“Blackjack” is a jazz-funk banger from Locksmith’s sole 1980 album “Unlock the Funk” 1. In my pursuit to create similar music, I’ve tried to analyse the tune using the help of my DAW, and in this essay I will present some of my findings and the techniques I have used.
Use of a DAW
I have found using a DAW to be immensely useful compared to a pen-and-paper analysis and writing in staff notation. I created a track in the DAW to hold the original recording, and then adjusted the tempo in the DAW to match the recording. From there I was able to add new tracks for different parts/voices, and outline melodies and chords of interest as regions on the timeline.
While I have kept a text file to help write down additional information like the key and chord progressions, attempting to rebuild the track in a DAW has numerous benefits. The primary benefit is that by using appropriate VST instruments, I am able to verify the note choices and their durations by ear, and I can adjust each note of a riff in the piano roll, until I have something which sounds accurate. Once I am confident I have a region correctly described in the piano roll, I can copy-paste it to other areas of the timeline. If I were writing out the notes on a staff I could verify them on an physical instrument, but I am then required to play them manually, and have a good understanding of how to notate time and rhythm correctly, which I am not very good at beyond the resolution of eighth notes. Since my objective here is not to get better at writing sheet music, but to understand the tune in question, I find being able to use a piano roll and immediately hear multiple voices looping with exact timing to be a very low-friction workflow. My DAW also has a loop function to allow me to loop arbitrary sections of the timeline, which is very useful for building up chords and ensuring I have heard everything that is going on within those particular bars.
Using a DAW also makes it easy to change things and move them around. I can add a new track for a new voice whenever I want, so I am not required to identify all parts up front.
My DAW of choice (Bitwig Studio) allows me to insert labelled cue markers which I have used to annotate each section of the track, so I can see where a new section begins.
One downside of using the DAW for this track, is that as the tempo of the track changes slightly, the MIDIfied parts will move out of sync with the original recording, which breaks the ‘listenability’ benefit of the DAW. This can be fixed by adjusting the tempo throughout the timeline using automation, but this can be quite fiddly to get right, and I did spend a lot of time nudging the tempo by ±1-2 bpm at the beginnings of different sections, to ensure everything stayed “locked in”.
I have broken down the form of Blackjack as follows:
- An 8 bar intro.
- An 8 bar lead-in to the A section. This always preceeds an A section, and is a slightly stripped-down version of the upcoming A section – either without violin or lead guitar – but with the same bassline, rhythm guitar, and percussion we will hear in the A section.
- A 16 bar A section, which includes the primary melody on violin.
- A repeat of the A section.
- A 6 bar B section, featuring different chords and a second primary melody on violin.
- A break, consisting of two bars of 6/8.
- Another A section lead-in. A violin solo starts at the end of this section.
- Two more 16 bar A sections, over which the primary violin solo is performed.
- A repeat of the B section.
- A repeat of the break.
- A 16 bar C section, which is derived from the A section, where each part is much more stripped down and percussive.
- An A section lead-in.
- A repeat of the A section.
- An 8 bar outro, consisting of the final 8 bars of the A section, while the track fades to silence.
This is a distinctive form which is not archetypical. The form affords both familiarity and surprise through its combination of consistent sectional joining – a lead-in always preceding an A section, a break always proceeding a B section – with the variety afforded by three distinct primary sections and a short break, which allows us to feel grounded and familiar with the track, able to anticipate the upcoming section, but also providing variety, which keeps us engaged, where too much repetition would be boring and cause us to lose interest. Although the A section appears three times for a total of 80 bars, the primary solo covers 32 of those bars, to provide unique melodic content over the established harmony and rhythm of this section, which keeps these bars fresh.
All analysis begins with our ears, and determining the arrangement – the different voices or parts that perform throughout the course of a piece – is no exception. To determine the arrangement, I listen to the track multiple times, often adding a loop over particular sections and focusing on different frequencies to see if I can hear anything new in the mix.
One of the most prominent voices is the cowbell, which is our primary percussion. Underneath the cowbell is a much more subtle hi-hat and a kick. There are also some bongos which are even more subtle – these become more prominent later in the track but they are omnipresent throughout the A, B and C sections.
Another highly prominent voice is the bass, which is either a bass synth or a bass guitar with a very prominent envelope filter, creating a ‘bow bow’ wah effect.
The primary lead voice is an electric violin, and we are treated to three different timbres througout the course of the track. In the A section, the violin has an envelope filter, similar to the bass. In the B section, some mild distortion is used. Finally, there is also a chorus effect which is used on a clean violin in the intro and at the beginning of later A sections, and in the C section. We can surmise that there is a single violin player in the group (John Blake) as the different timbres never appear together, and they are used to provide additional texture to the whole composition, to prevent the violin sounding monotonous, and to further define the A and B sections.
There are three distinct guitars in the mix, which can be determined by their timbre, panning, simultaneity, and role. In the intro, we can hear at first one, and then two lead guitars playing together. Once we hit the A section, we can hear only a single lead guitar, but we now hear a rhythm guitar in the mix as well. In the final A sections towards the end of the track, we can hear all three guitar parts playing at the same time. The credits on Discogs list Richard Steacker as the only guitarist, so all of these voices are being created through use of multitracking and distinguished in the mix by use of EQ and panning. The additional ‘second lead’ serves as another way to add extra detail and depth to the track.
When we return the the A section after the first B section, an organ comes in to the mix which adds some chord stabs on top of the rhythm guitar and serves to build the textural complexity of track throughout this repeat of the A section, without compromising the harmonic or melodic content.
