If you view yourself as a riff-machine then you will never make anything that is magical. Making riffs is easy. A robot could do that – and if there isn’t already an iPad app for there will be soon enough. It takes a Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Michael McDonald, Darryl Hall, Vangelis… to make musical phrases that mean something.
You are a craftsman. A craftsman makes a chair that is greater than just being four legs and place to drop your bottom. If you intend to make something that is unique then you are, or need to be, a craftsman.
Faster Than The Speed of Light
Let’s firstly get rid of the wrong ideas around being good at your thing:
Speed does make a thing seem better for a while but it doesn’t make it deeper. Matter of fact speed stops depth, there isn’t the time to look around and let your feelings out. That doesn’t make Eddie Van Halen a bad guitarist by any means but note that his most timeless songs aren’t all about speed. It is in the spaces that things can grow. By all means learn to play really fast, but don’t fall for it being your way to people’s hearts. Play it slow and play it right and people will be more able to keep up. Also if you get really good at playing it properly slowly then you can speed up with confidence and style intact.
Volume also sounds impressive. Being the loudest band in town sounds like great press but let me tell you that amplifiers don’t actually have an 11 because there is nothing useful past 10. Initially people perceive louder as better but loud also becomes tiring when there is no other point. There is nothing worse than a musician who insists on hammering as hard as they can all the time. There is no movement in the music so it fades away even as people stand there, as the brain and emotions shut down. If people want/need it louder they can stand closer or wind the knob a bit. An over-loud performance cannot be turned down as there are no dynamics in the first place.
Pseudo-Virtuosity is a con. I know for a decade there the over-singers had people enthralled. People still try it on Idol contests. It is not good musicianship as it is showing off instead of showing the song. The reason why acts like ABBA and the Bee Gees did so well for so long is that they were sparing with the notes. There was little there that didn’t support the song. There is nothing wrong with being the person with the big voice but don’t make the mistake of trying to pretend you have a big voice when you don’t. Have a big heart instead. Here’s an example: Laura Branigan is my favorite of the hysterical singers simple because she never overdid it. She never let her voice get out of control. Matter of fact it is her impressive control that separates her from the later hacks. Laura’s heart is all over her songs. Another example, drag yourself through Burlesque to contrast Christina with Cher. Cher wipes the floor with just the one song (even though her voice may be starting to get tired – but that may be the performance in which case it is even better).
Scales & other Grades don’t mean squat in the real world. Learning how things work is definitely very important but some of the greatest pioneers have not had much, if any, in the way of exposure to buttoned-down school teachers. Avoid them like the plague if you intend to play in Rock. Learn instead from people who play what you want to play. Rock is feel-driven so when you need a new feel the person who can’t model that for you will congratulate you as you play woodenly. Later you will wonder why you can’t get hired to play sideman to someone who is making it. The other way is to get a teacher who is completely outside of your arena so there is no sense of conflict. I leaned most of my practical theory from a Classical musician who barely got what I did. He didn’t try to interfere, just to let me know why things did/didn’t work. Learn what you need, and only when you want or need it.
Do The Do
If you are young then do whatever you can to apprentice as a sideman to someone far more experienced no matter the genre. You will learn more in a year being Engelbert Humperdink’s guitarist then you will from being in 365 garage bands. Let the band-leader teach you how to play. If he wants you to do a thing then do it that way. If you don’t get why then buy him a drink and ask. This is the way that has worked so well for generations and delivered us people like Elton John & Prince.
I assume you are older and/or looking to release something which means sideman is probably out now. So let’s be practical and focus on what you do need to make a track play well. We’ll run though the main instruments with a few pointers:
- Drums – Keith Moon was an impressive drummer but he was also unique. You are not Keith so flailing around will not help anyone, least of all you. Drums are there to highlight the rhythm. Unless you are writing Techno then your drums are not supposed to be louder than the rest of the song. If you are the type to just want to hit the drums really hard, I get that, but it means that as the song builds you have nowhere to go. Play as quietly and simply as you can as you develop the core of the song, then start adding the ghost hits and other flourishes. Now if you are writing Techno then you will need to make sure that while the 909 sample appears to dominate the mix, that the other sounds actually lead it.
- Bass – The poor forgotten guy in the band. Mr Bassman is there to work in with the drums and melodic instruments to underpin both core rhythm and the melodic root of the piece. Turn him off and people notice. Start by simply playing the Root Note of the chords. Then start to embellish. Bass should generally be present in the mix but not dominate unless you happen to work in a bass lead style like Funk. Make sure that if the bass is stepping into a melodic role then other instruments step back.
