Elaina Smith Music

Creekside Gospel Music Convention

Kevin Chambers: Kevin’s Rule of Four

Written by Staff on February 26, 2020 – 8:28 am -

Kevin Chambers: Kevin's Rule of Four

Eagle’s Wings with Kevin Chambers

Is Your Music Pleasing? By Kevin Chambers

It is such a simple question, but the answer is more complicated than you might think.

The following is my personal opinion and philosophy, not a catalog of rules. I formed these ideas over several years and thought they might be of interest to someone. This is the method I use to decide if a musical recording or live band is arranged properly, if the focus is drawn in the right direction, and if it sounds good (to me). This is the science that must be applied before you get to the art. The concepts are nothing new, but they are rarely presented together as I am trying to do here. I truly believe that trained professionals, including  jam pickers, can benefit from a simple survey of their musical arrangements identifying what I call the Four Essential Elements for Pleasing Musical Sound or simply Kevin’s Rule of Four.

I’ve played several musical styles in my life; marching band, classical, jazz combo, country, even some of that rock and roll stuff, not to mention thousands of hymns, SGM standards, and of course bluegrass! I’ve listened to and analyzed so many more than that. And I’ve decided all music is the same, even when it is so completely different! What I mean is that there are four essential common elements that make a pleasing arrangement in any form, from Beethoven to Bill Monroe. I believe that any band of any size or genre, can focus on these elements, who is playing them at any given time, and improve their sound. For the sake of space and time, I’m going to get fairly technical right away. If you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to e-mail me.

Nomenclature: I have to define the terms as I use them before I can teach how to use them. A traditionalist might be more comfortable calling the four elements: rhythm, melody, sustain, and counter-melody. However, my application for all this is fairly wide, so I often use the terms: groove, lead, continuity, and vamping. I use these words more out of habit than technical definition. You will easily see what I mean by each if you follow along.

In bluegrass music, it’s usually very easy to hear who is doing what. In other styles, it becomes more complicated, but the concepts still apply. I recommend that any performance arrangement of any song should be planned out using these elements in the order I will present them, taking care to build just deep enough to make the message or melody clear and pleasant. Also, as you will see, only one musician or section should hold any single piece of the pie, to avoid noise and confusion for the listener.

Kevin Chambers’ Rule of Four

First, we should think of groove or rhythm. This, very importantly, determines the style or vibe of the music. This element always has both a down and an up component. It is sometimes implied but usually played. In bluegrass, the bass always provides the down and either the guitar, mandolin, or sometimes banjo provides the up. In other styles, the groove of a song could be provided by vocalists singing “do-wop, do-wop” or constant pulsing eighth notes on a harpsichord. There is no rule. But, this is where the first critical decisions must be made. Make sure the groove fits the precise feel that you want for the song (as to instruments used and the technique). This will greatly help the other performers do their job. Now, if multiple musicians start playing the same groove foundation elements at the same time, then (at best) you will sound like a jam session. More often you’ll get a cacophony leading to a train wreck, especially if several different types of instruments jump on the groove wagon.

Next there is lead or melody. It may be a soloist or vocal group or an instrument. This is the core message you want to convey, the reason the piece exists. This is that important part of the music that you want the listener to really get. Harmony singing can still be part of this lead element, if the lyrics and timing match. The groove supports this. If the groove ever distracts the listener from lead, it has failed. Everyone in the band must keep in mind that your job is to support (feature / clarify) the melody or message of the piece and not to call attention to yourself or your talent. 

Third is what I call continuity or sustain. It may be chords on a piano, or long notes from strings, or the roll on a banjo. This is that one musical element that maintains the structure of the song. While groove is more about timing, continuity is more about tonal flow (chords ascending and descending, stress and release, etc.). This element can shift between players for every measure in some styles, but, of course, should not be played simultaneously by instruments (or sections), as this rapidly becomes confusing noise.

Lastly there is vamping or counter-melody. Vamping is not mandatory. It’s not always there, but, when done sensibly, it is barely noticeable, yet makes any song sound more professional. It’s is those tasteful fills that are often done on mandolin in bluegrass, but may be done on drums, piano or any instrument in any style.

Caution, vamping can be dangerous and addictive! Actually, any of these elements can be destructive to your music and your message. It takes honesty, humility, and attention to detail to purge out the noise and have only the essential elements going on at any given time. Sometimes this means (gasp) musicians don’t play constantly! I’ve seen many great shows with 15 awesome musicians on stage at once, but rarely do more than four to six of them play at the same time, just enough to cover the four elements. Pride must be left offstage.

Applying Kevin’s Rule of Four

Picture it if you will: The Nearly Famous Gospel Band is on stage! They are rolling along on their favorite Southern gospel music classic. The audience is tapping their toes in approval. The song, in the key of G, is about to transition from the G to the C chord. Everybody knows it. You can hear it coming like a freight train. Then, at the expected moment, the drummer vamps a half measure of syncopated “rebop-de-boom” right into the chord transition with a big cymbal crash, the bass efficiently walks up the G-A-B-C scale in eighth notes, the piano does the standard sanctified ritual of playing a full thick G7 chord for a couple of beats right before the change with a bonus Cramer-lick thrown in, the lead guitar eases down the neck to arrive at C after a nice pentatonic riff with some full step bends! So, for two full beats we had notes G-A-B-C-D-E and F (and some in between) walking all over each other during a drum solo.

The band may be competent musicians, but this would have sounded awful. Each one did a fine vamping transition between chords, but together it was bad. At most one should have telegraphed the obvious chord change, if any at all. This is what differentiates jam sessions from well-planned stage performances.

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