Yo Rockers! Last week I yelled and ranted in a typical Josh style about some of the lousy times I've spent in bands – and why I decided to embark on the path of a solo musician and one-man band. The first installment of this series was the introduction, and the road map. Now we'll start getting into details. Here's a few things to keep in mind: 1. The solo act can replace, or supplement an existing band. Even if you've got a great gig, you can always add another! 2. These articles are certainly not intended to be gospel – simply a sharing of how I did it, and what I've learned along the way. If you invent a better way, do it, and let me know. I'd love to learn about it!
Some of you may remember the article series I did on music theory called The Crusade
. This set could be viewed as the music performance counterpart. It's my hope that you'll find something useful in them, no matter what your playing situation. But enough drivel, soldiers! Let's start the march!
Ahh! The scary reasons we don't fly alone
Speaking from personal experience, and from talking to other guitarists, there are a few “phantoms of the opera” that keep us from getting on stage with a one-person show.
1. “I can't sing!” (I was in this boat, and let me tell you, it's a crowded one!)
2. “What would I play?”
3. “I need drums!”
4. “Who's gonna play the rhythm guitar part while I shred?”
5. “I can't sing!” (Seems like it always comes back to this)
Don't let the ghosties scare you, foo'! Tell 'em to step aside so you can plan your act, 'cause we're gonna tackle the technical and artistic challenges with valor, brilliance, and a loud guitar. Well, at least you are – I'm feeling a little short of these qualities this Monday morning. Ha ha! Anyways, here's a cool to look at performance styles of solo artists – see which one fits your style:
Three levels of instrumentation
1. The Real Deal
This style uses one guitar to get all of the sound, and it's strictly instrumental. It can be jazzy, with walking bass lines and chord melody solos, fingerstyle wizardry, tapping and thumping, or anything else you can imagine. Think Joe Pass, Andy McKee, etc. Often stunning in it's virtuosity, it plays well in musician-friendly venues, talent shows, on the street, and, of course, youtube.
2. The Super Duper Looper
This style uses technology to it's advantage. Loop stations can be a soloist's best friend, and guitar synthesizers add instrumentation previously only available to keyboard players. For those of you unfamiliar with these way cool gizmos, a loop station usually comes in a stomp box format. With the press of a button, it allows the guitarist to play a musical phrase, chord progression, etc, and then have that phrase played back while he or she then layers another phrase on top of that one. One of the simplest and best uses for it is to record a 12-bar blues progression, and then solo over the loop just recorded. Songs with two guitar parts can be played in this manner, and it allows for further creative options. There are some incredible uses for these units. The guitar synthesizer consists of a specialized MIDI pickup installed on the guitar, and a unit that converts the MIDI information into any sound you want, much as a keyboard player changes sounds. I've used a loop station and a guitar synth together for great effect. I can put down bass and keyboard parts, loop them, and then play lead guitar over the song. Drums are even possible, but with the setup I was using (A Roland GR3), they proved difficult. Actually, I think it was my lack of beat, so I can't blame it on the equipment.
This style plays well in the same venues as the previous style.
3. The Dave Matthews/Zack Wiesinger camp
This style is what most people think of when visualizing a solo guitar act. The image of a musician with an acoustic guitar and a story to tell through thoughtful lyrics is an icon in music – but only the tip of the iceberg for our purposes. If you're into playing folk or pop music, this is a fantastic choice. All you need is an acoustic guitar and your voice. It's portable, accepted, and a proven winner. Just ask Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, and the list goes on. (“But Josh!” you say. “Those guys have backing bands!” Yes, but their music stands on it's own without them, too. They could play a set just fine all by themselves. To be fair, there's better examples of pure one-person acts, but I choose these names as most people know them.) What if you're like me, though? You want to play loud electric music, but you're not sure how in a solo format? Imagine how my mind was blown when I saw a fellow named Zack Wiesinger open for Steve Vai a few years ago. Let me pause to ask you a question: How would you open a show for Mr. Vai, the wizard of band playing and mega-shred everywhere? I would have never have even guessed at how effective Zack's style was in presenting something refreshingly contrasting to Steve's style. He came out with a wild haircut and a Fender Strat plugged straight in to a tube amp. No fancy effects rack for him! I don't think he even used a pick. He played, he sang, and he had the whole crowd clapping along to keep the beat. He won us over with just a guitar, mic, and some great music.