- Guitars – The guitar has faded a bit since the 80’s & 90’s but it will never leave Rock as it is so versatile. That said we have to break guitars down to three basic streams (some players manage to bridge several at once):
- Rhythmic – Generally speaking strumming is more rhythmic than melodic. Understand this so you don’t make the common busker mistake of thinking that strumming loud and fast will make you sound bigger. It does the opposite (see Volume above). You would be better to play melodically, to Pick. Generally strumming works best with acoustic guitars as with electrics you just get an ungainly gob of sound.
- Riffs – The Riff is the basic building block of popular music. A Riff contains both rhythmic and melodic elements in one repeating pattern. The electric guitar is superb for this. When building a riff don’t forget both aspects as if you only have rhythm then you will make it hard to hum along. That said some styles deliberately do just that.
- Melodic – Melodic guitar work spreads from riffs to screaming solos. There is a huge range here, like having one instrument stand in for a whole orchestra of instruments. If you want your piece to be guitar-led then make sure the guitars move or they will seem to fade out as the track goes and the listener gets bored. Keep them fresh and evolving whilst being true to the core Riff.
- Piano – Piano is about the single most versatile instrument ever built (we’ll get to synths later). I am including the piano offshoots here from Rhodes and Werlis to Clavs and Harpsichords – I’ll even go so far as to suggest a pedal-steel as being in the category. The piano can play everything from a purely rhythmic role to flowing melodic. Don’t make the mistake of burying these instruments as they can add so much value from the subtle to the bold. If you do have some sort of pianoist on-board then they do need to know what they are doing. Poorly conceived piano parts will sound naff. Same goes for the next category…
- Synthesizer – Clearly I love synths. But that doesn’t stop me from hating a lot of what I hear being done with them. If you start to use synth sounds then always ask yourself why? If you think popping a few MS-20 or Nord Lead sounds in your mix will make it modern and cool then please don’t. Gary Numan used synths to create his dystopian records. At the same time Steve Winwood was making a very human record. Same MiniMoog. The synthesizer is an amazing instrument that can range from emulation to creating otherworldly sounds.
- Emulation – The most common reason people grab a keyboard is to be able to play real instruments they can’t otherwise get, everything from organs to strings, drums and saxophones. In these cases treat the instrument as though it were somewhere between real or a piano. Take care though as wooden samples can easily make a mix sound very uninspired. You think you are hearing a string section when your audience are hearing 2 seconds of the same sound over and over and over and over…. At least play the sound as though it was the instrument.
- Otherworldly – This is the true strength of synths; you can use them to make sounds that may be reminiscent of something real-world but at the same time they are not. You create a parallel reality with sounds that can seem like something known but not known at the same time. Also you can create instruments that have no cousin in the real world. Just really watch that you know why you use these sorts of sounds. If you need sounds but don’t know synthesis then hire someone who does before you sound undecided. Analog, Digital, Hardware, Software; they are all good if you know what you are doing.
- Singing – I left this to last because that is probably what you are doing. Big mistake. The voice leads the song as this is what tells the story. Take any classic Country song and remove the voice and suddenly you have not much of anything. The reason I raised Country is that it stayed truer to the roots of singing the song longer than any other genre. The same though applies to the true greats of any genre. If you are into Metal then Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford & Ronnie James Dio are still heroes because they sing. Sure they each have a trick but they really sing the lyrics. Your role as the singer is to deliver the story. So long as you are in-tune and have an even tone then you are good enough to get on with it. The rest is in pacing and feel. Frank Sinatra didn’t really have a great a voice but he was a truly stunning singer as he paced his delivery and had us feel everything. If you think the kids came to hear the loud drums or guitar then you are mistaken. The want the story, they want you to make them feel. Develop as odd a style as you need but never, ever, stop telling the story every time you stand behind the mic. The thing to avoid is trying to sing. You can already sing. If you sound like you are trying to sing then no one can listen to you (see pseudo-virtuosity above). If you happen to sound like a cat being swallowed then you are in good company along with George Jones, Willie Nelson, Richard Clapton, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed… All great singers. Use what you have and let go of the fear. If you were telling me the story of what happened down the pub last night you wouldn’t have fear. Telling me the story of your song is no different. You may go to a studio that sets you up in some horrid way based on some fear of the engineer getting other sounds in spill. Tell him no. If you can only deliver a killer vocal with the mic in your hand as you beat your head against the tiles then it is his job to work it out for you (I’d say gaff the mic to your hand along with the cable).
The single best way to hone your craft is to do it. Perform and watch the audience. If they don’t rise you didn’t get it right so try something different. If they rise then do that again – maybe bigger next time. Make your record and do the same again.