Â© 2009 and 2010 by Mayne Smith; reproduced with permission of the author.
Â© Gail Wilson-Smith
A Shuffle in Charlie:
Among Improvising Musicians
By Mayne Smith
This piece originally appeared in a collection of essays published to honor Neil Rosenberg on the occasion of his retirement from the Department of Folklore at Memorial University in St. Johnâ€™s, Newfoundland (see the bibliography below under Smith 2005). I made some additions and corrections in October of 2009 for republication on my website. The essay concludes with a lengthy glossary of brief definitions for the italicized words, followed by a bibliography of cited publications. Any contributions, comments, or corrections are quite welcome.Â
In a jam session, with or without an audience, improvising musicians in North America inevitably need to share coordinating technical information. For instance, with a group of jamming country or rock players onstage somewhere, you might hear one call to the others, “A blues shuffle in Charlie. Start with a turn-around. One, two, three, AND â€¦” (The italicized words are defined in the glossary that concludes this essay.) They may be strangers to each other, but if the key musicians are competent, the music will start in a properly organized manner and the performance may continue with alternating vocal and instrumental solos climaxed with a strong ending, as if it had been rehearsed.
What magic makes this happen? Cultural magic: a body of conventional knowledge that is shared among a huge number of musicians, most of whom are scarcely aware of it. (By â€śmusiciansâ€ť I mean people who make music on a regular basis, whether they are amateurs or full-time professionals.)
Consciously or not, when they improvise together all musicians rely on shared, unspoken knowledge â€” much beyond that needed to perform alone.
This essay focuses on vernacular music situations where written music is not supplied and is not commonly used in the learning process. Keep in mind, though, that the use of music notation does not preclude interpretation and improvisation. The jazz world frequently uses head arrangements where specific notes are learned in rehearsal, based sometimes on lead sheets that consist of melody lines with chord-names added. In the sphere of art music, conductors and performers rely on written musical scores to determine which notes will be played and when. However musical notationâ€™s symbols are used and interpreted differently in different musical-cultural contexts. Written notes function in art music, theatrical, and jazz spheres in disparate ways.
In the country and rock worlds, various types of chord charts are often used as the infrastructure for improvising in recording sessions, in live performances, and sometimes in jam sessions. One type is just a step away from lead sheets, with chord names written between bar lines on a musical staff, sometimes with marks indicating the number of beats devoted to each chord. A second approach involves writing the chord names on plain paper, with vertical lines or boxes indicating separate measures.
A third type of chord chart is commonly referred to as the Nashville number system. This employs Arabic numerals to represent the scale notes on which the chords are based, and various other symbols to indicate rests, note durations, etc. The exclusive use of chord numbers rather than names makes it easy to transpose a complex arrangement from one key to another â€” very convenient when thereâ€™s a modulation or when a singer needs to change to a more suitable key. The number system is very compact, so it can be written on note cards or scrap paper. A simple spoken language is derived from the system: musicians can be told that a song will begin with a â€śfifty-five eleven turn-around,â€ť meaning that there will be two bars of the dominant (5) chord followed by two bars of the tonic (1). On paper these four bars are represented by the numbers 5511. A 130-page book by Chas Williams covering many variations on this system is available on the Internet (Williams 2005).
When players are improvising on stage together, they need to share a lot of background knowledge. In most styles where improvised jamming occurs, lead players will trade solo breaks or rides backed up by the rest of the ensemble. (But the term â€śbreakâ€ť isnâ€™t universal, and could be interpreted to mean that the musician should stop playing.) Instrumental solos are allocated to individuals on some basis, perhaps alternating with leads by one or more vocalists. In written or head arrangements performed in public, solo breaks are not necessarily given to all lead players, especially in a group numbering more than five. The more informal the jamming situation, the more likely it is that solo breaks will simply be sequenced in clockwise or counter-clockwise order among all musicians. In a non-public context, itâ€™s likely to be assumed that every player will get a solo break â€” including drummers and bassists in the jazz world, not necessarily in others. In some styles or contexts itâ€™s considered appropriate to improvise backup (contrasting responses to the lead) but not always. Another example: in the country scene, solo and backup roles are commonly traded off every 8 bars (two lines of a verse or chorus). In bluegrass or jazz, where instrumental virtuosity is held in especially high regard, instrumentalists are more likely to trade off every 16 or even 32 bars. The musicians have to know or deduce such varying and unspoken rules in order to participate fully.
