Gary Burton: The Four Mallet Man

gary burton

Gary Burton has been breaking the mold from the day one. Recording in Nashville as a teenager, he’s never looked back. And playing vibes – not your garden-variety choice back when the Beatles and Rolling Stones were busy burning up any memories of Elvis – Burton was a focused young man, with a vision that, perhaps, he didn’t even know he had.

But, as it’s often been said, the proof is in the pudding, or the plying not to mention playing. After a truly remarkable 33-year career as a teacher and eventually head honcho at Boston’s illustrious Berklee College Of Music for what seems like a lifetime (in fact, from 1971—2004), Burton miraculously and single-handedly staked out territory no player has ever done (his relatively new web presence as an educator continues) – at least to the degree he has, so far. Indeed, the world is aware of Gary Burton’s legacy not so much because of his stellar accomplishments as an educator, but as a singular voice on his chosen instrument, playing alongside many music legends and, more importantly, leading his own groups since the 1960s.

Think George Shearing, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, and Astor Piazzolla, but also his bands with Bob Moses, Larry Coryell (with whom he helped forge and lay the groundwork for jazz-rock), Roy Haynes, and Steve Swallow; his storied and ongoing duets with Chick Corea (six Grammys’ worth); his ushering in all manner of guitarists, starting with Coryell but also including Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and, currently, Julian Lage in his present-day group, the New Gary Burton Quartet.

And, as far as quartets go, for a story here in DRUM! Magazine, the New Gary Burton Quartet, formed in 2010 (and as opposed to any Old Gary Burton Quartet), beats the band as far as covering all the rhythm-section bases. We’re talking not only vibes and guitar but also bass and drums, to boot. You could throw in a percussionist or two, but, really, this is the classic rhythm section. All the bases are covered. Period.

Fresh from recording their follow-up to 2011’s Common Ground, 2013’s Guided Tour (both Mack Avenue) finds Burton’s quartet reversing course: unlike Common Ground, where the band hit the road to play the songs they’d eventually record, Guided Tour started in the studio and then went public. For those who can catch this band live (tour dates have recently ended with 2014 up for grabs), the crack lineup also includes drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Scott Colley, as well as Lage on guitar. In addition, Burton’s talking up his new autobiography Learning To Listen: The Jazz Journey Of Gary Burton (Berklee Press). Says Burton about the early reception, “It’s been a nice surprise that I’ve received so many rave reviews, including some great feedback from writers, which has been my toughest audience, many people praising it more than I ever imagined. So, I’m walking on the clouds.”

As For That Broken Mold

Burton, who turned 71 in January, summed it all up in a recent interview with the New York Times. “I came from a farm town,” he recalls, “playing an instrument most people don’t even know. I was this young kid, and all the members of the bands I played in were in their forties. And I was gay, although I hadn’t quite figured it out at the time.” An HBO biopic can’t be far from that storyline, where the Anderson, Indiana, town he grew up in allowed Burton to start taking marimba and vibraphone lessons, only to find himself in a family that built an act around him, which, in turn, would eventually hit the rural talent shows and state fairs.

Fast-forward to hearing records by Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, the Modern Jazz Quartet with Milt Jackson, and the influences of saxophonist Boots Randolph and guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins, and the young Burton was well on his way, Nashville the next major stop. It was country music with vibes. And vibes with four mallets, something Burton picked up on from discovering Red Norvo playing the xylophone and marimba. (The vibraphone, it must be remembered, didn’t appear on the scene until 1930.) And for Burton, the vibes was an instrument that could not only accompany but also exist on its own akin to any keyboard instrument. Pianist Bill Evans was a huge, early influence. And, as for posterity and the record, for Burton, using four “sticks” stuck.

A Strategic Choice

Talking from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this fall, the conversation started off with and pretty much took over an extensive discussion on that very subject of four mallets as opposed to using just two. “I got started on marimba,” Burton remembers. “I started with two mallets when I was eight years old, but soon, within a year or so, my teacher, Evelyn Tucker, introduced me to four, playing some marimba pieces. So it wasn’t foreign to me when I continued on my own. Every time he would hear a popular song on the radio, my dad would send away for sheet music, and then I would take the piano music and try to figure out how to play it on vibes or the marimba. I continued doing that until I discovered jazz, at about age 13.” This is when Burton began listening to “all the star vibraphone players,” including those mentioned above.

