When playing on a team with multiple instruments one must continually ask the question," Am I playing over someone else's part"? This diagram of the sonic spectrum will help you answer part of that question. As you can see there are several instruments that share a common frequency, which means it can be easy to overcrowd certain frequencies. This also applies to a song's rhythm. Who plays what beats when is as equally important as who plays what notes when. When overcrowding happens in either the frequencies or rhythm of a song it creates a muddy and inarticulate sound. In order to prevent this we must learn to:
- Listen - be sure you can hear yourself AND the other instruments that might be sharing a similar range or rhythmic pattern.
- Communicate - talk to one another so everyone is aware of who is playing what, when.
- Embrace Limitations - learn to paint with only 1 to 2 colors rather than the entire pallet. i.e. This might look like a piano player sitting on their left hand so as to not trip over what the bass guitar is doing. Or a guitar player only play the triad of a chord on the upper frets and strings rather than hitting all of the notes in a chord at once so as to allow room for the piano as well as add dynamics to the song. Or the acoustic guitar not over -playing/-strumming so as to allow room for the drums, bass, or other rhythm instruments to create dynamism. Perhaps it means sitting out until the choruses. What does the song need from me? That is the question we must ask ourselves.
It all comes down to placement - there is literally a limited amount of space on the sonic shelf of notes and rhythm for a given song so everyone simply needs to find an unoccupied space and fill it. Here are some great examples of how this has been done in popular music:
One Healight by The Wallflowers - Notice there are no crash cymbals in the entire song! Rather the electric guitar fills up the space and adds the "crash" on the downbeat of the choruses. Another song that lacks crash cymbals is Kiss by Prince.
Back In Black by AC/DC - Notice how they fill the sonic landscape with only 3 instruments. Everything is in its right place. The bass guitar does not drive, but merely accents and yet the song has a super driven feel to it.
God Only Knows by The Beach Boys - Notice how there are no drums keeping time save the kick drum and when the fuller kit appears late in the song it is only for brief accent fills. The song trucks right along with the need for a snare on the 2 and 4.
Transatlatacism by Death Cab For Cutie - Notice how at the beginning of the song the piano is playing whole notes while the percussive track carries the tempo. When the drums and guitars come in the rhythmic positions change - drums are on the 8th note, piano goes to quarter notes, and the guitars move into the whole note position. The song stays this way with the exception of some additional electric guitar parts (triplets that stand out because they are on the off beats) and really only changes via the dynamics, not the rhythm. Not everyone is pounding the downbeat and yet the songs feel is one of building into an epic pounding. Truly a masterpiece.
When Doves Cry by Prince - notice there is absolutely no bass in the entire song and yet it remained the #1 song in the U.S. for 5 weeks!
drum & bass
Stuart Smart, shared with me some notes he took from a reading of Victor Wooten's book, The Music Lesson. I found them to be very helpful and informative in putting language to what many of us intuitively know, but are perhaps unable to articulate. Stu has tailored these ideas a bit for us at Trinity.
1 - Groove - it's the feel, not the chops; subtleties of being in/on/behind the downbeat; find the groove/pocket before you play fills.
2 - Notes – the actual note/frequency/drum being played and its significance to the overall placement in the song; passing tones/drum fills; never lose the groove in order to find the note. For bassists: don't be afraid of 'finding' the 'right' note: you're never more than a half-step off!
3 - Articulation/Duration - attack + resonance, don't beat the heck out of the drum, or you choke the tone, be happy we don't have plexiglass at trinity!
4 - Technique - to reproduce what you want to play as naturally as possible; wrist movement, elbow, how to hold the stick to maximize rebound; muscle memory!
5 - Emotion/Feel- You're a human, not computer; any music is about conveying emotion, and that is accomplished through your feel.
6 - Dynamics - playing louder is not the best way to get someone's attention, but real emotion has to and can be real when you're not hiding behind loud volume; each song has its own volume, and within songs, there is a build… a suspense; how to guide the rest of the team through tipping your hat at dynamic changes
7 - Rhythm/Tempo - the true pulse of the song is something that you should feel even when the song is over; keeping time, esp in fills; finding the tempo that settles.
8 - Tone - size/shapes/styles of sticks and impact on tone, percussion extras (eg shaker, tambourine); for bass, tone is mostly in the fingers and how you touch the string; the tone is what generates emotion.
9 - Phrasing - repeating the beat, establishing a consistent pattern; variations of phrasing as a component of song dynamics (i.e. more or less busy); for a bass player, phrasing is working around the rhythm.
10 - Space/Rest - the "13th" note, that can speak louder and deeper than any note played; When/what you play is just as important as when/what you don't play, don’t fill it up. Allow room for other musicians; less is more with drums
11 - Listening - How what you play works with what everyone else is doing around you; maintain an awareness: keep your ears open (and maybe your eyes)- be dynamic: play off the bass, and be ready for an unexpected change to the arrangement or feel; always be reading the cues of the leader. The more you listen, the better you can respond…and also better know when to be quiet.