Masterclass with Dick Griffin: Multiphonics on the Trombone

By Bob Bernotas • November 15, 1999 • 6 min read

This article was written by Bob Bernotas as told to him by Dick Griffin

The principle behind playing multi-phonics--producing more than one note at a time on a wind instrument--is that you're dealing with the overtone series. If you hit a low Bb on the piano, it also sounds an octave above and it rings up from there maybe a fifth, and goes up in fourths, and all of a sudden you will have a major third ringing out. multi-phonics work on that same principle. The lower brass instruments perform multi-phonics better than the higher brass because of the timbre of the instruments, and because these lower overtones are the roots of the particular chords.

Back in the early '60s, I heard about John Coltrane playing two notes at one time on the saxophone. Then I saw in an exercise book where the old trombone players performed transcriptions for cello that often had double stops--a root note and a note above. So the idea came to these classical trombonists to produce a double stop by playing the lower note and singing the upper one. From there I started to mess around with it.

To begin playing multi-phonics, play a low Bb and hold it for four counts. Then play the low Bb for another four counts and on the second count try to sing through the horn. Just try to make any audible sound while the note is going--get the note first and then let your voice seep through. Once your voice seeps through, you'll start to hear some clarity in the chords. Stay on the Bb for a good period of time and then learn to move up or down from there.

The played note will always sound louder than the sung note, so in order to get a good balance I learned to blow hard, sing loud, and play soft. If you play loud and sing soft you get a vague kind of sound--it's not as clear and the overtones won't ring.

Once you get into it you can make some chords sound major, some chords sound minor, and you can make some with perfect fourths and fifths that will be very symmetric sounding. I learned to control that by changing the intervals, experimenting with the intervals, holding the note I'm playing and moving chromatically as I sing the top note. You find all kinds of colors that way.

You can play any note for the tonic and sing any interval above it, maybe a fifth or a third, or even a sixth, seventh, whatever. (If you sing an octave, you can get an effect almost like Wes Montgomery did on the guitar.) Then the overtone series takes effect--the combination of the two notes produces overtones--so you get a third note an octave higher, and sometimes if you blow hard enough, you can ring the fourth note an octave below. You're not actually playing those notes, they're just coming out of the combination of the other two. It all depends on how hard you blow. The harder you blow, the more overtones you get.

After a time, I developed a technique where I can sing two notes. That's one of the reasons why my multi-phonics sound fuller, because I can literally sing two notes--Howard Johnson does it on the tuba--so I can get a chord. The sound is in my head--I can hear those two notes, so I can sing them.

I had a lot of problems with it when I first started. I used to have a pinched sound because my throat was involuntarily closing off. I have to warn any student that's going to study this to not fall into that trap because it can be a bad habit that's hard to break. To alleviate that problem think of a syllable, like "Ahhh," and keep your throat open. Locate it the back of your mouth and think of the sound coming over the top of your tongue--"Ahhh." That tends to keep your throat from closing off and gives you a more open feeling.

I also had to work on my breath control a lot. In order to do it well you have to have good air and good diaphragmatic support. I learned to do circular breathing at that time and it really helped a lot.

I've also had problems with my throat, like laryngitis. One night with Rahsaan Roland Kirk I played multi-phonics so much I couldn't do it the next night. Like a singer--I couldn't sing. So you have to watch your throat. After all this time, if I'm playing real hard and doing it a lot, I still sometimes have that problem. So there are side effects that have to be weighed before you start into it.

The range of the multi-phonics is limited, but it depends on the individual. I never play it much higher than Bb above the staff. More multi-phonics and more harmonic notes come out if you stay from the low Bb, second line in the bass clef, up to around F in the middle of the staff. That range gives the best harmonic sound.

The higher you can sing, the better. When I was in high school I used to sing first tenor in a doo-wop group, singing the high parts in a falsetto voice. So I can get a very high falsetto and that allows me to produce a fuller multi-phonic--especially when I play a low note and sing a high falsetto.

I haven't had any problems doing it on any horn. It works better with a bass trombone, because of the large tubing, and the lower instruments give you more range for the overtones. But anybody playing any trombone and mouthpiece can perform multi-phonics. You don't have to change your equipment to do it.

I've written several compositions with multi-phonics. And I've worked out a Duke Ellington medley where I use it--"Mood Indigo," "Just Squeeze Me," "Caravan." I play the melody of the tunes and the harmony part in multi-phonics. "Creole Love Call" is another good vehicle. Most of the time I can play with the rhythm section, but the ring of the cymbals and the higher register of the piano tend to wipe out the multi-phonic overtones. So the ideal situation is when everybody is laying out and I'm playing alone. That way, I don't have any interference with any other overtones, and it comes off a bit stronger.

My latest thing is that I play multi-phonics and circular breathe at the same time. I call it "circularphonics." The idea came from seeing Rahsaan Kirk circular breathe and play two or three horns together. I'm getting very good responses from doing that when I play.

I also use "circularphonics" as my warm-up, doing long tones, because I'm killing two birds with one stone, in a way. It warms me up very fast. I've tried a lot of different techniques, and I get bored doing the same warm-up everyday, but this I do.

[Examples of Dick Griffin's multi-phonic playing can be heard on his numerous recordings with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and on his own CDs, The Eighth Wonder & More, A Dream for Rahsaan & More (both on the Konnex label), and his 1999 release, All Blues (Amosaya). - Bob Bernotas]

© Bob Bernotas, 1991; revised 1999. Used by permission. All rights reserved.