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(Harmonic) Power to the People


I was recently listening to Joe Henderson’s 1969 release, Power to the People (ignore the date given on the Last.fm site and just take advantage of being able to listen to the tracks). It features Ron Carter on acoustic and electric bass and, as I was listening to the title track, I clearly heard Mr Carter spice up his line with the use of harmonics.

These are notes formed on a stringed instrument by touching the vibrating string in such a way that the lower frequencies making up the timbre of the note are muted but the higher ones continue ringing. Because of the way a string produces sound, these nodes can be easily anticipated by dividing the vibrating length by whole numbers, producing an ascending series of perceived pitches. On a bass, this is a way of producing clear, bell-like tones that are much higher than those available with the normal way of holding notes down.

For a long time, I thought that it had been Jaco Pastorius who had introduced these to the world of bass playing in the mid-1970s. However, a few years ago I lost this preconception when I heard Ray Brown use harmonics on Duke Ellington’s 1972 release, This One’s for Blanton. Ron Carter’s example brought this back to mind but I am sure history has earlier recorded examples (not least because my Simandl double bass manual, published sometime in the nineteenth century, mentions the option of using a harmonic to sound the octave of an open string and I’m sure bassists of the were already experimenting with the idea).

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