Three different posts that have been suggested to me: how to construct an anti-solo, how to layer in a part that adds to the song when there’s already a full stage of instruments playing, and showing how each of the five overdrives tested in the recent Community Shootout, sound in the context of a song. And, as per the usual for me, just general minimalism. That’s what all my posts tend to turn into. Well, that and the band that shall not be mentioned. ;)

But those three things really do fall under the overarching theme of minimalism. As musicians, we tend to use that term loosely; and it is really more of a misnomer. Minimalism, when used in a musical context, does not necessarily mean playing a minimal amount of notes, or a minimal amount of the song, or (heaven forbid) at a minimal volume. (hehe) It simply means playing with a higher regard for the overall musical context of the song, rather than the musical context of your particular instrument. The reason we use the term minimalism, is because in order to play for the musical context of the song, for 99% of us, and for 99% of melodies and sounds that reach people……that means playing less. And for 98% of us……WAY less. And I am definitely included in that percentage!!

So I am going to break down these three categories a bit. And before I begin, let me first apologize to those of you who perhaps may be already thinking that all this is somewhat ‘beneath you.’ That may actually very well be true, and if so, just skip to the part that interests you. :) I just thought this might be of interest or helpful to some, and in no way do I mean to be condescending with this article. Tongue-in-cheek disagreeable, yes…which is why I say things like the POD sucks, Eddie Van Halen played too much, and Hillsong United is just Death Cab and Sigur Ros thrown in a blender. None of those things are entirely or probably even halfway true, but they are the things of which wonderful Dumblesque (yep, I said it) conversations are made. And those conversations are what make us better people. That, and listening to……not gonna say it.

Overdrive Shootout Addendum

Recently, I staged a Community Shootout of five different overdrives lent to the cause by four different folks. You can see that whole post here. And a few folks said that they were curious how each of the drives sounded in a musical context, rather than just isolated. Hence, the first part of each section of this video is related to the different drive tones. They will be, in order:

–Clean (Prairiewood into Matchless HC30, both pickups)
–Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire (bridge pickup)
–Tone Monk Seed of Life (top setting, or what I call ‘vintage’ setting, bridge pickup)
–Analogman King of Tone (12 volts, overdrive setting, neck pickup)
–Paul Cochrane Tim (12 volts, overdrive side only, bridge pickup)
–Analogman King of Tone (12 volts, clean boost setting, both pickups, back one split coil)
–Lovepedal Eternity (bridge pickup)
–Paul Cochrane Tim (12 volts, overdrive side and boost side engaged, bridge pickup)

Each overdrive is in a separate track, recorded individually. Hearing how well or not well each one cuts through the mix is essential to minimalistic playing, as the better a sound cuts through and sits in a mix, the less hacking you have to do, and the less volume you need to have. It always amazes me that a well-tuned 5 watts can sometimes be heard more distinctly than an overgrown mesh of 40 watts. It’s about a focused tone that can both cut through a mix and sit nicely in it. I used each overdrive where I thought it shone the most after hearing what they could do in the original shootout post. That’s in more detail in the next section.

Layering

Layering is huge, and unfortunately, many times overlooked. In most musicians’ minds, you’ve got chords and then you’ve got leads. And that’s it. So, normally, you get an acoustic, an electric, a keyboard, and a bass playing chords, and then 2 electrics and a piano playing leads. Gets real muddy, real quick; not to mention the fact, that no one is really thinking about the through melody the song is naturally calling for, or the vocal melodies. Knowing how to layer properly (or at least how to layer ‘well’…there really isn’t a ‘properly’ in anything artistic) allows the song to be a holistic piece made up of many parts…rather than just, well, made up of many parts. This can be accomplished by finding within the spectrum of octaves what range is not being played, and playing there. Or by figuring out what section of the eq is not being played, and playing there with either pedals, or choice of guitar or amp. It can also be done by trying to hear if the song is calling for any certain understated counter-melody. Or a certain harmonic structure no one has gone to yet. Or if there is an effected texture that could be useful. Maybe a pad, or a spacious delay…a rhythmic trem…a synthy reverb. Or…even not playing at all if you take the time to listen and realize that things seem pretty perfect how they are.

So in this little song piece, I recorded a base layer, and then seven more on top of it. And normally, you don’t usually want eight electric guitar layers. (A little Smashing Pumpkins-ish.) But I wanted to make the point that with a little thought and listening to what’s going on around you, even eight electric guitars at once can be at least passable. Here’s the layers and what was done with each in order to try to separate them in the sonic space, as well as allowing them to sound good together:

–Base Layer

Clean tone, middle pickup setting, so both pickups are selected. This gives it a nice clean and warm tone. One rhythmic delay in quarters at a low/medium mix, and one spacious delay at a low mix. Sets the tone of the song. A lot of times the electric does set the tone in songs that otherwise could sound exactly the same as the song you just played…and the song before that. For this one, I chose a bit of an ’80′s vibe with less chorus. Okay fine, I just ripped off The Cure.

–Layer 2

This layer adds a bigness underneath the base layer. Traditional chords, with a low mix spacious delay, and an overdriven sound on the bride pickup. The easiest one to find in a band setting, but sometimes…the one that no one thinks to play. And it’s usually pretty important.

–Layer 3

Kind of an ambient layer. Couple delays, one being a long swell one, and swelling in on the volume pedal. This is creating a backdrop or a bed for everything else. I went a little more rock-ish in this song, and used a grainy overdrive for its harmonic spreading effect, still on the bridge pickup.

