I’m a long time student and teacher 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.
If you read the first 8 articles in this series you will have been introduced (superficially at least) to all of the building blocks of tango guitar language.
Now is a good time to start answering the pressing questions that come up when you’re actually in a situation where you’ll be playing tango. So, for the next several articles I’m going to write about the concepts that musicians use when they play with other musicians, but without set arrangements, which in tango is called playing a la parrilla.
As I’ve mentioned before, mastering a la parrilla playing is difficult, because it requires you to have a mastery of every element of tango. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be afraid to approach this way of playing even in your earliest stages of development — there is a general benefit to be had. Musicians with experience playing by ear will probably have a head start. It may seem ironic, but many times someone who can’t read music will have an easier time with this approach to playing than a conservatory graduate. Whatever your background, parrilla has a lot to teach.
Let’s quickly describe what this approach involves: it means that two or more musicians will decide upon a tango, vals, or milonga and then play it. While in some cases one or more of them may refer to simplified notation in the form of a lead sheet (melody and chord symbols) or piano sheet music (simplified reduction of melody and harmony written on piano staves) in many cases the musicians are not reading at all, they are simply referring to the musical information stored in their memory. This memorized information is the melody and chords, makes up the building blocks of the piece they are playing. This act, on every level, is fundamentally different from the act of playing a piece of music where every single note is written out from beginning to end.
In order to start thinking about parrilla playing, we’ll look at one of the elements that make up a piece of music: form. A basic difference between playing a fully-notated arrangement and playing a la parrilla is that in the latter you must have an understanding of musical form. In other words, you and your fellow musicians have to understand where the sections of a piece start and end. In traditional tango this is fairly easy: in simple piano sheet music the sections will often be separated by repeat signs or double barlines, on a lead sheet they’re often indicated with rehearsal marks (A, B etc), and most important, as you start paying attention to form you will learn to use your ear. In a traditional tango it’s usually easy to tell where the sections begin and end. There is often a very regular number of bars (16 for example) and the change in sections may be marked by a key change. Many tangos that were written as vocal tangos have two parts, A and B. Many of the instrumental tangos from the guardia vieja or early period of tango have three parts, A, B, and C.
One of the first things to think about when playing a la parrilla is the formal structure of the piece. Let’s say you’re going to play a tango that has two parts: the A section is in D minor and the B section is in D major. Just keeping that information present will help keep you on track as you’re playing. Another consideration is the formal structure that you and the other musicians are going to play. Some options:
A B A B
A B A B A
Intro, A B A B
Without even getting into the chord progressions or the melodic phrases (the meat and potatoes of the piece) we’re already thinking structurally. Playing a la parrilla, or playing by ear in any type of music, puts us little closer to the compositional aspect of the piece. As we start to think about things like formal structure, we are slowing approaching the role of arranger. Here are some options for three-part tangos:
Many times musicians will agree upon the form ahead of time. In other situations, when the amount of players or the skill level permits, the form may happen spontaneously, with musicians giving each other non-verbal (or verbal) cues. Observing skilled parrilla players create a spontaneous musical arrangement can be incredibly exciting once you realize what’s going on.
Finally, as with any other type of popular music, there are conventions that have been set by years of recordings and standardization of versions. There are many tangos that simply have a ‘standard’ version that most musicians play when all other restrictions (arrangements, conversations, rehearsals etc) are absent. The level of standardization may apply to form and key only, but in some cases may move into other areas like tempo, fills, phrasing, and variations. In some extreme cases an arrangement has become so standard that musicians will play it basically verbatim. An example of this is the version of ‘Quejas de bandoneón’ recorded by Anibal Troilo’s orchestra. The arrangement was created by Astor Piazzolla, a member of the orchestra at that time. Playing this arrangement pretty much note for note by memory is arguably not parrilla playing at all. But somewhere in between zero information and a full arrangement lies the magic of spontaneous music making that can happen in this setting.
Here’s a quick tip that will go far. Many traditional tangos (like many American Songbook standards) have a 32-bar form, meaning the A section has 16 bars and the B section has 16 bars. Each phrase is 4 bars long (and corresponds to two rhyming lines of lyrics). A generally foolproof way of creating an introduction is to play the last 4 bars of the B section as the intro. This sets the stage for the tango to begin.
Ok, let’s get our feet wet. Let’s say you and a pianist friend want to play the tango ‘Silbando.’ Rather than try playing in a completely spontaneous way, you can enter the world of parrilla by taking a primary step and agreeing upon 1) form and 2) melodic duties. Here’s a perfectly good option (p for piano plays melody, g for guitar plays melody):
Intro - p
A - g
B - p
A - g
B - p
And here’s another, mixing up the melodic duties in more interesting manner: Intro (guitar solo) A - p, g
B - p, g
A - g, p
B - g, p
And you’re on you’re way! With only the most fundamental information about form, you and a friend can get through a tango. Imagine what will happen when you start to add other elements. To be continued…