Make Your Jazz String Group Sound Authentic

Randy Sabien
By Randy Sabien

I hear a string group or individual playing a swinging jazz or blues tune, more often than not, the music doesn’t sound all that different from classical music.  Here are a few quick tips to get you headed in the right direction quickly.

1)  Bow placement – for smooth swinging eighth notes violins and violas should bow in the upper half; cellos and arco basses should be in the middle.  Avoid the lower half or the eighth notes will be choppy and not in the groove.

2)   Bow tension – make sure bow hair is not too tight.  Having just the right springiness in the bow allows you to feel the groove with your bow arm.

3)  Slurring – for a series of swing eighth notes sometimes slur the offbeat eighth to the downbeat eighth.  I tend to play a few single bows, slur a couple groups in the middle of a phrase or across the barline, then a few more single bows.  Avoid long series of single bows or slurs.  It’s the combination that creates a fluid swinging line.

4)  Articulation – many jazz phrases end with short syncopated notes.  Think of the word “be-bop.”  “Be” is long  – use legato detache bowing.  “Bop” is short – use a staccato martele bowing or better yet….. let the bow come off and dampen all the strings with the left hand.  You cannot play the note too short.

5)  Vibrato – limit the use of classical style vibrato.  Replace it with either a totally flat sound or slide into the notes for a blues expression.  Sometimes a “shake” sounds good – a wild vibrato that goes as much as a whole step above the pitch quickly once or twice.

6)  Rhythm Section – make sure your group at least has a drumset and bass.  Piano and/or guitar are great additions but can be optional if the arrangement has enough harmonic support throughout the string section.  A drumset can be as simple as a high hat and ride cymbal.  If more than one bass is playing, the line will have to be written out so everyone plays the same part.  The cello is not an acceptable substitution for a bass.  It’s not low enough and the duration of the pizzicato is too short to fulfill the proper function of the bass.  The cello should be treated as a low melodic voice like the tenor or baritone sax or trombone.

If you follow these easy steps your group will sound great right away.  I can’t wait to hear you!

Violinist Randy Sabien is head of the String Department at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, MN offering Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass Performance.  He is the co-author of the Jazz Philharmonic series and composer for String Alternatives.  Randy and his Fiddlehead Band will be the featured performer at the closing concert of the 2013 ASTA convention in Providence, RI.

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