A Primer On Feel

I am posting this article here (as well as on my website), due to its apparent popularity.

Music is every bit as visceral as it is engaging for the mind (if it is not moreso). It is a total, fulfilling experience and even though it doesn’t engage other senses (in the way motion pictures and other multi-media forms of entertainment do), it provides the capability for one’s imagination to fill in whatever sensory gaps may exist.

One of the ways that music can be experienced viscerally is emotionally. One other way that music can be explored viscerally is via its pulse and rhythm.

Rhythm and pulse are fundamental building blocks in many forms of music, however, in popular music, they are unique. This is in part, due to the inherently repetitive nature of popular music. Although, classical music can be similarly repetitive, it primarily features the repetition of specific themes. Popular music is more often characterized by short segments of music which repeat and then modulate into new segments (which may similarly repeat).

Additionally, popular music is derived from unique genetics. Although it shares a tuning system and a theoretical foundation with Western classical music, modern popular music is essentially derived from several different folk music forms; the primary form being African.

African music was brought to this country via the slave trade (as it was to several other countries such as Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, also eventually defining the core of their indigenous musics) and gradually acclimatized itself to its new environs. Over time, it mutated into diverse music forms from field calls to prison raps/hollers to gospel and, to blues. Blues became the pivotal music form which went on to influence early R&B, soul and rock n’ roll.

Every form of modern popular music carries in its DNA, a derivation of African music.

One of the most interesting things about African music (and many other forms of ethnic and folk music) is its general (almost nonliteral, nonlinear) adherence to timing. Perhaps because most ethnic music is not based around a system of notation (and is instead, passed from teacher to disciple in an oral tradition), the concept of timing appears more subjective to the individual musicians than in a piece of classical music (where strict attention is literally paid to timing, and uniformity of performance).

This somewhat general and perhaps subjective adherence to timing (or ‘looseness’) in various ethnic music forms has a curious effect on the performance of a given piece of music. Instead of there being a specific down beat where everyone lands simultaneously, there is a loose (yet general) idea of where down beats are relative to each player (and to each instrument sound).

When one listens closely to a piece of ethnic music, there are miniscule timing differentials perceptible in the performance of each instrument relative to the others. These timing differentials maintain a constant proximity with one another and in so doing, are not apparent to the ear as mistakes. They are occasionally experienced as light flams.

When instruments are played together in this way, a remarkable and unique sensation of movement which is generated. All the instruments are perceived as working together, but they are neither dependent upon one another, nor are they particularly independent. They can be said to be performing together interdependently.

Amidst the instruments playing interdependently, a simultaneous feeling of accord and of tension is generated. The instruments create an invisible latticework amongst themselves which is as magical as it is brimming over with ancient power.

At the same time, it appears as if this creation of human beings is so fragile that, if one person should loose their place for even a faction of and instant, the entire center would collapse.

The fruit of this creation is the work of men and as such, it is imperfect. An, it is for this reason that it cannot be broken or destroyed no matter how many times the players make mistakes or fall out of time with one another.

In it’s imperfection, it is utterly pristine, utterly perfect. It is a tribute to the Gods in the way only humans can offer up such obeisance. The Gods may have imbued humans with the power to worship in such fashion, but could a being as perfect as a God create something so beautiful in all its flaws?

It would be interesting to imagine a piece of ethnic music being performed in a setting where all the performers are classically trained, being lead by a conductor and reading their music from charts. It is doubtful that the essence would remain- instead, something would be lost….

Interdependent playing imbues music with excitement, with motion, with depth, with spirit, with sex. It makes music interesting to listen to, it breathes life into it and takes it beyond form into the formless.

Some people refer to this as ‘the space between the notes’ when they reference an individual musician’s style of performance. This pertains to the specific phrasing which defines each musician as being special or unique.

Others refer to it as ‘pocket’, ‘groove’ or ‘feel’.

Feel can be experienced through hearing one musician play his instrument with the appropriate tension, but it is mainly experienced by hearing a group of musicians interact in this way. This interaction is a place where listeners can have the awareness of musicians communicating with one another through their instruments.

