The Art Of Instrumentation

author: Backup Guitar date: 03/15/2004 category: music theory tips
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Instrumentation is the process of making your simple riff into a song. If you aren't a schooled musician, then it can be a very challenging task. Adding in bass lines, counter-melodies, solos, and electric lead lines can be a daunting task if you've never had much experience with music ensembles.

Under The Influence...

The first part to creating a more instrumental track is to find a good influence. Just like with songwriting, you have to have something to work off of. Now, if you are an inexperienced songwriter, you want to have simple instrumentation. Now, pay close attention, simple does not mean bad. There is a difference. Have you ever heard Metallica's For Whom The Bell Tolls? I have, and to be honest, the instrumentation is quite simple. However, it is not bad. I enjoy the song, even though I do find it to be lacking in the complexity department. By contrast, one song that I can think of with bad instrumentation is Just Like You by Three Days Grace. I heard about 15 seconds of the song and had to change it to something else, because I just couldn't stand it. Now, when I say this, it goes beyond personal taste, it goes into musical sense. As a practising musician in a large ensemble in varied circumstances - from playing in a small portable to a stadium with 15,000 listeners - I know bad instrumentation when I hear it. So, listen to songs on your playlist. Listen to the instrumentation. Does the drum track vary at all? Is the bass line boring and simple? Do the guitars mix well? A song with bad instrumentation will be boring and you won't want to listen to it, but a song with good instrumentation will grab you and you'll want to listen to it over and over. It's one of those songs that you can keep on listening to, year after year. Think of timeless songs like Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven, or AC/DC's Thunderstruck - even after all these years, many people still enjoy listening to them, me included. Obviously, with bad instrumentation, they wouldn't have gone very far.


To actually get into the songwriting, you have to start with your first riff. If you want more information on the subject of song writing, check out these two articles: 01. Power Of Powerchords, by frigginjerk 02. Getting The First Riff, by Backup Guitar So, assuming you have your first riff written out, you need to add two things to make the instrumental portion of your track - a bass line, and a drum line. These are the mandatory basics of rock music. You are more than free to use a MIDI keyboard and throw in a piano line, orchestral bass track, or other sounds to suit your taste. The most basic of all bass lines is to use the root note. This means that if the guitars are playing a C chord, then the bass would play a bass C note. It's quite simple, and effective for use in jamming. But if all the bass is playing is a perfect copy of the guitar's playing, you're not achieving a higher learning of instrumentation. A good song to listen to, in my opinion, is Times Like These by Foo Fighters. The bass line in that song is simply great. It has plenty of little bass flurries based on a scale that make the song what it is. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is also a great example to learn from. To start making a more complex bass line, examine the chord the guitar is playing. For example, a C chord is as follows: E--0-- B--1-- G--0-- D--2-- A--3-- E----- It contains the notes C, E and G. Now, those are three notes that the bass can play to sound consonant with the guitars. The term consonant simply refers to pleasant sounding. Dissonance would be the opposite - however, consonance and dissonance in modern composing are becoming fused into one, so the term "dissonance" really does rely on personal taste. Now, aside from C, E, and G, the bass player could also play a B flat. Why? Because that note is contained in the C7 chord. Now, that would sound fairly dissonant, because the B flat and C notes are very close in tone. However, when layered with the C chord, it could result in a fairly interesting effect. It never hurts to try. Those four notes are pretty much the only notes the bass player can play without sounding horrible. The two chords C7 and C are pretty much interchangeable, so its easy to play a B flat, but if you wanted to play an F bass note, you would have to alter your C chord so that the notes E - both on the fourth and first string - do not ring. E and F are only one semitone apart, and would sound about as nice as two horribly out of bagpipes. In other words, it would sound terrible. To incorporate that better into songwriting, you could try a quick flurry of bass notes while the guitars play a C chord. If a C chord is simply being held, without any lyrics going on, the bassist could play C, E and G in quick succession to keep the song interesting. If you are a bassist, you should experiment with different licks you can play while limited to a certain scale or key signature. Don't be afraid to speak up and have them incorporated into your groups songs. There's nothing worse than not liking your own group's creations. You have to like what you're doing. Now, try changing the chord. If the guitars are now playing a G5 chord, you are more free to play different notes. The key signatury of G major contains one sharp - F sharp, so try to keep that in mind. The two notes of a G5 chord are G and D - a bass note, a fifth above that, and an octave. The notes you could play with that are G, B, D, C and E, which would all sound fairly consonant, although be careful of C. You can usually escape dissonance by playing C softly, but be careful that you hit your dynamics right if you find a way to work it out. So, while playing a G5 chord, the bassist can switch between four notes, which will all sound pleasing to the ear - G, B and E, and if you feel like having a G7 feel, C. It should go without saying that other notes can be played with a G5 chord, but if you try to play a G and an F sharp together, it goes without saying it will not sound good. If you're interested in learning more about key signatures and intervals, pick up a book of scales (there ought to be some meant for a bassist), or you can read this article.