Thereâ€™s also the question of how tunes are chosen in a jam. I frequently participate in jam sessions where the choice of numbers passes among all the musicians around a circle as in a poker session, and the dealer calls the game. But in less familial contexts there will be a limited number of preeminent singers or players who feel free to suggest songs or tunes as vehicles for jamming. Musicians need to be careful in unfamiliar jam scenes and watch for cues that they are committing sociomusical errors. In many contexts there are standard canonical pieces that journeyman musicians are expected to know, often including exact solos and hooks from famous recordings. In the bluegrass world, players are expected to be able to play (and maybe sing harmony with) almost everything Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs recorded before 1960. In the jazz world, the list of canonical pieces may cover Louis Armstrongâ€™s hits or Duke Ellingtonâ€™s or Miles Davisâ€™, depending on the sub-style involved.
Â© Hugh Peterson
Mayne Smith in performance in 1963 at the Cabale, Berkeley’s fabled folk music club.
Calling the Key
In a jamming situation one of the necessary preliminaries to playing is selecting what key the next piece will be in. Although there are standard keys for canonical pieces, particularly in jazz, whenever singers are involved standard keys may need to be changed to suit their vocal ranges. Jazz musicians can signal key changes for modulating with fingers held up or down to indicate the number of flats or sharps in the key signature (MacLeod 1993:74). This system would be lost on country and blues musicians, who typically are not very familiar with musical notation, much less key signatures. Yet in both musical worlds, experienced musicians expect a modulation to occur by way of the dominant chord of the new key.
Among country musicians, especially when thereâ€™s enough audience noise to make conversation difficult, the leader for a given tune will simply call the next key out loud, but will use whole words to avoid confusion between B, C, D, E, and G, which share the same vowel sound. Onstage, I’ve heard words like Boy, Charlie, Dog, Echo, and George used to call the next key. There are also joking key-designators in use among folkies in informal settings: the Canadian key (A), the Mexican key (C), the key of love (F), and the peopleâ€™s key or Godâ€™s key (G). Iâ€™ve proposed the Buddhist key (B).
A unique, simple, and subtle way of signaling the key was used by bluegrass bandleader Bill Monroe. He would lightly play a chopped chord on his mandolin in the desired key, enabling the guitar and banjo players to position their capoes while he was speaking to the audience.
Establishing the Rhythm
In the art music world, a conductor typically raises his baton to prepare the ensemble and then makes an upward stroke in-tempo before bringing it down on the first beat to be played.
Starting an improvised ensemble performance in a jazz session is not very different. The leader will call the name of a tune and begin it by stomping off a bar or two of the tempo; for standard tunes the musicians are assumed to know the meter, the key, and any conventionalized melodic head that may be expected. Jazz players have used the stomp-off for something like a hundred years â€” no count, just four hammers of a heel on the floor. In public performances â€” particularly while the band was returning to the stand after an intermission, Duke Ellington would often improvise introductory material on the piano, ending up with a lead-in that set the tempo and cued the beginning of the next piece (Hasse 1993:315).
In a loud, rock-oriented context the drummer may click his crossed sticks together in front of his face, effectively providing both visual and audible information. In public performances, he may befed a â€śclick trackâ€ť through ear phones.