Finally, there is a very subtle pad which appears only in the B sections and the breaks. In the B sections it hits once every two bars. In the breaks it hits with each stroke of the cowbell. In the B sections the pad serves to reinforce the harmony defined by the rhythm guitar and help blend the violin with these chords, whereas in the breaks, it is the primary harmonic voice, and it is only here that the pad is prominent in the mix. This continues to show how Locksmith have created an engaging soundscape by ensuring that different sections of the track are defined by unique timbres.
Blackjack is largely written in a 4/4 time signature at ~138 bpm. The tempo does vary slightly throughout the track, most noticably during the intro: the different parts gradually lock in with each other before the A section lead-in starts, at which point all the parts are synchronised and the tempo is stable. There are slight variations in the tempo between different sections, on the order of 1-2 bpm, which is a result of the natural performance of the musicians and lack of sequencer or other programmed rhythm instruments.
The primary rhythm throughout the track is characterised by the drums – cowbell, hi-hat and kick – and consists of a simple four-to-the-floor rhythm with a hit on each beat of the bar. This is accentuated by the hi-hat on the off-beats. This basis provides a strong foundation for the track which makes it eminently danceable.
Other parts use a variety of syncopation techniques to layer additional rhythm into the track and make it more interesting. The bassline makes extensive use of backbeat, with most of its notes hitting on a backbeat, and the main line actually begins on the ‘and’ of the 4 of the previous bar, starting one eighth note before the first beat of each bar. One note in the bassline is off by a sixteenth note. The rhythm guitar also makes use of backbeat albeit in a more structured way: chords 1 and 3 hit on the backbeat and chords 2 and 4 hit on the beat. This locks one of chords in with the bass, whereas the use of a sixteenth note in the bassline causes a slight anticipatory syncopation on another chord. The lead guitar makes extensive use of sixteenth and eighth notes to provide additional texture and rhythm. This mixture of note onsets is used liberally for the A section violin line and the bongos, and the overall result is a very thick layering of different rhythms which keeps the track interesting to listen to, while still remaining danceable thanks to the simple rhythm from the drums.
Throughout the B section, the rhythm is much simpler as all chords hit on the beat and the violin line contains only two backbeats.
In the C section, the bass is played in a more staccato fashion and only hits on backbeats. Two of the four rhythm guitar chords hit on the beat and the other two are delayed by a sixteenth note.
During the breaks, the drums play a 3:2 polyrhythm on the cowbell and kick respectively, and this lasts for 2 bars of 6/8. As the kick continues the same four-to-the-floor rhythm from the preceeding B section and flows directly into the A section following the break, this preserves the simple danceable rhythm underlying the whole track, with the cowbell adding a syncopated rhythm on top to provide variety and keep us interested.
I identified the chords by first listening to the top, or melody, notes of the rhythm guitar – I find it hard to hear any other notes inside the chords but the upper contour is quite easy to obtain. Once the upper notes are identified, I try to add an extra note below at intervals of fours, major thirds, or minor thirds, listening for consonance or dissonance, in an attempt to spell out the chord. Combined with chord charts for guitar from which we can determine the voicing of chords, I was eventually able to spell out each chord with its voicing. I found this to be great ear training and I’ve used this technique on a few other progressions since with some success.
Blackjack is written in G Dorian. The A section chords for rhythm guitar follow a
i - III - IV - ii7
Gmin - Bb - C - Amin7
The IV and ii chords define the key as Dorian instead of minor or Aeolian as they both contain the natural 6, in this case E.
The B section consists of two chords, D and Bb (III). This D chord is non-diatonic, because in G Dorian we would expect a Dmin for the v. If we examine the melody for the violin, we see the first seven notes of a B minor scale are played over the D, which would make the D a III of B minor. We could also consider this as the VII of E Dorian, representing a modulation by a minor third. Finally we could also model the D as a borrowed chord from G melodic minor – which differs only from G Dorian by raising F to F# – although this does not explain the raising of the Bb to B in the melody.
In the C section, the Gmin and Bb chords from the A section are replaced with the chord a fifth up from them, giving a progression of
Dmin - F - C - Amin7
v - VII - IV - ii7
This creates a progression which sounds similar – as the chord qualities are preserved, and each chord has a common note as the fifth in the A section and the root in the C section – but distinct.
Melodic lines are played on the violin, bass, and lead guitar. What is interesting to note is that despite being in G Dorian, they all avoid the VI (E) which defines the scale as Dorian in contrast to minor. Instead, Dorian is enforced through the harmonic framework, and the bass and violin make extensive – but not exclusive – use of G minor pentatonic. The E only appears in the B minor scale pattern of the violin in the B section.
Considered as a jazz-funk staple, I feel that the most important characteristic of Blackjack – and that which makes it so hard to emulate – is the extensive arrangement with many different syncopated melodies. Except for the breaks, at every other point in the track there is something rhythmically interesting going on with every voice currently in play, and this creates a full and rich soundscape which we can get lost in. This rich rhythmic space is underpinned by a strong, simple, four-to-the-floor rhythm which makes the tune perfect for dancing to as well as for listening.
Melodically and harmonically, the use of Dorian is not unusual for this type of music, and the simple chord qualities – there is only a single seventh chord in the whole track, as far as I can tell! – show that extended chords like dominant ninths are not necessary to make something which sounds funky, indeed the heart of funk is rhythm.
In future I intend to analyse more jazz-funk tunes, and it will be interesting to compare and contrast these with Blackjack.