John Fluker sung background vocals for Beyoncé and John Legend and was co- director for ONE VOICE, the GRAMMY award winning gospel choir.
He explains how to use ad-libs, riffs, runs and melismas in a meaningful and tasteful way.
Get inspiration from gospel greats
I think some of the most interesting singers who use melismas today are in the gospel field. I would start with Aretha Franklin who laid out a vocal bible in her Amazing Grace album.
From there you have Natalie Cole who effortlessly sang gospel, jazz, blues and pop all effectively while using unique melismas that characterized each song in a unique way. Natalie’s melismas in “Our Love” are quite different from “Inseparable” for an example.
Of course, there is my favorite, Whitney Houston who was able to balance the sound of R&B, pop and gospel and appeal to the whole world.
Today there is gospel singer Kim Burrell who not only challenges the average ear, but creates her own unique scales to embellish in ways that are unlike any other vocalists!
3 tips to make your riffs and runs more soulful
- Practice your Major and Minor Pentatonic scales. Train your ear to be able to flip between the two scales while singing in the same key. For instance, sing a song in C major and use both C major (C, D, E, G, A) and C minor (C, Eb, F, G, Bb) pentatonic scales.
- Pay attention to the usage of your vibrato and focus on the resonance so it is fiery and soulful like a soul singer you may admire or heard.
- Know your melody and story line so when you embellish people may follow and “get it” because you set it up that way.
Bonus tip: Practice note by note, phrase by phrase. If you can – pluck out the notes/scales on a piano or guitar to emphasize the clarity of the delivery.
Think of embellishing like you season a dish to pass at a gathering. You wouldn’t put so much salt in your dish if you considered various people can’t handle too much salt and the same with sugar.
Know your audience. And if they seem to be a balance of diversity then balance your delivery with minimum salt & sugar.
If you are sacrificing the integrity of the melody then you’re over embellishing and that is distasteful in my opinion. And yes, I’ve been guilty of running down that road (pun intended).
You can lead someone farther and farther out like in jazz but the tether between you and the audience is the melody.
We all can tell when a singer ‘spoils’ a song and takes it way past what an audience can take; Dragging out notes too long, too much repetition…the point was made 5 minutes ago.
Relax – don’t try so hard!
I love to sing songs by gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, but trying to sing every melisma she sings can sound like you’re trying too hard.
I started to vary what I heard, starting on a different note, simplifying scales, and breathing more to let ideas flow more naturally.
Soon I felt more confident because I could sing the message from a new perspective and draw emotionally from my own experience and testimony.
Take your audience on a journey
A vocalist may be feeling good and go off on a tangent using many repetitious notes. In this case, the emotion is driving the vocalist past a safe point into a more daring and exciting territory.
But, “If you believe it, they will believe it.” Then on the other hand, someone who is nervous may use repetition and it falls flat.
Be confident and at ease at all times so your delivery of every note is clean and intentional. Don’t sing over your audience’s heads, take them on the journey
The future of riffing and running
In the future, I hear more chromatics scales and unique scales that are lightning fast, but clear and precise. It may sound jazzier, but ultimately a new category will arise.
People will be able to understand what they are hearing because knowledge will increase.
John Fluker, L.A.-based pianist, composer, vocalist, arranger has performed for the Grammys® to the Nobel Peace Prize to the Michael Jackson Memorial concert. John has backed a roster of heavy hitters including Beyoncé, Dionne Warwick, Oleta Adams, Mavis Staples, Hinton Battle, John Legend, Boyz II Men, David Hasselhoff, Sam Harris, Ron Brown, Regina Belle, and Smooth Jazz saxophonist Michael Lington. Most notably, John has collaborated extensively with the legendary Gladys Knight. A highly sought after vocal coach, John can count among his clients Jennifer Lopez, Roselyn Sanchez, Kim Fields, Mary Hart, Florence La Rue, and Shawn King.