The Talent Behind Ska

author: lifeguard date: 02/21/2005 category: genres' battles

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Ska. This is the three-letter word that offers nothing but confusion to whoever hasn't heard of it already. I'll explain it the best I can to newcomers: imagine throwing punk, reggae, and a horn section into a blender and hitting frappe. This is a very basic explanation. There are, of course, many bands that care to throw in their own styles or instrumentals. One thing that separates ska from other genres is that there is no set pattern, musically or lyrically. A wide variety of instruments leaves open endless possibilities with song creation. And as for lyrics: ska songs can be about whatever the writer can think of. We all know of the overly stereotypical violent lyrics found in heavier music and ignorant political words used in punk music, but ska has no specific lyrical purpose, at least that I am aware of. Songs range from anecdotal and fast-paced songs, to insightful ballad types. (For my own protection, I want to let everybody know that I am a fan of all above mentioned genres, and used the generalizations to express a point.) Okay, okay, but what about the title? I thought we were gong to discuss about the so-called talent associated with ska bands. Patience, friends and fellow musicians, I will get to that. But first I have to warn everybody that the entire article is not necessarily about guitars. (But what is on UG nowadays anyways, right?) So please spare the comment about this being a guitar website, because I know it is. Everybody here should. So back on tracka major part of the ska music guitar is the up-beats. The upbeats are played on guitar with upstrokes, generally, for that brighter, slightly edgy sound. But there is a problem with that: after playing a few bars of eighth-note up-beats, musicians have a natural tendency to speed up or slow down to catch up to or fall back on the down-beats. Repetitious up-beat rhythms are more difficult to master than many other rhythms. (I say many because I'm sure lots of you out there would be more than eager to name songs that prove me wrong. So don't waste your time, please.) Now I am to a point where I can pretty much just feel my way through the upbeats, but until then fast-tempo up-beats required of me more concentration then I thought would have to go into them. So what does the bass do when the guitar-player is doing their thing? A lot of times, what they play is rather complex. I'm not talking Flea complex, but more than the skank-bass notes to corresponding guitar power chords. Okay, there are power chords in lots of ska, and the bass often does just play the same chord as them, but other than those instances, the bass usually does its own thing, leaving plenty of room for the bass player's creativity and less dependency on guitar players. I would mention something about the drums, because they are very important to the ensemble, but to be honest, I don't know very much about drums at all. What does this look like, I don't think so. All right, and now the moment we have all been waiting for: the horn section. These guys are one of the main things that separate ska musicians from ordinary mortals. For the most part, the talent behind the horns is the same, but since I play the trombone, I will mostly talk about that. The talent behind the horn section is probably the most overlooked and underrated. I began playing trombone when I was eleven. And, like the first time I picked up a guitar, I sucked at first. Everybody does. Unknown to most people, the mouth is a muscle that can be trained and strengthened like any other muscle, and, in my case, takes years to acquire the endurance to play for an extended period of time and scales of three of four octaves. One day gone without practicing my particular instrument causes two or three day's worth of muscle deterioration. This is quite different from the guitar, in which days and maybe weeks gone without practice has much less of an effect on your playing ability. My point is that horn talent takes longer to develop than quick fingers and calluses. Sure, like in guitar, some people learn faster than others do, but the difference with horns is biological as well as musical. With trombone, there is such a thing as too much practice, and over-playing until you have shot lips and a numb face is actually damaging to playing ability. I am not trying at all to take away from the guitar, becasue I love it, but no matter how knowledgeable you are about music, it doesn't matter in ska brass until you have built up the skill you need to play a horn successfully. So next time you hear a saxophone solo, or a trombone chorus, or trumpet harmonies, remember many of them went through more pain and agony than most people ever do learning to play guitar. Long live Ska. Parker Stotts
More lifeguard columns:
+ Story Of A Guitar Poser Junkyard 05/26/2005
+ Writing Your Own Article The Guide To 04/02/2005
+ Hardcore: Culturally And Musically Genres' Battles 03/21/2005
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