The advantage of this format is: People really like to hear words to songs. Regardless of if you're using an acoustic or electric, this style plays well in places the other two styles do, as well as opening up important new niches: Bars, clubs, and places where the focus might not be on how fancy a chord a fellow can invent appreciate this format
A few special considerations here: 1. The two previous styles can certainly be blended in! 2. Since there's no bass or drums, a big sound is desirable. I've had great success with using two guitar amps run in stereo from a rackmount effects processor. A ping-pong delay makes the rig sound much bigger, and fills up the stage nicely. 3. A large sound can often come from the chord voicings used. Dust off some of those 9ths and 11ths! Big chords fill up the stage. If you're using power chords, try the three-fingered variation, where the root note is doubled. Fill up that sonic space – there's no bass to step on with a mega-chord.
4. The Band in a Box
This is where I've ultimately settled – the band in the box! I record backing tracks in my home studio, put them on my iPhone, and get ready to rock! When I show up to the gig, I plug my phone into the PA system, and bingo, I've got my band all set to go. I first saw guys doing this on clinic tours at music stores. Gary Hoey and Michael Angelo Batio are two musicians I've seen using this format. They can shred, the song has distinct parts, and it sounds just like a band. One of the disadvantages of this style is that tracks can quickly sound cold and lifeless. I'm always aware of this when I'm dealing with the songs, and I find that the addition of vocals warms things up nicely. I also love introducing “the band” in my cheesy manner, and yell at “the band” if the tracks don't cue up right away, etc. Many musicians consider this style beneath them, and I did for the longest time. I finally got over my snobbery when I realized that a.) all of the new creative options it opened up for me, b.) most non-musicians don't care, and c.) I can finally sound loud and rock the house! This format is sure to ruffle the feathers of out of work drummers and bass players, but hopefully there's always more screaming girls in the crowd than critical percussionists! It's still a new format for me, but I'm excited with the possibilities, especially with the venues it opens up.
While all four styles can be instrumental, I can't stress enough the fun that vocals add to a show. Not only do people connect with words and voices, but for me, the entertainment value of the show appreciates greatly with vocals added. More venues will be available to the singing guitarist, and bringing a flighty lead singer in to the picture isn't needed. Woohooo! Next we'll see how we can add this most valuable element to our act. Of course, it's not necessary, but again, it's fun, and that's why we're musicians, right?
“But I cannnn't, Josh!” you may whine. Hey man, I couldn't either. Uh oh – I think I just set myself up for a barrage of “you still can't!” So be it! First off, let's try a little experiment: Let's say I'm your friend, and I just recorded a CD. I show up at your front door, and say “DUDE, listen to these tracks!”
The first one is Bob Dylan's “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
The second one is Rod Stewart's “Maggie May”
The third track is Guns 'n Roses “Paradise City”
The fourth is Ozzy Osbourne's “Goodbye to Romance.”
You try not to wince, and kindly tell me that “Uhhh...dude, neat guitar tracks on there” while you aviod talking about the weird vocal takes.
OK, I happen to love those four songs I just mentioned. But if I had heard them before they were famous, I would have some serious misgivings about the vocal quality of the songs. From an opera singer's standpoint, all of those singers are beyond horrible. From a rock fan's view, they're awesome. They do share one important quality: Confidence. Without it, they would tank. With it, they sell millions of records, and bring the artistry of rock music to new heights.
The point I'm making with this experiment is: There's lots of room for different-sounding voices in music, as long as the voice has conviction. So quit whining, and start learning how to sing!
People take lack of vocal training so very personally. A vocal critique can be soul-crushing! It's puzzling, too. Take this, for example. A few years ago, I attempted to play the alto saxophone. The sound was so bad, my brothers literally chased me out of their office where I happened to be playing. If that had happened with singing, I would be a mute. But I can clearly see that I didn't know how to play saxophone, so naturally I sounded awful. Why do we make the distinction, and carry around every nasty thing anyone has said about our vocals, and proclaim that we could never sing as “we can't carry a tune in a bucket”? But if we get chased out because we sound like a dying duck while playing the saxophone, it's no big deal? Preposterous! So quit it, and start singing.
