Essentials for the Successful Band

Here are some tighten-up and presentation tips I wish someone had pointed out to me when I was starting out! What is important and what isn’t? How can you identify and fix problem areas? How can you “grow” your sound? What gear do you have lying around that can be re-tasked to help you in this effort? Who and what are you anyway??

Alas, any list is finite. Horns and keys are oh-so tasty too, but we deal here with the foundation, the three legged stool, Bass and Drums, with you on guitar, acting as chief. Three points determine a plane and adding all the tenets in this list will have a compound effect on your fortunes. Each component is a force multiplier of the other.

Guitar Noise is a site for guitarists, and therefore this piece is appropriate reading. That’s because a guitarist is often looked to for direction in a band setting. Guitar is polyphonic, meaning it occupies chordal space as well as monophonic (single note not chords) stuff. He who is polyphonic often takes charge. Study these principles and you will be confident and eager to step up to the plate and take a bandleader’s role.

Before we dive in, it should be noted that some bands, established or nascent, are so esoteric or unconventional that they probably fall outside the scope of this piece. After all, music, in its broadest definition, is organized noise and that can cover some pretty far-out sounds. So this piece skews towards the conventional, and would therefore cover 90% of the bands I’ve ever seen, and 100% of the bands I’ve ever toured with. And my credits run the spectrum from bands like Hall & Oates and the Cars- to acts like the Clash and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Throw in Blackmore and Travers. That covers some considerable ground in terms of sound. I’m a talkative person by nature, and I elicited a lot of tips along that winding road. My thanks go out especially to the all sound crews we worked and partied with. If you hang with these folks they inevitably recount a blow by blow account of everything that transpired on the stage that night. Kudos to these unsung heroes and fountains of onstage truth.

But we need a framework or perspective, a yardstick, a rational grading system to get started. So I’ll take the liberty of listing each element of presentation according to its relative importance in establishing a successful sound and presence. This should help you establish priorities, and help you avoid the blind alleys that sideline so many bands at the outset.

Metric Foundation and Basics of the Beat

What is it that makes them dance? More to the point, what is it exactly that makes them stop? For my money, a band should be able to pound out a 2 chord groove for 5 minutes straight and if you don’t drive the audience into a frenzy or trance, you have work to do. When the people stop dancing it’s because you’ve violated their collective headspace somehow. Your crime? Possibly bad notes but likelier bad beats or grooves. It’s not all the drummer’s responsibility, either. All must flow together in a benign synch.

Studying and playing with native bands all over the world has taught me at least one thing:

You are participating in the world’s second oldest profession; providing a convocational call to groupthink in an ad-hoc community, a.k.a., your audience. It’s a truly ancient calling and by appearing onstage you implicitly accept the responsibility of successfully bonding your audience. Every audience member knows on a core, if unconscious anthropological level, whether you are succeeding or not. The beat is the glue absent which all is for naught. Don’t let your tribe give up on its Chieftain (that’s you). Start a party with the beat, and give “˜em what they crave.

Your Mission:

There are a number of programs like “Band- in- a- Box” and Apple’s “Garage Band “that will generate a metrically perfect track. You can argue that the generated track is sterile and robotic, but that’s not why we use it. It seems robotic because it hits beats dead center, so it acts as a sort of objective “referee”. Additionally there are “jam tracks” galore on the internet. And most of them are generated using software programs like those above.

Fire one of these programs up, select your beat or genre, and plug in the chords- it’s an indispensible band training aid. If a band member cannot play to this generated track, or is inordinately uncomfortable doing so, you have a problem, and it’s a serious one. Every band member must walk the fire! Look for the ability of a player to stay in the pocket- correct notes are only half of what you should observe. Don’t get distracted by mistakes a player makes to the point that you fail to notice he’s really locked into the groove. Mistakes in notes are much easier to fix than rhythm glitches. A metronome, click-track, or drum machine can suffice if you do not have access to software tools. But I’ve seen otherwise good players run afoul of metronomes before, because metronomes lack musical context.

