Timbre, the Lost Art

timbre [ˈtɪmbə ˈtæmbə (French) tɛ̃brə]
1. (Linguistics / Phonetics & Phonology) Phonetics the distinctive tone quality differentiating one vowel or sonant from another
2. (Music, other) Music tone colour or quality of sound, esp a specific type of tone colour
[from French: note of a bell, from Old French: drum, from Medieval Greek timbanon, from Greek tumpanon drum]


If we look at the definition above, timbre has to do with the tone color of the sound we make. You can hit a snare drum in the very center of the head with a 5B stick, note after note, and have just one sound, one color. Or, you can change various parameters and have a world of sound colors available. I have to admit that in this homogenized musical world, the idea of different timbres often seems to have been lost. With the advent of digital recording and Pro-Tools, producers are able to make sure each drum note played is exactly like the one before it. Sterility rules!

OK, so you play live and aren't in a multi-million dollar touring band, then you probably have a little more flexibility in your sound. One advantage of being in something like a jazz or improv band, is that you get to control your own sound. Whether I'm playing or composing, I'm always thinking about SOUND. And with that, the TIMBRE of that sound. I don't want the same sound all night long. Often I don't even want the same sound for a whole song! I'm much more interested in playing with the sounds that I use and changing things to suit the music. Let's look at some easy ways to change your sound:

  • You can put a towel or some sort of cloth over a drum to get a very dead, muffled sound.
  • You can put a circular cutout of an old drum head on top of your drum to get a fatter, deeper sound.
  • You can put small cymbals/Gongs on your drum and hit them, or just let them rattle.
  • You can put jingles or other things on your drums/drum heads to rattle.
  • Another easy thing is to change your striking implement: use a heavier or lighter stick. 
  • Use a different type of tip (round/acorn/square/nylon/felt/etc.).
  • Use a soft timp or vibe mallet.
  • Use a wire/plastic/wooden brush.
  • Use a metal beater.
  • Use a shaker/tambourine/cow bell as a mallet.
  • Rub instead of strike.
  • Stack things.
  • Strike in the center/middle/edge.
  • Muffle cymbals/Gongs with clothespins/clips.
  • Use your imagination…
The advantage of all the above is that they can be done/changed in real time, so you can do different things for different songs. So don't just think about your gear and your technique, think about your sounds!

2 great examples of using a variety of sounds/timbres are Glenn Kotche of Wilco, and Pat Mastellotto of King Crimson/Stick Men. Both are extremely creative and not afraid to use different sounds.

Glenn Kotche

Glenn's prepared snare drum head

Pat Mastellotto

Now go forth and multiply your sounds:

~ MB


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