… And Echoed in the Sounds of Silence

As the days become shorter, and the dark hours longer, so much of our landscape just disappears without so much of a goodbye. The reds, oranges, and yellows of Autumn. Much of the green in our city parks. You can’t even count on a day of blue sky. 

With so much lost, visually, it’s comforting to tune into the sounds of the seasons. Not the sounds of Black Friday radio formats with their relentless  holiday playlists of Mannheim Steamroller, the Carpenters, Burl Ives, or Brenda Lee, lest we dare forget ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year.’. 

Not the ubiquitous jingle bell sound effects in television ads that pretend to invoke memories of sleigh rides that most of us have never experienced. 

And not the sound of the Salvation Army bell-ringers who call out their holiday greetings to everyone hustling in and out of the grocery store.

Okay, maybe it’s a little of all that. But it’s the other sounds that really mark the season for me. The scraping of dry leaves as they skitter in the wind across sidewalks and neighborhood streets. The whistling and moaning of the wind in the trees, and the creak and whine of branches and limbs in reply.  

A whistling kettle that tells me hot chocolate is on its way. 

A windshield scraper doing battle with a layer of ice and sleet.

You’d recognize these sounds instantly if heard out of context. Whatever they portend or signal, they’re a faithful soundscape for the season.

It’s that defining audio trait musicians call ‘timbre’ – the unique characteristic of a musical sound apart from its pitch or intensity. It’s what distinguishes the sound of a banjo from a sitar. A classical guitar from a resonator. A mandolin from a charango. 

We’ve trained our ears to hear and identify these differences. But there are lots of ways to describe the sound of a guitar, based on its acoustic properties, the equalization in the recording, the envelope of the sound wave. It’s all determined by physics, of course. But for the young student, a guitar’s sound is better understood and conveyed in laymans’ terminology. Through personification. Imagination.

Years ago I discovered an 80’s band called The Sound. Off most people’s radars, they maintained serious cult status. And for good reason.

My first exposure was an EP called “Shock of Daylight” – a collection of songs exploring themes of darkness and light, hope and despair. One of the songs, “Winter,” always comes back to haunt me this time of year, just like it did on first hearing.

Aside from the midsection of descending synth lines coming and going like ghostly apparitions, the instrumentation is largely a continuous single-string staccato on chord roots. Even without the suggestions implied by the song’s title, it’s safe to say that the guitar sounds cold, icy, steely. Like a metal implement chipping away at something frozen. Stubborn. Defiant. 

My coming of age with the guitar world included a journey through a myriad of tone color. The dirty, proud, reckless sounds of James Gang’s “The Bomber,”  And from the same album, the mystical, dreamy, into-the-woods quality of “Ashes the Rain and I.” 

The clear, honest, unadorned, front-porch sounds of James Taylor on “Sunny Skies.” 

The jittery middle school self-consciousness emitted in the 3-chord tremeloes of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover.”

My classroom guitar lessons now include assignments where I ask students to listen to musical examples and describe in their own words what they hear. Most of the beginners won’t have the vocabulary to do this effectively in musical terms. But they can use their imagination and convey the mental or emotional pictures the music conveys. 

Students take creative writing classes at some point, and experience the joy of their own epiphanies. Clever connections. Kaleidoscopic daydreams. It’s good to set aside the teacher hat sometimes and let students discover and convey their own truths. In their own words. 

Guitar tone might be described as fat, round, liquid, languid, reedy, brassy, tight, percussive, crisp, dark, bright, open, crunchy, compressed, woody, growly, buttery, sparkly, jangly, juicy, you get the idea…

But what makes a sound ‘round’, for example?

Sonny Walton provides a helpful glossary of tones, with helpful descriptions. Consider it a helpful reference for listening exercises. 

 Then, without too much coaching, ask your students to compare and contrast the guitar sounds in Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” with that of Wes Montgomery’s in “Bumpin’ On Sunset.” 

Ask them to assign personality traits to the guitars heard in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”  or in Sharon Isbin’s performance of Francisco “Tárrega’s ‘Capricho Arabe.” 

Have them justify their claims. Does the guitar sound ‘fat,’ ‘jangly,’ ‘compressed?’ And what does that quality bring to the music and your experience of it?

It’s a difficult thing to teach – the business of listening. What, after all, do we expect our students to be listening for? As an IB music teacher, I trained my students what to look for in a musical score – cycles of fifths, modulations, recurrence of A and B sections, etc. It’s easy to spot musical elements visually because they’re static. They’re fixed on the page and you can point to a measure number. 

But when you’re playing the role of detective as a listener, the music doesn’t stop and say “look at this.” It’s temporal. Without access to the written instructions, landmarks and road signs, you rely on aural cues, memory, interpretation, experience. Travel guides and travel essays are not the same.

Tone is essentially physics. But it’s also an experience best had with eyes closed. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Taking this idea further, the Academics menu features a remarkable dissection of one guitarist’s tone. 

The Artist Feature this time out is an unlikely choice. But given we’re talking ‘tone,’ it makes complete sense. 

Piggy-backing on last month’s “Repair Guide,” find another invaluable Library resource (and stocking stuffer) for the guitar nerd on your gift list. 

For many players looking for that right tone, string gauge, body construction, and fingernail length only go so far. Sometimes you just need a little atmosphere. Find it in the Product tab.

Give yourself the gift of time if you can in these weeks to work out a timely solo work. This traditional tune in Repertoire works well for emerging soloists and is short enough for goal-setters.

A local favorite (Wayzata, MN) didn’t get to perform his traditional Thanksgiving concert this year. But he’s here this time via Trade Publications, with some sage advice.