Make a game of starting a drum machine with a player locked into its rhythm and then fading the drum audio for a few seconds as the player continues. Bring the drum audio back up and see if the player is still in time! How long can you go absent the drum audio and still be in time? The prominent neuroscientist and Author of Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot, Richard Restak contends that drills that hone your unaided sense of the passage of time is nourishing to the human brain in any case, so dig in and get smarter. (See “Recording and Original Music” below for a slick trick to get your members to embrace this competence evaluation.)

Pairing any two band members and soloing their parts together should sound coherent. This practice also exposes weak spots in your music and makes them easier to diagnose and repair.

As you pair members and solo their parts, you will encounter sections of the piece that sound strong this way. Consider replicating this in your show from time to time-soloing a tight groove packet elicits hoots of approval from your audience and adds dynamics to your presentation.

Listen (and watch) the bass and drums for simulpulse, or the ability to strike in perfect unison at key points. Can they do it? Can you do it? Some entire music genres are built on the foundation of a bassist striking in unison with the bass drum. This has the effect of pushing the beat out into the audience, and they respond tribally.

Drummers lacking fundamentals sound as if they are overplaying when they get busy. If your drummer’s fills could reasonably be replaced by someone overhead dumping golf balls onto the drumkit, it portends disaster, even if they return accurately to the beat after the fill, but don’t hold your breath on that one; they won’t. Nothing saps creative energy in a band quite like this trait. The real novice bands, the complete beginners, are stopped cold by this and frequently give up entirely. The drummer for AC/DC rarely plays fills at all, just keeps atomic clock-quality time. In the end, remember that some drummers just get a bit lazy and sometimes need a gentle reminder that crispness and accuracy are required components of their art form. Tempo up, tempo down is bad for the tribe, bad for the chief.

Harmony and Vocals

Many successful groups use vocal harmony only sparingly, some, not at all. But harmony has a controversially high value in our hierarchy because great vocal harmony may be the surest single indicator of success in popular music. NOBODY ever went broke because of great vocal harmony. Vocal Harmony can be thought of in concert with, or independent of, a lead voice. A great lead singer may not be the greatest harmony singer. A great harmony singer can sometimes be found among those who don’t even consider themselves able to sing at all! You have to find out! And most bands never get to the stage where they effectively do find out, because they derail their own train before they can make an informed judgment. Sorting through this is something of a minefield and prone to detonation. True, voice is just another instrument, but one more intrinsically tempermental in a live fire situation.

Your Mission:

Follow this protocol: Start with a tune you can all agree on. Start out unplugged. Obviously, you need some basis for determining who sings high, who sings low-that much you discern using common sense. Intonation, or accuracy in pitch, is crucial and is priority one. If need be, work out each part monophonically and get each singer to memorize his part separately, perhaps at home if jitters set in. Sit in a circle so each singer can see the other’s mouth move. This is an invaluable timing cue-you quickly develop a sense of how long to hold a note before cutoff, and other neat things.

If it starts to sound good, start plugging in, add electric instruments, and move to the PA system. Be careful though…as soon as drums kick in some will lose it. That’s okay, but you now need to troubleshoot the situation. Some singers cannot hear themselves, and need monitors. Others, dependent upon type, cannot hear themselves, and when they do hear themselves through monitors, it gets worse- a sort of monitor dyslexia. Decision time. Take the latter’s monitor away, and record what you’re doing. If you are lucky, his voice may now be on pitch because the singer can process pitch through sensation. If not you’re out of luck but at least you know. Sideline that singer for now. It’s possible he will perform better dependent upon venue-one in which he can hear himself in the house. Try to keep your volume at as low a level as you can-a level commensurate to the decibels put out by unmic’ed drums. You may even consider those Plexiglas drum baffles-groups that use them have an uncanny tendency to sing great harmonies, and that should tell you something.

The perceived quality of the lead voice is often subjective, eye of the beholder. But a few basics are paramount. Pitch or intonation problems can be addressed using steps like those chronicled above. Is the lead voice singing tones or shouting words? Sometimes, you only have to gently prod the singer to pay attention to his/her instrument.

I saw a band recently where the lead singer did not have the vocal range to hit the higher notes, even whilst straining which is bad enough, so he just goosed-the-walrus to a half-step below the correct note and it was literally unbearable. Otherwise, a good band. Ruined. Do not allow this, not ever! Do what you have to do, if the tune sounds flabby in a lower key, or is awkward to play, dump it. But bear in mind these days, guitars are often de-tuned rather low for a menacing ambience. The rule: if it sounds good it is good.

