The Scratch is the Thing.


In the second part of his Mel Bay interview, Anthony Barnett focuses on one thing that I think actually elevates Stuff Smith to greatness, rather than detracting from him, and that is the business of “scratchiness”.

First, let me quote Nathan Milstein. When asked why he liked the fiddle, he replied, “Because you can scccrrraaaatcchh on it!”

The scratch and noise that the violin can make is precisely what gives articulation and, combined with proper accentuation and timing, makes the fiddle swing. It is the bite at the beginning of the bow stroke that gives the note its immediate presence. The overall shape of a note is described by four parameters, Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release (ADSR). The very beginning of the note is the attack, and how this attack settles down is called the decay. Then you get the sustain of the note, which ends in release.

You can think of attack and decay as being like consonants in speech, with the sustain being the vowels. Release is how we end our words. Singers need to accentuate their consonants if they want to have good diction. So do actors. Because consonants are made of higher frequency noise rather than tone, they do not carry so well, which means that to be heard clearly at the back of a theatre, you need to exaggerate your consonants. Articulation in singing comes from the placing of the consonants. You don’t get the note placement so much from the vowels. They flow into each other. Note boundaries come from consonants.

For horns, tonguing and embouchure control these elements of the note's envelope. Listen to a trumpet player spit and explode the beginnings of notes, or the hard edge at the note beginnings of a sax player like Parker, Sanborn, or Brecker. Such players will also look after the release of the note, to give clarity to their note endings, too.

For the fiddle, the attack and decay come from the bite of the bow – the scratch. Scratching is a most important aspect of playing to master, but close miking exaggerates it. A pick up over-amplifies it, so electric and amplified players stop using the bow properly to avoid the noise of the scratch being amplified too much. It is said that if you were next to Heifetz when he played, all you would hear would be scratch. Out in the theatre you would hear his beautiful tone with clear articulation, but that would be precisely because of his scratchiness. From a distance, the scratch softens, and the “vowels” come out, but you still get the clarity of articulation. It is also said that he liked to be close- miked for recordings, and that is why you never hear his true tone on disc.

How do we gain control over the scratch, and make it work for us? I start by placing the bow on the string, in the middle, and just move the bow slightly from side to side. The string should move with the bow, but not slip. There will be no sound. Then move the bow a little wider – the bow will slip, and you will get a note. Short, but still a note. This shows you how much the string will give before the bow lets go. Now, with a little more weight, the string moves further, and when the bow slips, rather than a note, you get a brief crunch, or click. Because you still have some weight on the string from the bow, the note is stopped before it sings. You are isolating the attack and decay of the note, not allowing the sustain to develop. This click or scratch also shows you how to look after the ends of your notes. You can build exercises out of this to give you the feel of the string's behaviour with different weights and at different points on the string.

As you gain familiarity with the feel of the string through the bow, you get used to what level of scratch gives what kind of attack and decay. Articulation becomes clearer, and your rhythmic power increases.

Using the scratch to emphasise phrasing is an important part of my lessons on interpretation and phrasing.