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 tha