Original Music and Recording

I believe every band should be open to auditioning original songs from its members. We all know the big bucks are found in the arena of original music. But writing is tough, prone to deep pitfalls with poison pungi sticks at the bottom, and K.I.S.S. rules if you are just getting started compositionally. Obviously, some people are naturals, but for the most part it takes years to develop this craft and most beginners are like a dog that looks in the mirror and can’t identify that what it sees is in fact, a dog. This is because all their writing skews towards internally derived tolerances and specs that are far from objective songwriting criteria. This breeds a confidence that is not necessarily grounded in objective truth; this truth is wholly subjective and therefore prone to error. Example: A novice doesn’t know the optimal place to put a seventh chord. What they DO know is A Place to put a seventh chord, so they just do that, and are contented

It is wise practice to record your covers as well, but it makes less sense to multitrack this. You are presumably not releasing an album of covers!

Your Mission:

Remember, some people are naturals at composition; your job is to spot the gift and augment it if you are lucky enough to find it. Keep in mind the disconnect of self-evaluation. Try using open tunings to write a verse but not the chorus or chorus but not the verse. That should help you achieve some separation. Also use chord substitutions to “sweeten” things by keeping a chart of subs you like on hand, particularly if you want to stay modern in you compositional style.

The price of a decent recording has collapsed with those little digital studios. So never fail to multitrack record all originals. It’s the University-in-a-box where you study your songs. With today’s equipment there is no excuse not to do it, and it throws defects- and strong points- of a tune into sharp relief. These days you need to become your own Producer/Engineer if for no other reason than your competition is becoming exactly that.

After jamming in your rehearsal space you may say of the recording process: “It all sounds so sparse and sterile.” Common enough reaction. And likely accurate. You have to do what you can to make the sterility sound good by developing the talent to do so.

Begin your early recordings with a drum machine. You can overdub the drums later, and thus evaluate whether the drummer is any good. Ditto the bass player. This gambit is the testing ground your members are most likely to gravitate around, thus answering the question: “Can my bandmates actually function in an ensemble setting?”

If progress recording a song seems to come easily, that’s a better sign than you may realize.

Still, leave room for a wild track where you play anything that comes to mind without limitation of rules. You will likely stumble across a benign accident that sends shivers up your spine. Shivers up your spine is good! Truth is, these accidents are one source of where hits come from. Now figure out the theoretical derivation of this accidental idea.

Sure, multitrack recording in the live band context is a sideline to your live presentation. Yet running for broke overdubbing parts can also give birth to new arrangements you can pull off live. Run different mixes of your songs and if you have friends whose opinions you value, test the mixes with them. The part you think is indispensible may appear only on an un-preferred track in your “focus group”, while the goofy cowbell you put in a mix as an afterthought may leave them inexplicably giddy, and wanting to spread the joy. That which is contagious is unpredictable.

You may concoct a great groove on a rhythm track, but now the “metric” (where the beats and accents fall in the lyric in tandem with the melody, as overlaid upon the rhythm track) fails to get you off anymore. This is a common problem; content of the lyrics and melody don’t seem to fit as well as you thought due to subtle, incremental changes in the nature of the track.

To cure this, think adaptability. Take your lyrics and use them only as a guidepost, then experiment with meter and melody over the rhythm track. Or develop a melodic guitar part that takes the place of the suspect melody as sung. Next, using your lyrics as a skeletal guide, vamp a new vocal line as suggested by the guitar line.

In the end, a common fault that can waste years of effort is that the author has preconceived too much; the song does not flow organically within the hotspots of the band. Van Halen is but one example of the school of proactively writing songs as a group, and as they play. This is an oft-overlooked and effective writing formula.

Technique, Theory, Virtuosity

Some bands are principally known for their technical virtuosity. I roughly divide virtuosity into two categories: athletic ability (speed, dexterity, multiplicity and complexity of chops) and aesthetic ability (understanding of musical context and movement). First you have to ask yourself 1) if a piece or passage is athletically difficult, can you play it? If you can play it reliably, you rise up the pecking order among your fellow musicians and 2) Aesthetically if you can in fact execute the notes; do you understand the world from which the notes derive? Understanding of a song or passage’s theory patrimony is a plus as well.