Studio musicians and most pop-music performers must know how to count off, verbally establishing a beat so everybody can come in together. Before the 1970s, blues, bluegrass, and country players seldom counted off; instead, an instrument had to play a few notes to kick off a tune. Often a number would be started by the fiddle using â€™taters (in the rhythm of â€śone potato, two potato, three potato, fourâ€ť ). One or two bars of a simple rhythm pattern on the tonic chord to kick off dance tunes is still a common fiddle device, sometimes used by the banjo too. (My friend Bob Applebaum claims to have originated the term â€śpotatoesâ€ť for this way of starting.) Increasingly as time goes by, bluegrass and country players have learned to use an audible count-off â€” and it does take some practice to do this properly.
One humorous but effective way of giving a verbal count for a moderate shuffle beat â€” I can’t recall where I heard it first â€” went: “a-ONE and a-TWO, you KNOW what to DO.” This is used mostly in non-public situations.
Tempo equals speed, and it’s easy to communicate a desired tempo by simply making a measureâ€™s worth of percussive beats with a foot or instrument. But, particularly in the country, blues, and rock scenes, if the chosen tune isnâ€™t known to the participants there is another critical distinction to be made before the drummer can be sure of avoiding a glaring error: is the meter going to be in shuffle or straight time?
Before the 1960s, this problem did not arise in country music. Then, as now, you could simply count off the major beats of a waltz or a fast, two-beat rhythm (e.g. â€śComing â€™Round the Mountainâ€ť ) at any tempo. If the meter was a medium or slow 4/4, the count-off would give four beats with the expectation that each beat would be subdivided into triplets, which theoretically should be transcribed as three linked eighth-notes with a 3 written above them. What is commonly notated as two eighth-notes or a dotted eighth plus a sixteenth on paper is actually played as two-thirds of a beat followed by a shorter pulse lasting one-third of a beat. That’s essentially what a shuffle or swing beat is â€” in jazz, blues, and the rest of American pop music as well as country and western swing â€” four main beats to the bar, with a triplet rhythm underlying each beat. (The classic 1950s pop-blues song â€śKansas Cityâ€ť by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller fits the pattern.) Jazz and blues bands habitually play with an ever-present tension between the underlying triplet-based rhythm and lead parts played the way the music is actually notated. I had been playing shuffles for years before I ever heard the term or recognized its distinction from a straight beat.
In the middle 1950s came a change, when the music of Mississippi bluesmen like Muddy Waters and early rockers like Chuck Berry popularized another kind of 4/4 rhythm in which each major (quarter note) beat was divisible by two eighth notes of equal duration (for instance Berryâ€™s “Johnny B. Goode” and later John Fogartyâ€™s “Proud Mary”). This is whatâ€™s conventionally called a rock beat.
When I started playing mainstream country music in the early 1960s, you could count off a medium-tempo song without comment unless it was a rock beat â€” in which case you might have to warn the other players it was a rocker. But a significant change was brought about by Merle Haggard’s early country hits like “The Fugitive” and “Sing Me Back Home.”Â Now there were not only rock songs but gentler, medium-tempo numbers played with the major beats divided by two, producing something like a Latin feeling. Since this happened, country players have often had to make the meter clear to the drummer before counting off slower straight eight (or easy eight) tunes.
In the commercial country world there is also the double shuffle (or Texas shuffle) beat, which was made popular by Ray Price in the late 1950s and used extensively by other honky-tonk stylists like George Jones and Buck Owens. In standard country shuffles, for instance Hank Williamsâ€™ â€śYour Cheating Heart,â€ť the bass plays on the one and three beats and the off-beats come evenly on the two and four. In a double shuffle (as in Priceâ€™s â€śHeartaches by the Numberâ€ť) the bass and kick-drum play all four major beats in the bar â€” a walking bass â€” but the beats are still subdivided as triplets and the off-beats come on the third pulse of each triplet. Jazz-pop artists like Louis Jordan and Cab Calaway sometimes used shuffles like this in their 1940s recordings.
The only other meter that is likely to occur in jam sessions is waltz time, with three beats to the bar (3/4). This meter occurs at various tempos, mostly in country and bluegrass, but the major stress is consistently on the one beat; secondary emphasis is usually on the third beat.