Which brings us to more modern forms of feel-based music.

One obvious example of this performance style would be Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin have their roots in both blues, rock n’ roll and R&B, all styles of music with a direct lineage to African music.

Blues and R&B are structured so that the instruments playing in the bass/baritone range (bass, drums) are pushing ahead of the beat, while instruments in the tenor/alto/soprano range (guitars, vocals, etc) are generally laying back behind the beat. One obvious precedent for this is found in big band and swing music- where the lower register instruments are all pushing ahead, while the solo/upper range instruments are laying far back.

In this way, the low end instruments become like an anchor; they ground the music, give it roots and foundation.

For a long time, there has been a misconception that bass and drums are generally meant to lay back (especially in rock music). This is probably because people’s awareness naturally goes to instruments playing in the tenor-soprano ranges first and are instantly aware that those instruments are indeed, laying back.

It is relatively easy to see where instrument down beats land if one loads a song into a DAW and looks at the resulting waveform. However, by referring to Led Zeppelin (and several other artists), I will provide some examples which present interdependent playing very clearly.

‘Rock And Roll’ from Led Zeppelin 4 is a perfect example of feel-based, interdependent playing.

The song wears its roots on its sleeve. The changes are simple and blues based. The continuous barrage of 8th notes is an homage to the proto-R&B/rock n’ roll of Chuck Berry. Of course, the band have given the song a proper 1970’s update replete with over driven guitars and wailing vocals.

However, it is in the rhythm section where the song truly distinguishes itself. The song has a raw sensuality to it, a sway, a swagger. It has a palpable sense of excitement which belies its deceptive simplicity.

What is causing this to happen?

Because of his legacy (as well as his brilliance), many people will look to John Bonham’s drumming as the answer, but they will only be partially correct. This excitement is actually being generated by the interaction between the bass, the drums and the guitar.

The drums are surging against the beat and are generally hitting a fraction early from (or ahead of) the nearest perceived down beat. The exception to this is the hihat (or ride cymbal) which is generally sitting in the same time differential as the guitar. The guitar is sitting slightly behind the drums and creating the impression that the bass and drums are laying back.

And then, there’s the bass guitar. This is the unsung instrument of all bands, the one which creates the glue between all the other instruments and defines exactly how the feel sits amongst them.

It is indisputable that without a great drummer, a band is generally not good, but without a great bass guitarist, a band is simply not interesting.

The better a bass player is, the better he makes the rest of his band mates appear. If ever a bassist existed who could make his fellow band mates look good (at the considerable expense of going himself unnoticed in the process), that bassist would have to be John Paul Jones.

I would invite you to play ‘Rock And Roll’, listening first to the rhythm guitar, bass and drums. Next, try listening to only the bass and drums- ignore the racket they are supporting. Finally, play the track and try listening for only the bass guitar.

What a revelation that was. Wow. Listen to his choice of notes, how steady he is. Listen to his tone. Most of all, listen to how far ahead of the rest of the band he is.

It’s true. John Paul Jones is pushing the band along. If the drums are the backbone of a band, the bass guitar is the kinetic force which moves everything forward. Hear how the bass guitar is straining ahead of all the other instruments, (even the drums, almost to the point of lightly flamming with them). When he is at the point where he can’t move any further ahead without obviously flamming with everyone else, he has to articulate his phrasing in order to compensate for this.

(Of course, none of this should be surprising since John Paul Jones was a fan of James Jamerson, the house bassist at Motown. Jamerson was one of the most influential bassists of all time, his melodic sense was pure brilliance and naturally, he always played far ahead of the rest of his band).

If you can, try and imagine ‘Rock And Roll’ with the bass playing precise 8th notes on every down beat- no push or pull. Imagine if Zeppelin had cut this track to a click. Imagine if they were making a record today and the producer insisted on gridding and editing the bass (and the drums).

Impossible. No way.

