How much attention are you paying to the length of your notes?
By Jon Liebman
Week of October 28, 2019
This week, we published a great interview with longtime Kenny G bass player Vail Johnson. After bringing us up to date on his solo project, including some very insightful information about his approach to making music on the bass, as well as a good rundown of his gear, the subject then turned to bass technique, an area at which Vail is an absolute master.
In the context of describing his one-man show, Vail explained how he strives to get just the right sound out of his bass, almost exclusively through the use of his hands, forgoing any tone-altering effects. He talked about the trial and error approach he goes through in search of the optimum sound that would best portray each song, melody, and overall feeling.
He then took the conversation one step farther, talking about another important factor that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: Note duration. Most people don’t concentrate on how long they’re holding each note, how to incorporate space into the music, and different ways to make the song sound better, through sound, feel, and emotion.
Tone is only a tiny part of the overall sound, according to Vail. With continued trial and error, he says, you’ll move your fingers in different configurations, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But don’t neglect note duration.
Sometimes you want to let each note ring throughout the entire bar. Other times, through the use of space, you actually want to play less, with more notes that are short. The bottom line is to serve the song, give the music what it needs, and figure out your own way of doing it.
“You’re not going to do it the way I do it, I’m not going to do it the way he does it,” says Vail. “There are no shortcuts.” The goal, he says, is to see how much you get out of the bass, in the context of a song, and have it mean something.
Vail’s advice is to listen to a recording of the song you’re trying to learn, and then spend the time figuring it out. It’s not easy, he says, but the end result is the sound. And, in addition to everything else, like tone, attack, inflection, dynamics, etc., don’t forget about note duration as an important factor in that sound.
For those of you who are members of the FBPO bass school, keep this advice in mind, whether you’re working on Jazz & Blues, Rock & Metal, Funk/R&B, Latin, Reggae, or any of our other courses. The difference can be profound.
Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you think. In the meantime, check out my interview with Vail here.