Signaling in Midstream
Signals between musicians while they are actively playing together can be fairly subtle, given that the instrumentalists usually have both hands (if not also their feet) committed to their instruments. Duke Ellington played the piano while directing his players. With his body position and facial expressions he could raise and reduce the volume and pace of the band. He thus approached the kind of control over his musicians that orchestral conductors exercise, although the people in his band (frequently over a dozen) were brilliant improvisers. This strikes me as a rare blend of art-music and jazz conditions, where improvisation was expected only in very specific situations but there were often no written parts â€” the head arrangements played were elaborate compositions with shifting and diverse textures, allowing little room for error. Surprisingly, it was only in the later years that Ellingtonâ€™s band began using written arrangements (Hasse 1993:159-160, 321).
In more informal, relatively intimate situations, where musicians are more likely to be trying out tunes that are unfamiliar to some of the players, technical communications can be critical. If all the musicians can see and hear each other plainly, as in a studio or a small club, a simple nod or a look with raised eyebrows is sufficient to cue the next person to take a solo break. In the song-based genres (blues, country, bluegrass, folk) the lead singer will usually be the person calling the shots, and can simply start singing at the appropriate points between breaks. If microphones are in use, moving into singing position before the mic is a very effective way of signaling the intention to start or resume singing. A look or a motion of the head can call any additional singers into action for harmonized vocals.
Sitting in a circle or semi-circle, country and blues musicians frequently read the chord changes a rhythm guitarist plays simply by watching that playerâ€™s left hand. The ability to â€śreadâ€ť guitar chords is a widely-held skill in the guitar-based musical genres. Correspondingly, the guitarist may make a point of keeping his or her left-hand positions as simple as possible until itâ€™s clear everybody has caught on to the changes. Frequently even a simple indication that a chord change is coming up can be helpful. This approach will not work in situations (common in jazz and swing) where guitarists play complex strings of passing chords, changing far too often for others to follow.
In such situations, where the improvisers may be hearing the tune for the first time, there are auditory musical tactics that can help prevent errors. Most experienced lead musicians know how to play licks that will fit any of several logical chord changes at key points. They also know musical cues, both harmonic and rhythmic, that will help their fellow players anticipate the chord changes and other aspects of song or tune structure. Runs played on the guitar or bass frequently signal an impending chord change. Reliably, except in the blues, adding a flatted seventh tone to a chord will usually signal that the next chord will be based on the fourth note in the scale starting on the first chordâ€™s root tone. This cue is used most frequently with the change from the tonic chord to the subdominant (IV) chord of a piece. It is also integral to use of the famous cycle-of-fifths principle, which, for example, declares that when you are in the key of C and an A7 occurs, you are almost certainly going to continue with D7 and G7 before returning to the tonic chord.
Occasionally, where there are only a few chords but a tricky melody, people will hold up fingers to indicate changes among the I, II (or ii), III (or iii), IV, and V chords. However, one hand isnâ€™t enough if the VI (or vi) chord is needed, or if the chord is based on the flatted seventh of the tonic scale (which may be called the subdominant of the IV chord, e.g. Bb in the key of C). Holding up even one handâ€™s fingers will make it impossible for the signaler to play, so it isnâ€™t very practical except for use by singers.
Cueing the end of a tune is easy in an informal country jam situation. You can lift a leg (a convention that appears to go back at least to the 1930s), make a motion with your instrument or a hand, or play an indicative lick. Furthermore, in country music, songs often end with a turn-around (repetition of the last line); this is signaled with a circular motion of a finger or instrument. In a bluegrass jam, I will lift the peghead of my guitar and strum hard on the second beat of the last measure, cueing the now-ubiquitous SHAVE-and-a-HAIRCUT â€” SIX BITS motif that ends so many pieces in North American music. (Has anybody studied the origin and meaning of this seven-beat pattern, which coincides with Bo Diddleyâ€™s most common meter?)
