Don’t play the butter notes!

Herbie Hancock, an American pianist, keyboardist, bandleader, composer and actor, has spoken on many occasions about a moment in his career that changed his entire approach to music. He said he was in a rut, playing the same stuff he had been playing, not feeling like he was creating anything new. Being a jazz pianist at the time, this was a problem.

On the outside, it appeared Herbie was at the top of his musical career. He was on the road with Miles Davis, yet he considered it one of the most depressing times in his life. He said one day Miles leaned into him while they were playing on stage and Herbie thought Miles said, “Don’t play the butter notes.” He began thinking to himself as he continued to play, “What does that mean?” And he started thinking, “What… butter… B… What is butter?” As Herbie contemplated what Miles meant, he began to consider what the obvious notes were in the chords he was playing. The most dominant notes in the chords at his fingertips were the 3rd and 7th notes. He thought to himself, “Oh, maybe if I leave those out.” Herbie points to that moment as completely changing everything for him. He received more applause after his solo than he had heard all week.

In that moment, Herbie found new avenues of musical expression he had never explored by playing the less obvious voicings. He later found out Miles had actually said, “Don’t play the ‘bottom’ notes.” His misunderstanding took him down a path that lead to his greatest musical achievements.

Herbie Hancock is attributed with helping to redefine the role of a jazz rhythm section and was one of the primary architects of the post-bop sound. He went on to win countless awards including 14 Grammys. He still reminds those around him not to make the easiest or most obvious choices, whether in life or music, “Don’t play the butter notes.”

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