Another (and even more extreme) example of this style of playing is found on ‘Helter Skelter’ by The Beatles. I will request that you listen to this song and if possible, wear headphones. The bass is in the left channel, the drums are in the right. Listen to how the bass and drums interact on this song.

What is significant about this piece of music is not merely that the bass is being played ahead (or how loud it is in the mix), but how far ahead it’s being played. It is almost as if someone decided the drum track was too slow and wanted to pick the tempo up.

Obviously, there are other examples of this, far too numerous to require mentioning. Once you hear and develop a context for this tension, this interdependence, you will be able to hear it everywhere.

You will also be able to detect where it is absent and how lifeless a piece of music can become when it doesn’t have that essence, that sexuality. That feel. You’ll find out for yourself.

Having instruments work together interdependently has many other benefits. The perceived tempo of a song can be made to appear faster- sometimes by a few BPM. Also, the down beats of a song suddenly have a very broad footprint, which means the vocalist has a lot of room to phrase.

Listen to a Frank Sinatra record. The orchestra plays with feel and finesse- so much space, you could drive a Mack truck through it and still have room for a bike path. This space is what gives Sinatra the freedom and ease to emulate a trombone player in his phrasing. Now, imagine if someone tried to edit one of his tracks……

Virtually every rock record done with stellar vocal phrasing was cut by people who were talented musicians and played with feel. This is no accident.

Keep listening, keep exploring- you’ll feel it. And then, you’ll get it.

I am accompanying this post with some audio which can be accessed on my website- michaelbeinhorn.net. Therein, I provided the examples I’ve given, plus a couple of others, including a partial board mix from Led Zeppelin 2 of ‘Ramble On’. This mix consists of the drums playing solo for a few bars, after which, the bass guitar is dropped in. I invite you to listen to the bass relative to the drums, how far ahead it is and how you can actually hear it flamming in places.

11 responses to “A Primer On Feel”

  1. Great article! Years ago, when listening to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ (which I of course had heard a million times before) I started to notice how the power of that riff really comes from the bass guitar.

    It is extremely powerful and I guess one reason why most every cover version I ever heard failed misereably: The guitar player usually will try to play ‘heavy’ and wonder why the groove isn’t there. And this is of course before Bonham and Plant enter the picture which creates the blend so brillinatly decribed above.

    But I also believe that part of the genius of Led Zeppelin is the range of the players which works much like a great string quartet. Plant’s vocals could be relatively low in the mix yet still cut through perfectly because his range was up there and not interfering with the heavy artillery balsting underneath. And Jimmy Page alsways understood about both big AND small guitar sound and again, Whole Lotta Love is a perfect example for me.

  2. Mr. Beinhorn,

    Fantastic article. Very well said.

    I’m having difficulty finding the partial board mix of “Ramble On.” I went to your website, but couldn’t locate it. Could you please point em in the right direction? Thanks for your time, and keep up the great work!

  3. I’ve only just discovered your blog, and after reading one post, I’ve decided to read all of them, You say many, many good things, so thank you!

    I love this post especially, because I think it’s something I subconsciously picked up early in my musical development. My two absolute idols through my teenage years were JPJ and Paul McCartney. I took up bass and at the same time continued on with the drum lessons I was already doing. I began to really focus on the relationship between my two instruments, and eventually found what you describe.

    Fast forward 20 years and I’m a touring Hammond player (funny where life takes you) but I still play bass in a really cool local blues bar band with a great bunch of tasteful playing guys. Our regular gig is up on a high stage where you can see every single person on the dance floor. What I’ve noticed is as soon as I go from a simple root note based line to a walking blues scale ahead of the beat, the vibe on the dancefloor kicks up a notch, and every person without knowing it shakes and shimmies their body parts a bit harder. Come back to the simple on-the-beat line, they settle again. I’ve found that you can totally control the dance floor by just doing simple variations of lines/styles and note placement. Bass really is the king!

    Thanks again for the great articles. I look forward to reading the rest, and new ones in the future!