When a 1995 interview with Zakir Hussain turned to the topic of tone, the tabla maestro confessed something surprising. As a child prodigy in India, he’d been consumed with developing technique while being all but unconcerned with the implications of tone.
It wasn’t until he began playing with western musicians in the ’70s – long after he’d become a worldwide sensation – when he began to consider the artistry of tone. If I remember correctly, he credited the Brazilian wild man Airto Moreira for opening his eyes to that school of thought.
Zakir was right. A command of tone stands alongside technique, dynamics, and empathy as powerful tools to add human emotion to music. He was also right that western musicians are highly attuned to tone. I think some are even a bit obsessed with it.
On more than one occasion I’ve found myself onstage between songs staring aghast at a guitarist making an arduous series of microscopic adjustments to one of the stomp boxes on his pedal board while the audience waits for the next song. “Seriously?” I generally ask myself. “Would it matter if he had a bit more echo, or a bit less flange, or whatever it is he’s fiddling with?” I suspect not.
Case in point: I used to play with a guitarist named Carlos Guitarlos, an L.A. bluesman who became a local legend in the ’80s with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. I was always amazed by his ability to adapt to virtually any instrument. He could, and often would, plug literally any guitar into any amplifier and make it sound good without fancy effects boxes.
How’d he do it? The tone was in his fingers. He pulled it out of the guitar. The way he touched the strings – bending notes, working the volume control and whammy bar, finding natural overtones, playing with feedback, adapting, adapting, adapting – made all the difference.
But can the same be said for an instrument played with sticks and pedals rather than fingertips? I think it can, and naturally, I have a story about it.
It was 1990. I had just finished interviewing Steve Gadd backstage at the Oakland Arena while he was playing on Paul Simon’s Rhythm Of The Saints tour. Gadd’s drum tech walked me onto the stage so that I could sketch a drum set diagram.
I could barely believe my eyes. The heads on Gadd’s Recording Customs were thrashed, with visible dents and worn-clear patches across the surfaces. I tapped one of the toms and got back a flat, buzzing sound. The show was just hours away. Why didn’t the kit have a fresh set of heads?
The tech laughed, apparently reading my quizzical look. “I’d love to change the heads, but Steve won’t let me,” he said. “He likes ’em like this.”
Minutes later the band came onstage to begin their sound check. I moved to the mixing console in the middle of the massive, empty cavern and listened as Gadd tested each drum.
The snare was snappy and fat, the toms deep and full with a pleasantly descending pitch, and the bass drum boomed with just enough control to add some punch to a puff of resonance. Amazing. Classic.
There had been no need to worry about the sorry state of his drumheads after all. The tone came from Gadd’s practiced hands.