I’m a long time teacher (and student) of tango guitar. This series of articles is for tango guitar students and guitarists interested in pursuing tango. Contact me for more information on lessons and workshops.
Today we’re doing an overview of the concept of melody in tango. You probably know that when a jazz musician looks at a lead sheet (chord symbols and melody) that musician is able to read the simplest information and produce music that sounds like jazz. Now suppose someone hands you a tango lead sheet and asks you to play the melody. What would you need to know to make it sound like tango?
In very general terms, here are the keys that will get you there.
-phrasing and articulation
-Ornamentation (specific to guitar)
And of course listening to recordings. Always do lots of listening.
Ok, let’s take a look at the keys to melody in tango:
Phrasing and Articulation
Some tango music is notated with the phrasing incorporated. Perhaps the guitar part to a quintet arrangement will be written this way (although perhaps not – be careful). A lead sheet, however, is written without phrasing added, meaning that the melodic rhythms are all ‘straight.’ For a stark example of this, look at the sheet music for ‘Uno,’ and listen to a recording of a singer. You can do both on this Todotango page. (Click the 'score' tab for the sheet music, and 'music' tab for recordings).
As you can see, the melody is written as a series of straight 16th notes, but no singer (or instrumentalist) would play it that way. We won’t get into details here, but by using a handful of rhythmic concepts you can start to make those straight notes sound like tango. The same goes for articulation: a good arrangement will specify articulation, but when you are playing a melody from a lead sheet (or by memory) you’ll want to impose staccatos, legatos, and well-placed accents, as Roberto Grela does at the beginning of ‘Gallo ciego.’ Check out how the first three phrases use staccato and accents, and then Grela plays the final phrase using mostly legato. As with phrasing, there are a few classic articulation patterns that you can incorporate into your playing and apply to melodies.
Melodic feel is perhaps more abstract and difficult to nail down. Feel is a rhythmic concept, but it can apply to melody, or ensemble. Listen to ‘Fuimos’ played by Roberto Grela and Ciro Perez. It’s incredible how the lead guitar rhythm guitars manipulate the feel – pushing the time forward, pulling it back, playing straight, and playing rubato.
Some ornamentation is a good idea on just about any instrument, but as guitarists playing melody we face a very specific problem: our instrument has virtually no sustain, and produces very little volume. When we play longer note values we face the risk that they fade away, leaving empty spaces. Sure, sometimes we want those spaces. The rest of the time, however, we need to fill them somehow.
For a perfect example let’s go again to Roberto Grela, the absolute master of this concept. The melody to ‘El abrojito’ starts with a measure of two half notes (D, B). Listen to how Grela handles this measure, here, at 1:47. He plays four notes before the measure even starts, and then gets in another 13 before it’s over:
From 2 notes to 17…guitarists work hard for the money!
Fills and Variations
I’ll introduce fills and variations briefly. Each one merits its own article in the future. Fills, called pasajes de enlace by tango musicians, are fragments of melodic material that fill in the gaps between melodic phrases, tie sections together, and indicate entrances. In other words, the idiomatic glue that holds tango melodies together. Some fills are characteristically handled in the bass, and others upper registers. A clear illustration of the use of fills is this version of ‘Mano a mano’ by Edmundo Rivero. After every phrase Rivero sings, the guitars ‘fill’ the space with a short melodic figure.
Variations, usually made of of 16th notes, are a staple of the tango orchestra sound and are principally played by the bandoneon, although they can be played by other instruments as well, and often come at the end of an arrangement. Variations are based on the melody (see ‘theme and variations’ in classical music). Tango guitarists play 16th note variations and there are many examples of guitar ensembles where variations are played by more than one guitar in harmony or in octaves. Three things about variations: 1) learn the classic ones because it’s good to know them 2) use them as exercises for building technique and speed and 3) eventually, create your own.