There is no doubt that guitar is trending towards greater speed and complexity of chops. Viewed clinically, chops only a handful of players could do 30 years ago are becoming relatively speaking, commonplace. If you go into a music store and can filter through the Chinese guitar torture you can usually discern a measure of speed and complexity that was not there in the sixties or seventies. It’s a moving target. The bar is raised higher than ever and climbing.

I also detect a corresponding upsurge in interest towards music theory in the land. You have to realize judicious and tasty use of theory too, is a mark of the virtuoso. And the best practitioners of the art can make simplicity itself sparkle.

Your Mission:

You have to realize that for better or worse, “˜virtuosity” does not necessarily translate to commercial success. But it’s something to aspire to as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of other attributes. Dominating, flashy picking can excite an audience if you know when to lay back, and bore an audience if you don’t. It’s healthy for a player to push the envelope and explore, but a band needs compromises to the greater good, too. Some players are natural “stretchers”. They like to play what they don’t necessarily “know” for the thrill of exploration. Others play at a high level yet know everything they are going to do in advance. It’s nice to strive for a happy medium.

An overplaying bass player can ruin your sound with 4 strings in 5 seconds. Bassists are born not made, and their virtuosity is best displayed on a primal level…in my humble opinion it’s the instrument where absence of theory basics hurts most, not least.

Let every dog have his day-give the bass player some pre-selected fills to accentuate change-ups, but keep him solid and throbbing everywhere else. A solid foundation may entail sustaining and clipping the notes played according to precise counting of beats. I.e., do you staccato a quarter note with a resounding pop or sustain the note for its entire duration for a syrupy sound? The bass playing cavaliers pay no attention to this stuff and sound suffers.

The High Zen Plateau is realized via the ability to use various techniques to create different parts because it’s the best technique for that part in that specific song. There are ten ways to strike a note or series of notes. Which is best? Actually seeing this in action is very rare, yet insight along that guideline sends shivers down the collective spine of an audience. There are technique foundations that should be a small but regular (and regulated) part of your practice regimen. This “class” of techniques is too lengthy to evaluate in this column, but an example: The elusive “independent thumb” for fingerpicking does not come easily; but it can be developed over time, even with just a 1 minute drill each time you practice. It’s not one of those techniques you “force”. Rather, it insinuates itself over time until one day, voila, you’ve got it, and your playing takes off. You should lay the groundwork for adding these techniques later to broaden your horizons and avoid ruts. A varied portfolio of techniques has a compound effect that is far greater than the sum of its parts. So as an investment in future techniques, you need to at least sample every piece of candy in the store.

The virtuoso-like notion of applying rules of music theory to what you may already be playing successfully is hard to pigeonhole with a ranking because it is so seldom pursued comprehensively across all the members of a band. To be sure, a session guitar player will divine which mode is simpatico with a given track but bands in general? They don’t. But even basic understanding of theory is of assistance especially creating your own music because understanding scale and mode optimization leads to better chords and signature riffs. The best music tends to have an underpinning of modality whether the music’s creator consciously or unconsciously applied it.

The process of clarifying your repertoire is a great time to study theory because you apply it in a live fire situation…and that deepens and reinforces understanding of the theory you cover. Learn music theory by applying it to the real world, and better understand why you are playing what you are playing. The fact that you have put many relevant theoretical elements to use without knowing these elements exist to begin with, happen all the time. Don’t just learn music theory in a vacuum with abstractions, put it to use; your enhanced understanding will be its own reward.

If you’re working on a cover, try to identify the scales and modes the original artist may be using. Bands may play a tune and e.g., the bassist plays a note that’s almost right but not exactly the right note, and does it for years. Moreover, I’ve seen bands that actually improve on tunes that they cover by reharmonization.

We’ve alluded to the escalating difficulty of technique required to execute some popular music. This may have the practical effect of putting note-for-note replications of many cover tunes out of reach, practically speaking. The good news is the plethora of tough-to-play tunes is matched by the burgeoning supply of relatively easy ones. You have to strike a balance, making an educated guess as to whether a difficult piece should be included in your repertoire.

