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It Sounds Different
"What I do, IT SOUNDS DIFFERENT"
"My lyrics, some written as long as twenty years earlier, would now explode musicologically like an ice cloud. Nobody else played this way and I thought of it as a new form of music." Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One
When we met Bob, one thing that he said about his playing is that he tends to utilize a different timing than most other musicians, a timing that comes from a very old musical tradition, and that this is what makes his music “sound different .” Even if people don't realize it, this is why it sounds different. It seemed very important to Bob that this information be passed on so we have decided to the keep this section of the website separate to share the information we have gathered and provide a jumping off point for those fans interested in exploring this concept. As always, insights into what other fans think Bob is talking about are welcomed, both in the passages we cite below from Chronicles Vol. One and from fellow fan and musicologist, Eyolf.
When we talked to Bob he asked us if we were familiar with Chronicles and if we had read the section about the special way he plays. Bob writes about this technique in Chronicles Volume One, attributing to it a significant role in the development of his sound. It is a method of playing he acquired a long time ago and returned to in the 80's in a way that revitalized his songs and concerts.
This method of playing appears fundamental and pivotal in Bob's musical development, and in particular in bringing his old songs to life on the stage and giving them a unique sound. This area of our website is therefore dedicated to exploring this sound and where it comes to life in Bob's performances.
Below, we will share some passages from Chronicles in the section roughly from "Returning from the emergency room with my arm entombed in plaster." to "Nothing would be exactly right." (Really you need to read the whole thing, but we are assuming that has been done by pretty much anyone on this website!). So that we can more easily discuss and refer to this, we have cited one particularly pertinent section of text below. We also cite and provide links to check out other music that Bob refers to which demonstrates this playing method.
“Besides my devotion to a new vocal technique, something else would go along with helping me re-create my songs. It seemed like I had always accompanied myself on the guitar. I played in the casual Carter Family flat-picking style and the playing was more or less out of habit and routine. It always had been clear and readable but didn't reflect my psyche in any way. It didn't have to.
The style had been practical, but now I was going to push that away from the table, too, and replace it with something more active with more definition of presence.
I didn't invent this style. It had been shown to me in the early 60's by Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie was the great jazz and blues artist from the 30's who was still performing in the 60's. Robert Johnson had learned a lot from him. Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-number system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it. This was just something he knew about, not necessarily something he used because he did so many different kinds of songs. He said, "This might help you," and I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn't make sense to me at that time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across. It's a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes.
I never used this style, didn't see that there'd be any purpose to it. But now all of a sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world. The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece. Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players. You probably wouldn't pay any attention to this method if you weren't a singer. It was easy for me to pick this up. I understood the rules and critical elements because Lonnie had showed them to me so crystal clear. It would be up to me now to expel everything that wasn't natural to it. I would have to master that style and sing to it.
The system works in a cyclical way. Because you're thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you're playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects, and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you're using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don't have to plan or think ahead. In a diatonic scale there are eight notes, in a pentatonic scale there are five. If you're using the first scale, and you hit 2, 5, and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms. Or you can use 2 three times. Or you can use 4 once and 7 twice. It's infinite what you can do, and each time you would create a different melody. The possibilities are endless. A song executes itself on several fronts and you can ignore musical customs. All you need is a drummer and a bass player, and all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system. With any type of imagination you can hit notes at intervals and between backbeats, creating counterpoint lines and then you sing off of it. There's no mystery to it and it's not a technical trick. The scheme is for real. For me, this style would be most advantageous, like a delicate design that would arrange the structure of whatever piece I was performing. The listener would recognize and feel the dynamics immediately. Things could explode or retreat back at any time and there would be no way to predict the consciousness of any song. And because this works on its own mathematical formula, it can't miss. I'm not a numerologist. I don't know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is. Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren't even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key - all deceptively simple. You gain power with the least amount of effort, trust that the listeners make their own connections, and it's very seldom that they don't. Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm. As long as you recognize it, you can turn the dynamic around architecturally in a second.
A bit further on, Bob continues:
Those who had followed me for years and thought they knew my songs might be a little confounded by the way they now were about to be played. The total effect would be physiological, and triplet forms would fashion melodies at intervals. This is what would drive the song - not necessarily the lyrical content. I had perfect faith in this system and knew it would work. Playing this way appealed to me. A lot of folks would say that the songs were altered and others would say that this was the way they should have sounded in the first place. You could take your pick.”
In the same chapter of Chronicles Volume One, Bob refers to several other musicians who either showed him this style of playing directly, like Lonnie Johnson or demonstrated it in their own music. While we don't have any suggestions of specific songs to listen to, you might find it helpful or interesting to look into the three Bob mentions specifically; Lonnie Johnson, Martha Reeves and Link Wray.
Information on Lonnie Johnson, including a reference to the way that he played, is available on his wikipedia page. Lonnie Johnson's Wikipedia
At the bottom, this page includes links to many other pages on Lonnie as well.
Martha Reeves' wiki is available here: Martha Reeves' Wikipedia
Link Wray here: Link Wray's Wikipedia
Please explore their music in whatever format works best for you.
One fan to tackle what Bob is talking about throughout these passages is Eyolf Ostrem, in his online essay, "What I learned from Lonnie." The entire piece is readable at his website: My Back Pages From the homepage, click the “Self-Ordained Professors” link and then the “What I Learned from Lonnie” link. Below are some interesting observations from Eyolf's essay we thought it might be helpful to share. Thanks to Eyolf for allowing us to share these passages on our website.
"What does seem clear, judging from what he actually says and comparing it with what he does on stage, is that he's talking about the peculiar guitar style that he has developed.the little two-three-note figure solos that he has kept churning out and that.in a strange way and to a surprisingly high degree, work musically. Outgrowths of this is probably also the sing-song/"upsinging" style of the recent years: it all fits his description fairly well, of a system of infinite permutations of very simple formulas, nothing to do with improvisation or inspiration, but a schematic approach to the basic chords and melodic shapes, which can be applied to just about any song - which is what he does."
Regarding Link Wray's "Rumble"
"It makes perfect sense that Dylan has liked this. There is the unpolished character of the whole thing, which reminds one of the best moments of Highway 61. There is the soundscape of sharply differentiated parts, each with its own distinctive rhythmic pattern. Both guitars, in different ways, take the part of the drummer, as Dylan has described his own guitar playing on several occasions.
But what does it have to do with Lonnie Johnson and mathematical music?
At first sight: nothing.
At second sight: well, the number three is all over the place: the main line of the guitar is three chords - silence - three chords - etc., ended by a measure which is extended from 2x2 to 3x2 beats. The cymbals play different kinds of triplets all the time, and the bass drum plays three long and three short."
And a bit further on:
"What Link Wray does, through his use of various permutations of threes, is to create a polyphonic structure with different layers of rhythmic activity in different instrument parts, all going on at the same time, and creating a remarkable complexity within very limited means. Whether it works because of the number three or because of the raw sound, the hypnotic repetition, and the underground Rumble of ominous ta-ta-ta in the drums and the weird chromatics in the bass, barely audible as such, but mostly very disturbing - who am I to tell why it works?"