Chord : a unit of two or more sounds Harmonic: overtone/s above a fundamental note
This month we are going to looking into harmony and how to produce harmonics. Harmony or Chords are produced by simultaneously sounding two or more intervals or notes. In our western scale these are generally intervals of a third stacked on top of each other and when played together they fall into the basic categories of: major, minor and dominant. So, where do we get all those cool sounding jazz chords? Well we continue adding thirds on top until we reach the sound pallet we desire. Of course its all but impossible for a bass player to play a full maj 9th chord on the fretboard as this is 5 notes played together. So the trick is to select the best tones out of the chord to imply or nail the tonality desired. A good rule of thumb is the 3rd and 7th notes plus the extra tone, in this case a 9th.
When we play two or more chords in a row in a music we are playing a chord progression. Music is magical because of this. Its the the way chords are placed next too each other in a progression that keeps producing the endless amount of ear catching sounds we have. Also the fact that any note of the chord can be a root, thereby creating inversions and different sounds. The variety of melody that can be produced over any on progression is staggering which is why we have a lot of repetition of certain chordal combinations. Some progressions are firmly ingrained in the landscape, such as the Blues ( I – IV – V) or Jazz’s (ii – V – I). Other are waiting to be discovered or more likely rediscovered. The bottom line is chords have functions and a job to do, learn as many as you can.
Harmonics are around us as string players all the time, when you pluck a string it sets the fundamental note vibrating along with its natural overtone series. Yes, that means when you play the A string you are not actually playing just an A, but a combination of A and its octave, octave + 5th, 2nd octave, 2nd octave + a 3rd and so on. (see music for example) This series is available as fundamental notes when you start dividing the string by playing harmonics – technically called non vibrating dead points or nodes. These nodes are available when plucking a string with a left hand finger directly above the fret wire. As bass players we are lucky that our strings and instruments and the sound wave they produce are bigger and badder than the rest. So our ability to access these harmonics is increased, which means notes that are fuller in tone and volume. Size sometimes does matter!
To produce a natural harmonic, place the finger directly above the fret wire of the desired position, lightly touching the string and avoiding all contact with the fretboard, in other words – float. Pluck the string and almost simultaneously remove the finger. The quicker its removed the better the tone and sound of the harmonic. This action will divide the string into vibrating sections, of which each portion will determine the harmonic produced. Play the 12th fret and you divide the string in half and get an octave.The fun for bass players is that when you combine two or more harmonics with fret notes you are able to produce awesome sounding chords. Any one that has played Jaco’s Portrait of Tracy will know what I am talking about. Included is a chart of chords used or could be used in the study – by no means exhaustive.
I have written a study that is loosely based on Jose Feliciano’s Affirmation chord changes. The use of notes ringing over one another to produce chords – accamponellas, is utilised a lot. Just remember when you play a harmonic at the 12th fret its an octave, at 7th its a fifth, at the 5th its the second octave and at the 4th its a major third. Armed with that knowledge you should be able to create your own chords. The knowledge and clever use of chord inversions will aid creating more complex sound textures. Theimportant thing to take away is that the more you experiment with the harmonic chords the more you will find and create new sounds – especially on a bass. (Harmonics have been brought down the octaves for ease of reading and writing on the stave)