Players in old-time fiddle bands didnâ€™t always end at the same time, much less use the seven-beat ending, but on some old records you can hear someone call â€śGoodbyeâ€ť to get everybody to stop at the end of the section thatâ€™s currently being played.
In contrast, jazz musicians use very different hand signals in jamming situations. Extended fingers can indicate not only the number of flats or sharps in a new key signature, but they can also show that they want to trade four-bar or two-bar breaks by flashing four or two fingers. They can also indicate itâ€™s time to reprise the head of the piece by pointing to the musicianâ€™s own head; this will lead automatically to ending the tune.
A context calling for broad gestures can be illustrated with an example based on my own experiences when I was part of a band that hosted after-hours jam sessions in a very large club every Saturday and Sunday morning from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Musicians from all over the Seattle area would come to join us, and onstage the jammers frequently numbered eight or more. Not every musician could see everyone else, and there was often so much noise that we couldnâ€™t hear each other at a normal conversation level. In addition, the musiciansâ€™ backgrounds were diverse, so some of us would frequently be ill-acquainted with the chosen tunes or common arrangements. Under these conditions, the subtle improvisational cues were often insufficient to get the job done. When I was singing and leading, my guitar chords could not be audible or visible to every musician. On the other hand, we could shout to each other, and it was perfectly appropriate to use big body motions for communication. This is the context in which my opening example occurred.
At the Riverside Inn in Tukwila near Seattle, in the fall of 1975, it is about four oâ€™clock in the morning. The jam has mellowed out, and we have a strong rhythm section (bass and drums), good keyboard and guitar players, a fiddler, and a cool tenor sax guy. It is my turn to lead some tunes to keep the jam going, and I feel like singing the blues, knowing that the twelve-bar structure will be familiar and comfortable for all.
Standing at the main vocal mic, front-and-center on the large bandstand, I turn to face the rest of the musicians. “A blues shuffle in Charlie. Start with a turn-around. One, two, three, AND ….” (Alternatively, I could have said â€śOff the five chord.â€ť ) The drummer whacks the snare and a tom on the four-beat and everybody hits the following one-beat with a G7 chord. We all understand weâ€™re playing a turn-around, the last four-bar line of the blues structure in the key of C, but immediately thereâ€™s a question: Is the next bar going to be a V or a IV chord? Still with my back to the audience and dancers, with exaggerated motions I play an F# chord on the final beat of the first bar; this gets all the jammers to watch me and listen to my electric guitar. The F# chord creates a momentary dissonance, but it tells everyone that weâ€™re going to a IV chord (F) in the second bar; this also informs them how we will play this part of the blues structure throughout the rest of the song.
While the put-together band is playing the last two bars of the turn-around (I and V, C and G7), I turn around to face the crowd and get close to the main vocal mic. I hadnâ€™t been sure which set of blues lyrics I would sing to this groove weâ€™ve started, but at the last second I decide to go with a sure thing, a song weâ€™re all certain to have played many times before and one that the crowds generally enjoy. So I lean in toward the mic and start, â€śIâ€™m going to â€” Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.â€ť
The lead guitar player inserts some tasty fills between my words, and the sax and keyboard players are consulting each other about something â€” doubtless developing a riff pattern they can play together as the texture of the performance builds. My first sung verse is ending and I need to cue a soloist for the upcoming break. I want to save the sax for later, and the guitarist has already been busy behind my vocal, so I elect to point at the keyboard man as the soloist â€” and because itâ€™s late and we have plenty of time to fill and some enthusiastic dancers, and also because heâ€™s a strong player, I call out â€śKeep it upâ€ť several times and he takes two choruses. Then I point to the fiddler and say her name into the mic. She takes two choruses, with the sax and piano beginning to riff quietly behind her; their riffing will continue to build through the rest of the song, and the fiddle will join them.
