to be plugged in or miked in order to be heard, especially since guitar solos have become standard in the genre. Basses have been amplified for years. All this is for the betterment of the music, as good sound people can effectively create a pleasing mix. Plus, in a song where there’s an extended jam, players can move around and face each other to trade licks and themes, which can make the music very exciting.
Some years ago, at the Joe Val Festival in Massachusetts, I saw Tashina Clarridge and Tony Trischka trading solos on fiddle and banjo in the middle of the stage. Trischka threw off a musical phrase and Claridge threw back her head and roared before sending a message back to Trischka, eliciting a broad smile. It was then I learned that music is a complex and extensive language, much of which I don’t understand or am not familiar with, but which, when accompanied by a strong musical vocabulary, brings greater pleasure to both player and listener.
As with tone, taste, and timing, effective use of technology requires careful and thoughtful inclusion of elements that serve to improve a performance. Last week, at The MACC in Columbus, I was standing behind the stage chatting with Grammy-winning songwriter, performer, and producer Carl Jackson. Suddenly he stopped to listen to the band onstage (the Mississippi bluegrass band Volume Five, led by Glenn Harrell) and said, “They’re singing into a single mic.” I asked him how he’d noticed. He said, “Because they’re singing better.” Here’s a band that uses a single, rather expensive condenser mic for vocals, and two side mics for instrumental solos. Their ability to listen and respond to each other’s voices has been vastly improved. If more bands can make technology work for them this way, on stage and in the studio, the improvement in performance will be remarkable. If they can then write or select truly excellent songs, imagine where the music can take us.