The triplet effect
By Thomas Fallace
If you were at Starr Hill on April 10, you may have witnessed the following scene; a room full of tattooed, corduroy-clad neo-hippies bobbing their heads with eyes closed to the hypnotic guitar noodlings of the Big Wu and Strangfolk.
As the tempo gradually got faster and faster, the volume seamlessly augmented, the bouncing intensified until at last the soloist exploded into a shower of high-note triplets met by the approving cheers of the crowd with swirling heads of disheveled hair. (For the musically uninclined, a triplet is three evenly spaced notes.)
If this seems familiar, then you’ve witnessed what I dub “the triplet effect.”
The triplet effect has a long history, but it seems to have found a bi-monthly home at Starr Hill. In just the past six months, a number of artists from a wide range of musical styles have fallen prey to its alluring clutches. I’ve personally witnessed traditional jam bands such as Lake Trout, Jazz Mandolin Project, and the two mentioned above employing it to remarkable results.
Blues artists such as Robert Randolph and Corey Harris have used their slide-guitar proficiency to lead their audiences to triplet effect ecstasy. Even jazz artists like Joshua Redman and Charlie Hunter have used the technique to appeal to a younger audience and, I would argue in Hunter’s case, compromise their original sound. The audience seems oblivious to the artists’ overuse of this effect and the post-Phish explosion of jam bands demonstrates that there is a growing market for it. Where did the effect come from, and where is it going?
Unfortunately, most jam bands rely on improvisation to fill the void of underdeveloped songs and lack of originality. Improvisation has been around forever, but it found legitimacy in the birth of jazz. The average jazz song works like this: a melody is introduced, and then each soloist improvises over the chord changes while making creative or clever references to the original tune. The soloist was judged on his ability to create memorable melodies on the spot. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were the best at this, though neither of them ever employed the triplet effect.
After John Coltrane entered the scene in the late ‘50s, rolling flourishes of high notes became a permanent part of the soloist’s vocabulary. In an attempt to have a spiritual effect on the listener, Coltrane played his notes so fast that jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the phrase “sheets of sound.” His invention easily makes him the most influential musician of the last 40 years in both jazz and rock genres.
Rock jam bands grew out of Coltrane’s tradition, including the definitive Grateful Dead. While they began merely as the house band for Ken Kesey’s acid tests in the mid-’60s, they developed into a highly-skilled and original unit. The Dead were steeped in the American music tradition of jazz, bluegrass, and folk. They could write both beautiful ballads and extended psychedelic freak-outs, but perhaps their greatest innovations were the rotating set list and liberal bootlegging policy. They gave birth to the jam band scene.
By the late ’60s, jam bands flourished, as Cream, Jefferson Airplane, the Allman Brothers, and Santana began employing extended improvisations. Carlos Santana was a proud disciple of Coltrane and often used the triplet effect. But by the ’70s, the triplet effect had become so ubiquitous that stadium rockers like the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd were using it. Both anthems “Hotel California” and “Freebird” end in climatic rolling triplets.
The next big step in the jam band genealogy was Phish. While also proponents of the triplet effect, they introduced the use of dissonance. At certain times, Phish would deliberately play out of sync with each other, only to return to the consonant comfort of the original chords and the cheers of the crowd. Over the past decade, I’ve personally attended concerts by Phish, Widespread Panic, moe, the String Cheese Incident, and countless other jam bands that have used various degrees of the triplet effect. I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few bands at Starr Hill that would further support my point.
While I’m not exactly a Deadhead, or criticizing the instrumental prowess of the bands mentioned above, I do believe that the legacy of the Dead has been abandoned. Jam bands of today sound too similar because they rely too heavily on the triplet effect.
I assert that the Dead were the best jam band ever for two reasons: 1) they relied more on melodic invention and interactivity than the triplet effect 2) they could actually write songs.
Just this morning on the radio, I heard “Sugar Magnolia” and “Friend of the Devil,” two well-crafted pop songs. In fact, Dead albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty boast a plethora of originality, pop sensibilities, sound lyrics, and tasteful playing. These albums have both been critically lauded completely independent of their live shows.
When the Dead did extend these songs into live renditions, they used melodic interplay to launch their instrumental excursions, free from the triplet effect clique. Unlike the groups of today, the Dead wrote songs, not excuses to jam. While Phish could certainly deliver a memorable hook, their lyrics were too silly to take seriously. Their songwriting covered such an eclectic range of styles, it was hard to decipher who the real Phish was. One thing that both the Dead and Phish proved is that jam bands could not only support themselves, but have quite a lucrative career catering to the credit-card hippie crowd. This has led to a proliferation of jam bands in the last decade, and therefore, a proliferation of the triplet effect. I hope that these bands will spend more time listening to the Dead and discovering the points I’ve made above. Only then can they hope to have a career as prolific and rewarding as the Dead’s.
I hope I have not discouraged anyone from enjoying the guilty pleasures of bouncing up and down to the euphoric vibes of jam bands. Just listen for the triplet effect next time you’re at Starr Hill. It’ll be there, only, maybe next time you won’t be.