I sing another verse and give the next solo to the guitar player â€” two choruses as before. Then comes the part of the song where the band stops on the next three one-beats to let the singerâ€™s words (â€śI MIGHT take a train â€¦â€ť ) fill in the rest of the bars before the instruments resume the normal rhythm pattern. I raise my right arm into the air, make a fist, and pump it down to cue the stops. The fat texture and the drummerâ€™s style make this section sound great and give me an idea for the sax solo. When Iâ€™ve finished singing another complete verse, I turn and point to the sax man, then raise my right fist again. Fortunately all the players are watching me so my gambit works fine; the sax playerâ€™s break starts from the dramatic base of three stopped chords before launching into a gliding orbit. After the second sax chorus, I call in the guitarist for his climactic break with the sax, fiddle, and keyboard riffing strongly behind him. Then I return to the mic and sing a final verse.
Now itâ€™s time to end, and I have a choice of several signals here. If we were all country-based musicians and presenting ourselves in the typical laid-back C&W manner (remember this is 1975) I would bend my right knee and lift my heel. But since all are in boogie mode, as the final chorus ends I raise my right fist and bring it down to stop the band and sing â€śIâ€™m going to get me oneâ€ť over the resonant silence. Immediately the entire band (without having to think about it) plays the conventional seven-beat ending pattern at full volume, closing with a sustained chord under which the drummer bashes his cymbals and tom-toms until I once again use my arm to cue the final dead stop and the applause swells.
This fabricated example, close to many actual performances I have experienced, could occur in most parts of North America. Yet, like most aspects of culture, musical improvisation depends on knowledge and communication that look more complex the closer we examine them. I hope this paper has answered as many questions about musical behavior as it has exposed for future study.
Included in this list are terms and usages that are not to be found in standard dictionaries of music. My source of information is mostly personal experience, but also a music dictionary and a fair amount of writing by other musicians.
Art music â€” Music that is self-consciously intended as Art. I prefer this term to â€śclassical.â€ť This definition now fits a lot of contemporary jazz, but I donâ€™t use it that way.
Backup â€” An instrumental part, generally improvised, that complements the main lead part (whether vocal or instrumental) without contesting its dominance. Usually consists of a mixture of fills and rhythmic elements.
Baritone â€” In country singing, the second part (after tenor) added to the melody line. Typically finishes the song below the tonic on the fifth note of the scale, but is sometimes sung above the tenor (â€śhigh baritoneâ€ť ).
Bluegrass â€” Music derived ultimately from the style of Bill Monroeâ€™s Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s.
Break â€” The portion of a musical piece in which an instrumentalist plays lead, supported by the rest of the ensemble. A musician is invited to play a break, or take a break, or he may be asked â€śDo you want some?â€ť Different players will be expected to take breaks during the playing of a piece. The alternation of sung verses with instrumental breaks is the basic structural principle of most vernacular music styles. See also ride and solo.
Bridge â€” Most properly the B section, as in the 32-bar (AABA) song structure that is standard in the pop music world. Sometimes used in folk and country circles as a synonym for chorus, more properly designated as a refrain.
Changes â€” The sequence of chords used to accompany a given tune, as in â€śRun through the changes for me before we start to play.â€ť
Chart â€” Used by itself, â€śchartâ€ť can mean either a written musical score or a â€śchord chart,â€ť which diagrammatically represents the chord changes of a music piece and (usually) where they occur in relation to the bar lines. There are at least three basic formats for chord charts.
Chopping â€” Chords played on the mandolin, banjo, or guitar and immediately damped by either hand for percussive effect; usually used to emphasize upbeats (like a snare drum in rock or jazz).
Chorus â€” Used in jazz and pop to mean a complete iteration of the tune being played; as a striking example, at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves improvised 27 choruses of â€śDiminuendo and Crescendo in Blueâ€ť at the urging of bandleader Duke Ellington (Hasse 1993:320-321). (Interestingly, this usage is also current in France [Bouchaux 1992:58].) In the world of folk and country music, the chorus is synonymous with â€śrefrainâ€ť : that part of a song that is repeated after every verse (or two) of lyrics and is most likely to be sung by more than one voice. See also bridge.
