It goes without question that a majority of players will at some point heavily involve themselves with a group when playing. The joy of music is often celebrated among the company of other players, and a sound is created which one musician alone cannot create. Textures from individual instruments blend and mix themselves to create something new and interesting, and furthermore, the rewards or playing with others can be greater than those of playing solo.
I have spent the past ten years playing in ensembles on all sorts of instruments. Brass, guitars, strings, you name it (so please forgive me for the periodic personal anecdotes). And while all of the ensembles have played drastically different styles of music, the ways you learn to interact with your fellow players are something that transfer to all of your playing experiences. Since this is Ultimate-Guitar.com, this article will simply address band-style groups or ensembles. To the new player, performing in a group can seem a little foreign. To an entire ensemble of new players, the process can be even more difficult without the proper group mentality. In the end, awareness is key and can be the difference between a subpar show and a spectacular performance.
The first step in preparing yourself for group performing is getting yourself in the “group” mentality, or as my past band director said, “learning not to be a hero.” It goes without saying that you won’t be the lone star of the group, so remind yourself of your place. Even if you’re playing a lead line, you’re not the only voice, and the accompanying players will need to be balanced. Furthermore, building a “groove”, if applicable, is the most important aspect of a group performance. An ensemble displaying multiple lead lines and no solid rhythm is just that: a bunch of leads and no rhythm! Keeping the beat, matching tempo, and keeping a solid, steady rhythm is what keeps a performance together and keeps audiences interested. In the event of a musical tear, that “no heroes” rule comes into play. Always work your way back into a groove centralized by a rhythmic instrument such as drums or a rhythm guitar, and don’t outplay the other instruments to attempt to “rescue them” and bring them back in; from an audience standpoint, this sounds unprofessional.
After all players can acknowledge their individual roles in the ensemble, they can begin to work with our second magical word: balance. Generally, an ensemble has a lead section and a rhythmic section. In a jazz group, this is usually the lead winds and the rhythmic counterpart of guitar, bass, piano and drums; in a modern rock setting, this may be a vocalist and lead guitar countered by rhythm guitar, bass, and drum kit. In either setting, there is a distinct cleavage between the rhythm and leads, but it should be a balanced difference. While most players develop a “feel” for it over time, new players can go into the setting prepared by making sure that either their lead lines are not the only audible part, or that their rhythm is complementing and accenting the lead, not overpowering it or dragging it behind.
The second step of playing with a group is building a form of communication. As unusual as it sounds, visual and aural cues can help players stay together, especially when utilized by the rhythm section. As one instrument takes the lead, others can complement with various forms of playing, be it changing dynamics or interesting rhythmic patterns. Let’s throw out a theoretical situation: a lead guitarist is about to take a planned solo. As a band, the collective group would attempt to match the soloist’s feel by complementing his dynamics and matching them. The guitarist may begin his solo at a piano volume; this is an aural clue to the rest of the band which lets the know how his solo will sound. He or she may, however, begin to throw in harder attacks and raised dynamics. This is another aural clue to tell the band to also heighten their dynamics to match the solo. Here’s an example of a visual clue: a drummer begins a four-bar fill. The remaining rhythm section may physically watch him and coordinate their return into the mix by coming in stylistically matching the drummer’s fill. Yes, this seems a bit obvious, but you would be surprised to know how many amateur and professional performers under-utilize visual cues. And while lots of these situations apply to a large ensemble or jazz setting, they can be utilized in rock band settings.
Step three is learning about your bandmates. After playing in a group setting, a good player will begin to learn how his fellow musicians play. From how they solo to how adept they are at keeping the beat, it helps to know their strengths and weaknesses. For example, the people I play with know that I’m a much stronger rhythm player than a soloist, and when I do solo, I usually implement simpler pentatonic runs and fleshed-out melodic lines than note-heavy complex ones. I have my strengths and weaknesses, and when my band mates know them, they can aid me and themselves. I also know that some of my fellow horn players quite often will begin their solos at a medium volume, drop down to piano during the middle, and raise to a forte during the last few bars. By knowing how they play, myself and the other rhythm players can complement their solos with matching dynamics. Getting to know your fellow players is something that can take time, but it’s one of the most important things you can devote yourself to doing. And in the end, it makes playing more fun.
So there’s a little guide to playing in a group. The group dynamic is a complex thing; it takes time to practice, but in the end it can pay off. Thanks for reading.
By Kevin Heiland.