Attitude and Image

You may not want to mix the attitude that is your stage persona with the attitude you take towards your required tasks as a band. They are two different sides of the same coin altogether, and should be treated and thought of as separate, and are repeatedly contrasted in this section.

This all begs the question “So what is your band’s collective persona?” And if you don’t have one, how do you get one? The grand paradox: Can your members, for example, cultivate the often commercially rewarded image of sneering and appearing not to care and still show up on time? There is a recent case of a really, I mean really, successful band out there who publically appear disheveled, stoned out, and aggressively anarchist, but behind the scenes runs itself like a Police State and is secretly part of a soft drink conglomerate’s marketing division. Did I mention they are successful? I inform you of this because you are not allowed to know it. Yet it illuminates a valuable insight. What happens onstage is not always reflective of what goes on behind the music.

Your Mission:

These days more likely than not your band members will shy away from developing an onstage image saying. “We need to just be who we are however we happen to show up.” Take care that this attitude is extends only to an image, and is not just another form of arrogance usually accompanied by its sister by-product, typically referred to as “failure”. The world is full of bands who are essentially rebels without applause. Unless of course you are in fact the greatest band in all the land – those guys get a pass. I’ve seen it a million times; a band starts late without realizing the yardstick by which the audience measures its own enjoyment gets longer, making the band (this means you chief) appear “smaller”.

Nobody wants to dress up in revolutionary war costumes like Paul Revere and the Raiders did and jump around onstage anymore. More’s the pity. Because if you had the stones and did so, you would sell out your venue and get noticed. Promoters would only need one sentence to describe you.

At the very least, most rational observers will tell you that your visual image should reflect your lyric content. I’m sure that’s true in many cases. But I also think a band dressed up as cheerleaders singing about cannibals is headed for more commercial and artistic success than a band of cheerleaders singing about cheerleading. This entire subject is so, well, subjective… It’s just not objectively quantifiable. But you still need to take a moment and consider the extremes, and their juxtapositions, and whether you even want to go down this road at all.

Following the path of a contrived persona can be a real trip, and has been known to jumpstart short term success… which has a funny way of turning into dollars and long term success, if you understand the big picture. So you see, there can be a real difference between a” band” and an “act”. If you can pull off both, you’re going to succeed at least at some level, I assure you. So ask yourself: How bad do you want it? Stand outside yourself and think like an entrepreneur because you are.

How many times have you seen big-name acts on TV huddling together backstage just before they go on and performing some type of bonding ritual? They are self-indoctrinating themselves to perform as a unit. Adopt this fundamentalist mentality to your unit. The big acts know they are leaving the safely and anonymity of the cave to the uncertainty of the jungle out there where they slay the beast, in this case, the audience. They exhort each other to greater glories. The drummer and bassist attack the soft underbelly of the Mammoth, whilst the guitarist commands attention distracting and focusing the beast to his deadly endgame. All fuse together as an orchestrated unit or there’s no meat for winter.

In the end, you’ll find that developing a “team” level of primal cohesion is the most emotionally and professionally rewarding encounter you will establish in your lifetime. It will teach you more than you know, and carry over into other avenues in your life experience.

Ruts and Other Intangibles

We all hit ruts. Members lose inspiration, or the song you smoked through yesterday feels oddly flat and intemperate today. This is one example of an “intangible” and forcing the issue through repetition is like trying to force yourself to sleep when you can’t. You need to do something else to distract when this occurs. Another oft-cited intangible is akin to the opposite dynamic, and affects virtuoso performers; they hit their peak performance only after prolonged uninterrupted immersion in their ensemble setting. They do their best work at an after-hours jam after a gig. Recall that we classified one aspect of virtuosity as “athletic”, and so it comes as no surprise that the same complaint is heard among athletes. NFL running backs don’t hit their “zone” until after they’ve carried the ball 20+ times. The entire team gets intangibly rusty in the off season and it’s a yearly, serial problem to get the athletes back into anything resembling that intangible “zone”.

