Who is this article for?
Anyone can read this article but it’s aimed at younger players, or those considering going out and getting a band for the first time. It may also apply to bedroom heroes who’ve never been interested in getting a band, but are interested in the lessons that you can learn from it. I’m going to talk about what the reality of being in a band was for me and how it affected me as a musician. I’m writing the article about my personal experiences, not because they are necessarily the best or for self promotion (I’m not gigging much anymore) but because I don’t have anyone else’s experiences to draw on.
The hope is that for anyone who hasn’t considered these things yet, you can go back to your band with some ideas to develop, or learn a little more.
You learn that people aren’t there to be your backing group.
Being self -entered is engineered into being a guitarist starting out. You sit at home and you learn songs and as you play more and more you focus on the guitar and it’s very easy to forget that the other parts in a song have been written specifically to work with the other parts. You focus on the guitar and forget that the bass line is really interesting or that the drum parts in a certain section have been designed to change the dynamic of the song.
Without meaning to, it’s very easy as a guitarist to forget that other musicians contribute to a song. We work hard at our skill and we design parts for songs that we like, but never forget that the rest of the band are probably just as hard at work as you are.
To make sure we were absolutely tight before some big shows we played back in May my old band took each song and played the individual parts with the drummer to make sure everything was lining up properly. When the bassist played with the drummer and the two guitarists sat back, we were very surprised at what we heard. We had heard the bass track a million times before, but we’d always been so focused on our own parts that we hadn’t understood just how important he’d been to the sound. In sections where we were just playing a basic riff for the verse, he had been harmonizing every other line without us realizing, he’d been playing extended runs during the solo and every drum build up was carefully coordinated with the bassist to make sure it had the maximum effect.
We had never realized that the bassist had been playing such interesting lines, simply because we’d been focusing on getting out parts right. We always presumed that since we wrote the song, we knew how it should be played, but sitting down and hearing the separate parts gave us some serious food for thought because he taught us a lesson that we didn’t realize we needed. Guitar really isn’t the most important instrument, and you can’t write songs to have four different good sounding parts. Every instrument is as important to the band as any other, and you have to listen to what the other players are doing to make sure you’re all playing with the right idea.
You learn to count
Part of the problem with backing track syndrome, where you learn songs to a backing track, is that you tend to forget to learn to count. Over the years I’ve been in bands though, this seems to be one of the most important skills I have ever learnt.
While counting beats and bars while playing can be difficult when playing more complex riffs, especially things that are offbeat or in an unusual time signature, it is a very important skill to learn and there are three major reasons for this.
1. If you’re taking cues from someone and they forget to give that cue, whether it be a lick only played on the fourth bar of a riff or a certain vocal line, it will put you out if you don’t know where you are in the song. If you don’t count then at times you will miss changes, just because someone has randomly forgot a lyric, or because someone has had a brain fart. Counting will keep you tight.
2. When recording, you’re probably going to be playing to a drum track, and/ or a drum and bass track. If you don’t consciously know that the verse is 4 bars long and the chorus is 3 bars the first time and 5 bars the second time, then you’re going to struggle to play without cues.
3. If you don’t count then you don’t know the structure of a song. I’m sure everyone with some experience of being in a band that has played a cover will understand this; everyone goes away and learns the parts to a cover song with a simple verse, pre chorus, chorus structure, you practice it to the track, you’re great but when you get into band practice the song just isn’t coming together. Why? You haven’t usually learnt it. The worst mistake I find in most new bands I get together is that people will turn up having learnt the riffs, but they won’t have any idea when the changes are and rather than learning in practice they start taking cues. It’s a bad habit and it leads to being less tight as a band that you should be.
Volume is a strange mistress
One of the strangest issues I ever came across as a working musician was the issue of volume. In my first band, I had some money to myself and as a present and because I’d need the volume I went out and bought myself a JCM 800 2x12. It was a 50 watt monster, loud as just about anything I’d ever heard and big enough to fill a room. Now this amp posed a situation that a lot of guitarists find themselves in. How loud in your band does an amp need to be?
Here’s the situation. You go to a gig, you sound check and you turn up loud because you want to hit the back of the room, it’s surprisingly big and you want everyone to hear your parts after all. The other guitarist though has thought the same thing and on stage you can’t hear yourself so you turn up. Now the bassist can’t hear himself, so he turns up. Now no-one can hear the drums so you have to start micing the drums. Now everything is insanely loud and the people on the front row can’t actually hear anything and the soundman is having a hell of a time trying to get levels.
What’s wrong with this situation?
You turned up. While rock n roll was always meant to be about everything on 10, you will hear far better if you turn your amps down. The fact is that in a room with a PA, the job of the amp is very rarely to fill the venue. You don’t take a million speaker stacks to fill Madison square garden, you take enough amps to hear yourself on stage and then the PA does the rest. You will not get a good sound in a larger venue by just turning your amp to full, you will deafen everyone, you won’t be able to hear what the drums are doing do you’ll be out of time and no-one will actually be able to hear what you’re doing.
What do we do then? Here’s a few tips.
Get an amp that sounds good to you at a volume you’re going to use it at, you want to be heard above the level of your drummer, but you don’t need much more than that.
On stage, try and use the lowest volume you can where it’s still possible to hear each other, then work with the soundman and turn up if needed to. Don’t start at the top because you’ll just create issues that don’t need to be there.
Learn what you really need. It’s a complex issue, but double the wattage does not mean double the volume, in fact the difference is often minimal. Find out exactly what you need to get the sound you need. You may need a stack, or you may only need a simple 1x12, but it is not always necessary to use the biggest amp in the world. Buy what sounds right to you at the volume you will be playing it at.
Thing is, playing live is still an imperfect art. PA’s aren’t always up to the job, you’re too quiet, you’re too loud, the crowd are not in the mood yet, the crowd are too drunk to pay attention and appreciate your minor seventh sweeping pattern. . . there’s lots of things that affect how well your songs will go down, but one of my most interesting personal discoveries was in technicality of writing songs.
As a limited player I’d always believed that an interesting song meant writing a really cool interesting riff and then a really bitching solo. While the recordings of these songs sounded great, what we found was that live, with imperfect sound, it was difficult to appreciate the thrust of the song for our audiences. What we discovered people responded too was less formulaic song structures and energy.
The best sets we ever played were those where we were able to hit it with lots of energy and speed. Give enough and people pretty much always have a great time. While individual parts are down to each player, and you have to write a part that you like, it’s a point to consider that often a simpler part will be easier to pick out live and it’s the energy and feel of a riff rather than the overall complexity that will get a crowd going. Most people are not musicians, and even those that are aren’t usually that good. People who spend their life on ultimate guitar are sort of tainted by the fact that everyone they talk to knows some theory, whereas walk into a random bar where music is played and the majority of people won’t have a clue. While
Consider looking at your songs from a view of the energy and the momentum that it carries. Think about your songs not just as you hear them, but as a crowd hears them live.
I hope that anything I’ve written here is something that people are able to take away and apply to their own bands in their own ways, they are things that have become very important to who I am as a musician and they were all tips that though they seem obvious sometimes simply never occurred to me until they were mentioned. There are a million more lessons to learn and they will all vary based on who you are, but whoever you are I would encourage you to get a band even if it’s terrible. Even the worst bands teach interesting lessons.
If you hate the article enough to complain to me personally then feel free to visit my website at www.coben.weebly.com or my blog www.cobenb.blogspot.com and leave hate filled rants.