Drum Lines

There's nothing quite worse than hearing a song and being completely dissapointed with the drum track. When a drummer plays the same loop over and over for a song, and it doesn't stand out at all, it takes away from the whole song. One entire CD that I would reccomend that has an excellent assortment of drum beats that match the music perfectly is Avalanche by Matthew Good. This is merely one suggestion that I'm making, and if you can find another artist that you can draw inspiration from, then I would encourage you to listen to that artist instead. Perhaps the most basic drum beat of all uses only three pieces of hardware - a bass drum, a snare, and a hi hat. Occasionally, you might hear a fill and a cymbal crash. That's no way for a drummer to go about their business. To me, a drumbeat should have two characteristics. The first of them being that the drummer should blend in perfectly with the music, and the second is that it upholds the music. In a song with an acoustic sound introduction, the drums shouldn't be blaring at full volume at the introduction, and in a heavy metal song, you don't hear a light tap every four measures on the hi hat. Neither genre of music would sound like they do if it weren't for the drums. Now, say that a drummer were to use a simple bass-bass-snare (each drum is hit for a quarter note) beat. How can you expand on that simple loop? Well, quite simple. Here are a few tips: - Hit the hi-hat with the snare every other bar - Hit the crash cymbal every four bars - Use "grace" notes between the snare and the bass. I.e., "bass bass snare, sn- bass bass snare" The extra hit of the snare drum does not count for its own beat, but rather takes just a little bit of time out of the beat that would count for the bass drum kick. In addition to that, try holding the ride cymbal softly. This means to use it similar to a tambourine, where the sound is soft, but is sustained indefinitely by lightly tapping on it with your spare drumstick. If you are the drummer, don't be afraid to use different percussion materials. Try using a cowbell, or wooden blocks along with your drumming where it's appropriate. Remember to use appropriate dynamics with the music. It's okay to let out all your aggression and anger while in a heavy metal band, but alternative-acoustic riffing does not require that you break your drumsticks while performing blast beats.

Putting It All Together

When putting your musical piece all together, it needs to flow. Don't be afraid to let the intro drag on for several bars, and never, ever be afraid to experiment with a longer ending. Always pencil down your ideas, either onto a musical staff, or tabs. It's always easy to erase something you don't like, but its not so easy to play something brilliant, and keep it in your head until later. Moments of inspiration can come at very random intervals, so you have to push every aspect of the song until you're entirely happy with it. If there's a rip in your pants, you don't hold your hand over the rip, you have it patched. Your songs are to be treated no differently. Remember that music to you is your mother tongue. An author writes a book, an artist will paint a picture, and you as a musician will write a song. Like an author, include proper grammar and spelling, and submit your song to more experienced songwriters to have it edited and critiqued. The Songwriting And Lyrics forum on this site is a perfect place to tab out or record your songs, and let others hear them. They may have a more critical ear of what's being played than you. After all, you will be biased towards your own work. Never be discouraged when you can't think up a riff or find the proper drumbeat for your song. Just relax, and listen to a song that will give you some inspiration to write up that perfect bass line. Getting impatient is the worst thing you can do. Paul Mccartney wrote his first song at 14. How many Paul Mccartney's have there been in the world? One. As young musicians, getting into songwriting is a big step in the right direction, but you can't expect to get it all perfect, especially with limited equipment and means to record. All you can do is just play whatever comes to mind on guitar, and when you have come up with a good original riff, it will definitely stick out, and you'll play it over and realize you just hit it off. Thanks for reading my article, and I hope anything you've learned serves you well. Peace Out, - Backup Guitar
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