Counting off â€” Using a numerical count to establish the tempo of a tune and enable all players to start playing a piece at the same time.
Country music â€” Among musicians this term refers to music that is based in traditions from the South and Southwest, including Nashville, Austin, Bakersfield, and Hollywood, even though the connection with fiddle bands and ballad singing may be hard to detect.
Double shuffle â€” A shuffle beat with a walking bass (played on every major beat) and off-beats played on the third pulse of each eighth-note triplet. Also called Texas shuffle.
Double time â€” When the meter is changed to twice the number of major beats per bar; typically the bass, bass drum, and snare shift from two beats per bar to four beats.
Easy eight â€” See straight beat.
Fills â€” Melodic elements played to fill in the gaps between lead phrases. Typically, fills begin on the last beat played by the lead voice and end precisely on the beat when the lead part resumes.
Folk music â€” Used here to mean an ill-defined group of music styles that includes pretty much everybody who applies the label to themselves, plus those to whom most folklorists would apply the term. The core concept is that the performing style has something in common with oral/aural, non-written, musical traditions.
Half time â€” When the meter is changed to half the number of major beats; typically the bass, bass drum, and snare shift from playing four beats per bar to playing two beats per bar. See also double time.
Hook â€” A simple instrumental motif used to give unique character to a particular song or tune. Similar to a tag, but not necessarily used as an introduction or closing element.
Head â€” The first chorus or two of a jazz performance, played simply in unison or harmony to establish the melody before the freer improvisation begins. The head is likely to be repeated at the end of the piece.
Head arrangement â€” A setting previously agreed upon for musical piece, repeated by memory rather than a written score.
Kick off â€” In bluegrass and country, the use of an instrumental passage to start performance of a piece. Kick-offs are assigned to specific players.
Lead â€” As a noun, the lead voice(s) or instrument(s) is the one that is articulating the melody or predominant voice at any given time, supported by the other members of an ensemble playing backup and rhythm.
Lead sheet â€” A simple score that contains only the melody and lyrics of a tune or song, commonly with the names of the chords used in accompaniment.
Lick â€” A short musical pattern played usually by one instrument and based on distinctive elements in the playerâ€™s style or the characteristics of the instrument. A lick becomes a riff if itâ€™s used repeatedly in a piece and played by more than one person.
Meter â€” The number of beats in a measure (bar) and the pattern of duration and stress given to each beat.
Off-beats â€” Between the major beats in a given meter come the off-beats, or back-beats, which receive less emphasis. In a standard shuffle, the emphasis comes on the first and third beats in each measure and the off-beats come on two and four. In a double shuffle, the major beats are one, two, three, and four, each divided into triplets; the off-beats come on the third eighth note of each triplet. In a waltz, the major beats are on the one and the off-beats come on two and three.
Passing chord â€” Chords containing â€śaccidentalâ€ť notes, used to transition between the essential chords in a piece of music. Augmented and diminished chords are used in this way, but so are many other chord forms.
Pop music â€” Broadly speaking this can refer to anything that doesnâ€™t belong in the folk or art music categories. More narrowly it specifically includes songs from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals.
Ride â€” Used in some country circles as a synonym to break, as in â€śTake a ride, Mayne.â€ť See also solo.
Riff â€” A short musical pattern played by one or more instruments and used repetitiously through a piece, often in support of soloists. See also lick.
Rock beat â€” see straight beat.
Roots music â€” Refers to folk songs and other music that relies heavily on vernacular sources and styles
Run â€” A short series of single notes typically leading to a chord change, used especially by rhythm guitarists.
Shuffle beat â€” The common 4/4 meter in jazz, swing, blues, country, and general pop music. Each beat of the measure is subdivided into triplets. When played slowly, this rhythm can be notated in 12/8. See also straight beat and double shuffle.