And the reason Burton was playing vibes and marimba instead of piano? The most likely choice for a family interested in music, especially one that already had a piano in the home, went like this: “My older sister was already playing piano,” he notes. “And my parents wanted me, coming up two years later, to play some other instrument.” It was a strategic move on their part, if only to keep the kids from fighting over the same instrument. “And, it was a surprise to me, maybe even to my parents, that when we moved to Princeton [Indiana], there were no other vibraphone players within hundreds of miles. I was it. And so, I just kept playing for fun, until jazz entered the picture. And then I had records to listen to: Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs, Cal Tjader – all the players played with two mallets.”

And here’s where the plot thickens. “The other big incentive to keep with playing four, was that I played alone most of the time,” says Burton. “It sounded dinky [to play with just two mallets], it wasn’t complete. I needed harmony, I wanted it to sound like regular music. So I kept playing with four just to fill in chords. And I eventually learned that it wasn’t as complicated or difficult as it appeared at first glance. You know, a lot of people told me, when I showed up on the scene in the early ’60s, “Give it up. Everybody knows it’s not practical to play with four mallets. It’ll never swing.” If I hadn’t been doing it already for five or six years, and far enough along, I probably would’ve believed them. It was the way I played.”

The only four-mallet players were not the jazz stars, but studio guys. Burton mentions names such as Victor Feldman, who made the obvious connections between piano and vibes that Burton was keen to; and first-call, jingle studio player Chicagoan Bobby Christian. “In fact, Bobby even used my grip,” Burton remembers. “That’s because I wasn’t the only one who discovered that this was a good way to hold the mallets. I’ve come across a handful of other, older players who discovered it.” All studio musicians, “all-around top percussion players,” it took a decade or so before younger players would follow Burton, playing with four mallets instead of two. And not just in the studio. “Another big factor was early on I was teaching myself how to play the piano; the piano was there in the house, the keyboard looked the same as the vibes, the only difference being you touch it with your fingers instead of the sticks. And that got me used to thinking in multiple parts, and chords, and contrapuntal lines, which the horn players never confront. A single-line player – which is what a two-mallet vibes player is, like a saxophone or trumpet player playing one melody line – doesn’t think in terms of multiple moves of notes, but a pianist does. And a guitarist does. These few chordal instruments. So it was pretty natural for me that four mallets was the way I think.”

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Bend In The Road

At this point, Burton becomes even more detailed, answering a familiar question that dates back to the late ’60s. “As for the bending of the notes,” Burton recalls almost immediately, “this was shown to me by Emil Richards, the studio percus- sionist in Los Angeles. Emil showed it to me using a cigarette lighter. The bar vibrates, except for two spots where the hole is drilled and the string goes through the bar to hold it on the keyboard. Those are called the nodal points. And the bar doesn’t vibrate there. It vibrates in the middle and the two ends of the bar. So, if you press down on the dead spot, the nodal point, with something and then slide into the part that vibrates, you’ll add weight to it, and begin to vibrate with the bar and slow down those vibrations dropping the pitch.

“So he showed this to me,” he goes on to say, “to get the bar ringing and then put the cigarette lighter on there and then slide away from the dead spot and into the vibrating part of the bar, and then there goes the pitch down. I loved that idea of being able to do that occasionally, working with guitar players who can slide all over the place with notes and that it would be wonderful if I could use that effect some time. But I couldn’t see myself pulling out a cigarette lighter on the bandstand in front of an audience, so I discovered I could do it with a xylophone mallet, anything that’s hard. If it’s a soft mallet, instead of vibrating with the bar, it just dampens it and stops it from ringing. So, I would give up one of my four mallets, and hold a xylophone mallet down at the bottom of my four, and just use it for the bending of the notes. Ballads and blues were the types of tunes where I would use it.”