I'm no singing instructor, so I will refer you to – an actual singing instructor! Singing can actually be dangerous. You can damage your voice with improper technique. Trust me, I've hurt myself singing...blues, of all things. Don't push yourself, don't strain, and if it hurts to sing, stop. Immediately.
Here's how I'd suggest getting started in vocalizing:
1. Start singing along to your favorite songs! Avoid AC/DC, “cookie monster” metal, and any screaming. Go gently here, now's not the time to try crazy ranges or yelling.) Singing in the shower or car is a great way to start.
2. Find a good teacher. They work for you, not the other way around. Make sure they seem to know their technique. I've studied with teachers who didn't, and I've hurt myself in the process. I'd recommend starting out with a few lessons just to get basic technique and breathing down.
3. Buy some books! The best one I've found is The Rock 'n Roll Singer's Survival Manual. I've learned more from that book than most of my singing lessons. It's still nice to have a teacher to make sure you're not going to hurt yourself, but then again, many great singers haven't had formal instruction.
4. Sing scales on a keyboard or guitar. I recommend a keyboard, as this is what most voice teachers seem to use. A guitar will work, though. Play a note, and match that pitch with your voice. Play another note, and do the same. Next, move on to playing and singing major scales. I've spent a lot of time and money in vocal lessons just singing scales. You can do this at home, and you'll see improvement quickly. (It also helps with guitar, as it's ear training! ) One trick: make sure you hit the note immediately, and don't slide up or down to the correct pitch. Listen to the note, visualize it in your mind, and then sing it. If you miss, try again, but don't correct the pitch as you're singing. I've been told it's a bad habit to do so.
Realize that your voice doesn't have frets, only muscles that need to be trained. Your guide is your ear, and the training involves the feedback loop between what you're singing, what you're hearing, and how you move everything around. It may seem hopeless at first, but then again, guitar probably did too, right? Just start off slow, don't strain or sing anything too loud, and see what happens. I repeat: I'm no vocal instructor, and this short write up is by no means a substitute for a quality book or teacher on the art of singing. Let this be incitement to educate yourself further. However, don't wait for the book to arrive in the mail to start the journey of singing. Start today!
Singing and playing
This is the ultimate walking-and-chewing gum at the same time puzzle! I've heard many of my students say that there's no way they can play guitar and sing at the same time. I can explain my way out of the conundrum: Say our brain is like a computer. If the guitar part to a song takes up 50% of it's computing power, and the vocal part takes up 51%, we're over the limit, and the song comes screeching to a halt. The solution? Learn one of the parts better! If you get the guitar down to 40% of the “CPU” capacity, the vocals will work, and you'll even have 9% left over for figuring out a soulful lady-killer expression on your face – and that's important!
To ease into combining both parts, I recommend starting off with a fairly simple song where the vocal melody follows the guitar line: Stray Cat Strut is a great tune to learn on. Start by humming the parts, just as the song does in the intro. Once you're more comfortable with it, add words gradually, humming where you can't sing. You'll be rockin' out before you know it!
The main thing is...
Make a commitment to learn to sing. You'll be glad you did. I hid behind the “I'll let my guitar do the talking” excuse for years to the detriment of my career. If I could go back and change something, I would have started singing as I was learning guitar. The disparity of years practice between the two has discouraged me, but I'm working hard at fixing that situation. Err, by practicing, not by building a time machine, that is
We've looked at some of the formats a solo act can exist in (don't be afraid to combine them!), and gone over a very basic pitch for singing (it's an art form, just like guitar, so research it!) We'll continue our journey in the next installment, but until then, start thinking about which one of these solo formats interest you the most. And start singing!
Josh Urban is a solo guitarist and vocalist living near Washington, DC, USA. When he's not attempting to blow up stages with his iPhone backing tracks and brightly colored guitars, he's busy teaching guitar to over thirty students per week, adding zany videos to his youtube channel, or blogging about music. He just released his first “real” EP, Signalman, and is responsible for every single sound on it. Check out his website at www.joshurban.com, and say hello!
Copyright 2010 Josh Urban, all rights reserved.