Solo â€” The portion of a song performance in which attention is focused on a single player or singer. (Not used, as sometimes in classical music, to indicate an unaccompanied performance.) See also break.
Stomping off â€” Using the heel of a foot to establish a tempo and set the beginning of a performed piece; used mostly in jazz.
Straight beat â€” Distinguished from a shuffle in that the major beats of the measure are subdivided into two eighth notes instead of the shuffleâ€™s eighth-note triplets. Also called a straight eight, easy eight, or rock beat depending on the speed and intensity of the rhythm.
Tag â€” A special riff or melodic and rhythmic motif used as an introduction or concluding phrase, usually based on the turn-around. See also hook.
â€™Taters â€” Simple rhythmic patterns used by an instrumentalist (commonly fiddle or banjo) to establish the tempo and starting point of a piece in country music. This term is said to have been coined in the New York folk and bluegrass scene in the early 1960s. â€śPotatoesâ€ť and â€śâ€™tatersâ€ť are both in common usage now in the bluegrass world.
Tenor â€” In country singing, the first harmony part added to the melody, typically staying just above the lead and finishing on the third above the tonic note. See also baritone.
Time â€” Can refer to any rhythmic feature of music (as in, â€śHe keeps good timeâ€ť ) but usually pertains to tempo.
Turn-around â€” The last line of the songâ€™s melody, played as an intro or concluding pattern and sometimes between verses as a minimal structure for breaks.
Vamp â€” A rhythm patternrepeated ad lib as the basis for improvisation.
Vernacular music â€” Musical pieces and styles that are familiar to ordinary members of some cultural group and require little formal training to perform or appreciate.
Walking bass â€” A shuffle rhythm with the bass playing all major beats in arpeggio patterns.
Waltz â€” This meter has three beats to a bar, with primary stress on the one beat. Much more common in country and bluegrass than in blues and rock.
Bouchaux, Alain, Madeleine Juteau, and Didier Roussin. 1992. Lâ€™Argot des Musiciens. (Illustrations de R. Crumb.) Paris: Editions Climats.
Hasse, John Edward. 1993. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. New York: Da Capo Press.
MacLeod, Bruce A. 1993. Club Date Musicians: Playing the New York Party Circuit. Music in American Life Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Smith, Mayne. 2005. “Technical Communications Among Improvising Musicians,” in From Bean Blossom to Bannerman, Odyssey of a Folklorist: A Festschrift for Neil V. Rosenberg (ed. Martin Lovelace, Peter Narvaez, Diane Tye). St. John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 415-426.
Williams, Chas. 2005. The Nashville Number System, 7th edition. Nashville: www.nashvillenumbersystem.com; no publisher listed.
THIS ESSAY WAS LAST REVISED BY MAYNE ON 22 OCTOBER 2009
Mayne Smith is a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist (guitar, dobro, pedal steel), known for many years in bluegrass, country, and roots-music circles. As a performer he started in the folk music revival and expanded to bluegrass and electric country music; but his songwriting also encompasses blues, R&B, rockâ€™nâ€™roll, Tex-Mex, jazz, and pop. Besides performing at folk festivals and clubs all over North America as well as in Europe and Japan, Mayne has written songs recorded by Linda Ronstadt, David Lindley, Rosalie Sorrels, and others. He has recorded and/or performed with well-known artists including David Lindley, Geoff Muldaur, Doc Watson, Jim Kweskin, Laurie Lewis, and John Fahey.
Â© Kristen Loken
Freight & Salvage, Groundbreaking, April 1, 2008, Berkeley
L to R, Eric Thompson, Bill Evans, Danny Carnahan (rear), Suzy Thompson (front), Laurie Lewis, Harry Yaglijian, Mayne Smith, and Tom Rozum.Â “It was a great honor to lead the finale of the groundbreaking ceremony,” Mayne Smith reflects, “with an adapted version of the old gospel song, “Working on a Building.”