Your Mission:

Try a dose of role playing. If you are a metal band, put on cowboy hats and play your metal tunes country style. You’ll figure out an angle to the song you missed before. So have a few alter-egos to your band entirely. I once worked with a band who realized one of those alter egos was in fact, what the band actually was, and they more or less stuck with the alter ego, with greater success.

Give these alter egos band names that suggest a milieu all members can be on the same page about, a common frame of reference. I suggest this because in your main image, it is common that not all the members actually share the identical vision, and pull at cross-purposes to the better interests of your sound. And this dynamic can fester like an open sore without the band members ever articulating the core dissonance. This ID switcheroo stratagem is a real, authentic “time out”, like boxers going to neutral corners when you are in one of those ruts, and cranky about it.

Watch your hands in a mirror while you play. Whose hands are those, anyway? An often illuminating perspective. Now have you and your bass player and/or (other guitarist if you have one) watch all of your hands in the mirror collectively. Are your hands simpatico? It should look like your hands are nourishing a beat as well as sound like you are carrying a beat.

Even if you cannot read music you can still be on the same page as your bassist. Just go to one of those free scale sites print out an arpeggio set from an extended chord family matching a jam track, or even a simple switched on drum machine, and vamp off the chart together. If you have trouble triangulating the scale chart or it slows you down identifying where to put your fingers, keep at it. If you can go to office depot and enlarge the printout so it’s roughly the same size as your guitar neck. What would a drummer do? He plays the beat with two hands and feet, you play “drums” on guitar with your fretting arm. Hit double stops and chords as if the neck is a drumhead. You’ll get it and have a real blast. Then switch instruments.

Change rehearsal space the acoustical qualities of a room vary dramatically and have a huge impact on how the band itself perceives how a gig is going onstage

Maybe you don’t have enough gigs to get to the point where your “down time” is not so great that it impacts your ability to carry over peak performance to the next gig. Sports psychology can be a more appropriate remedy than any music oriented intervention.

Equipment, Tonality & Timbre

Well, we are reaching the end of our hierarchy and have arrived at the point where too much focus leads to diminishing returns, so I’ll be brief in this section. A band’s “sound” does not principally arise from the brand of instruments they play. Many musicians spend their lives chasing that elusive guitar tone, that perfect snare drum sound in the belief that if only they could acquire that one last piece of gear, it would markedly improve and complete their group’s “sound”. Apart from the basics like guitar with distortion on/off, drums that don’t sound like a clothes dryer full of hunting knives, keyboards that have some modicum of tonal selectivity, i.e., aren’t set to wino retching thru a kazoo type patches, and a bass that takes care of the bottom end and is distinguishable from a Whoopee Cushion, everything else is window dressing. And accessories won’t hide you naked if you can’t keep a beat.

Effects can nevertheless inspire creativity, and impart a fullness or ambience that allows the imagination to project what a track, phrase, or project might sound like once fully realized. A Whammy pedal set to sixths can suggest a new world of voicings for some pizzazz in your orchestrations, for just one example.

Your Mission:

Make sure that your use of echo and reverb don’t turn the band’s sound into an amorphous sonic soup. Effects that sound great when you’re alone practicing in your bedroom can wash out your ability to drive it home in an ensemble setting. This warning would not apply to deliberately “timed” echo settings like those favored by The Edge in U2. Additionally, most name players probably use less distortion than you think they do. If your guitar tone resembles an electric shaver solo, throttle back a bit.

It’s common to see guitar amps onstage that are too big for any known venue in a given town. I’ve never been on a stage that needs more than 80 watts of amp power because the amps are always miked’n monitored anyway. I could not find a way to rationally get my Marshall 100 watt above six anywhere, not even at the Cow Palace. And my hearing is still suspect. (Did you say something?) If you are spending, spend your dollars on quality over power.

Even the less expensive instruments today are surprisingly tweakable. Keep out fret buzz and other common-sense maladies that can be adjusted out.

Above all, don’t let lack of sophisticated sound gear postpone your days of reckoning with the other items above!

A lot to digest, eh? Good use of the protocols above actually streamline your use of time and leave you ahead of the pack. So follow these tips, and your band will sound and appear successful, an unbeatable step on the road to being successful.

COPYRIGHT 2010, George Pittaway, All rights reserved