During a certain European tour, Burton ended up breaking the one xylophone mallet he had, and it got him thinking about the effect. His intention when Burton first started using it was that it would be an addition to vibraphone playing, to get another possibility. But in fact over the five years he did it, it still came across as kind of “a gimmick.” And so, at the end of that tour, he never replaced that xylophone mallet. And that was 40 years ago, more or less. Funny, to this day, people still ask, as in this interview, how he does it, and he doesn’t seem surprised to answer.

As for the mallets themselves, Burton is just a one-mallet guy. Or, as he puts it, as an improvising musician needing to be flexible and ready to play in all situations and at a moment’s notice, he goes with a “middle of the road, all-purpose mallet.”

“I want a mallet that sounds good at all volume levels, that sounds the same at all volume levels, whether I’m hitting lightly or hard. When I’m playing soft or loud, the same timbre, a medium mallet works best.”

Getting A Grip, Four To Go

“There are two challenges to playing with four,” Burton returns. “One is physical, manipulating them in your hands. And the other is mental, knowing what notes to hit with the different mallets. And that’s the one that actually stops most vibes players from switching, because they’re used to thinking in terms of the two mallets, and starting over with four is like starting over, mentally. The example I give to students when I talk about this is, imagine studying the piano and for the first year you’re just using your two index fingers, and then for the second year you add two more fingers, and so on; finally after ten years you’ve got all ten fingers going.”

Clearly, for Burton, it’s about an orientation and how to coordinate the ten fingers. The educator, in full-swing mode, adds, “I always recommend to students, don’t put it off for a long time, if you want to end up playing with four. Soon as you can, start holding the four mallets in your hands and start using them, playing the music that way, so that your mental processes evolve along with your physical dexterity.”

That grip and how Burton’s been able to bend notes provides more insight into his musical mind and the way he plays. “The grips came about because in high school, as I got more into jazz, there’s two parts to the jazz performance. One is playing the melody part, the head of the tune, and then, the improvised solo. And what a lot of vibists do, even to this day, is they use four mallets when they’re playing the riff part; that’s because they know what’s coming, they know what notes are going to be played next, and they can rehearse it and practice it and plan for it. But when they get to the improvised section, the four mallets feel like they’re weighing them down, cumbersome, and you can’t really play as freely as you can with two. And so I did the same thing: I would play the head with four mallets, and then lay two mallets down and solo with two.

“But what happened was, when I was playing with two, I would get ideas for a chord here and there, I’d want a voicing, do something that required four mallets. So, I began to realize that I wanted to be able to hold the mallets all the time and not have to lay two of them down just because I wanted to feel free to solo. And that made me realize the traditional way of holding the sticks was fairly clumsy. And so, I started experimenting, holding the mallets the opposite way, crossing them this way, move that finger, try this.”

Burton eventually settled on his current grip – which, it turns out, allowed him more dexterity with opening and closing the mallets, changing their positions, and a much more solid grip on the mallets, where his hands felt more comfortable and he felt, ironically, he had more control. “The ideal,” he goes on to say, “is that when you play a passage with just two mallets, like a central melody line, it should feel, as much as possible, like you have just two mallets in your hands, and the extra mallets don’t distract you. And my grip, I discovered, was really good at that. The mallets that weren’t being played didn’t bounce up and down and add weight and form a distraction. I switched at about age 15, and have played the same way ever since. And it turns out to be the dominant grip now [with the first two mallets held like a drummer holds sticks and the second pair held between the index finger and the middle finger]. Not everyone uses it, but it’s the most popular. The classical marimbists in Japan ... it’s been know as the ’Burton Grip,’ and I was well-known as the ’four-mallet guy.’”

That “four-mallet guy” has settled into a less hectic life, without full-time educational work and regular touring and recording. But the eventual CDs and periodic shows (an American tour with pianist Makoto Ozone starting at New York’s Blue Note in April and continuing in Europe in November, with June performances with Chick Corea in Australia, Asia, and Japan), along with his new autobiography, ought to keep Gary Burton top of mind.