–Layer 4

More of a bass line. Light drive, neck pickup, and the most strumming of all the layers. No delay. But rhythmic strumming just on the 8th notes…nothing too much. Simplicity is the poetry…or, at least…simplicity was the only thing I could think of. ;)

–Layer 5

Starting just a bit to add a melodic element. Still on the chords, but higher parts of them, kind of a mix between rhythm and melody. Not hitting the notes very much at all. Decent low drive, no delay, and back to the bridge pickup for a cutting effect.

–Layer 6

Really going towards melody now. But not creating a new one, just working off of the home key. This layer starts the very important process of masking the chord changes. It sounds weird, but you need a strong harmonic structure……and then you need to try to mask the changes so it doesn’t sound so blocky, but rather sounds like one sound coming through. Our ears are picky. We want both structure and flow. That’s not to say that you can never have an entirely ambient piece or an entirely chordal piece, but this is just in general, and definitely for the purposes of the little song riff here. Dotted quarter delay, and both pickups elected, with the bridge pickup on split coil.

–Layer 7

This is the first of two anti-solo layers. High gain, bridge pickup, a little background untimed delay, single notes mixed with high two note chords. That can be a great structure for anti-solo’s. They’re melodic, but also follow the chords…so you can be sure not to distract. Not useful in all cases, but a very safe and good way to do a ‘solo’ guitar line in a lot of instances.

–Layer 8

Full anti-solo. Dotted quarter rhythmic delay, medium to high gain, bridge pickup, tracing a melody, stringing a melody between chords, and a couple one note singing stuff. Should feel like the natural actualization of the song. Should feel inevitable if you do it right. (And I don’t think I’ve ever done it quite exactly right. hehe)

These are absolutely not the only layers to choose from. But they can be a good start. Mix and match, sure. But most importantly, trying to get what the heart and soul is behind each one of them, and then do that. And the heart and soul is to both structure and inject tasteful interest into a song for the purpose of the song reaching out and pumping people’s hearts for them for maybe just a few minutes of their life.

Anti-Solo Construct

As the name ‘anti-solo’ suggests, it’s really, really broad. Pretty much any time you choose to play something that’s best for the music or song as a whole, rather than ‘that riff you know’ or ‘look what I can do’, I’d argue that it’s an anti-solo. So, each layer could be constructing some type of anti-solo.

Base Layer

This layer really sets the tone for the whole song, so it could be argued that this is the layer most like a solo. It’s just taking the progression of G D Am Em and using chords that have good voice leading so that it sounds like both a song and a group of structured chords at the same time. And by ‘voice leading’, I mean that very few notes are changing in between the chords. And the ones that do, change as little as possible. This is huge for writing parts.

Layer 2

Basic traditional chords. There’s a reason everybody knows the basic chords. Not because they are easy to finger; I mean, if you were to go up to someone who didn’t play guitar, they would probably be able to play the chords in the first layer easier than these traditional chords. Rather, everybody knows them because they work and they sound good. Same progression here, and resisting the urge to do more.

Layer 3

Sort of a mix of the traditional chords, with bass notes that have better voice leading. I was using swells and delay for this one, so I made sure that I used few enough notes to where it did not get muddy, but just filled in. This is one of my favorite ways to add a depth to a song rather than a riff.

Layer 4

Used the same voice leading to make sort of a bass line to give some more structure to the song. Chords would be G(no5) D/F#(no5) A/E(no3) Em(no5). So we’ve got one of the melodies that the chords naturally feel: G F# E E. A great way to add a dimension when everyone’s expecting a solo.

Layer 5

Same chords, but jumping higher and playing very little of them. Almost more traditional in that it highlights the guitar because you’re high up in the register, but still stays with the song very nicely. It will also add nicely underneath vocals, but when you want to do something a little more than chords or ambient stuff.

Layer 6

Harmonic interest. Really it’s just creating some sustaining melodies off the key of G, and letting that start to mask the chord changes and add interest. Technically, it changes the chords to G D Am7sus(add9) Em7, but there isn’t a lot of sense in trying to work out in chords what a sustaining melody is doing. The fact that the last harmonic is so high in the register allows this to work.

Layer 7

First anti-solo. Still staying right with the chords, just using high versions of them and creating new rhythms in the strumming. Sometimes the strumming can set things apart enough so you don’t have to play new notes. With enough parts or instruments underneath you, sometimes these few notes is all the song needs.

Layer 8

Second anti-solo. First 2 measures are a melody that sounds to me as if it was always there within those chords. Anti-solo’s are tough because you want to stand out in order to take the song to the next level, but you also want them to not draw so much attention that the song fades into the background. Basically, you want people to feel that soaring feeling as the song realizes what seems to be a piece of itself; as opposed to the guitar giving the song a dimension that doesn’t seem to have been necessary. ‘Necessary’ is subjective to everyone; but by ‘necessary’, I mean what the song itself naturally takes you to. There are those musical lines that make you feel as if the song would be incomplete without them. Those are good. And then there are those lines where it really detracts from the overall feel and emotion of the song. Those are bad.

Then it builds into the next 4 measures, which takes you back into the chords, but really high and singing, and the changes are masked by passing notes. Then a quick noise/slide into a pedal tone anti-solo. Just using the key as the pedal tone. So a high G turns the chords into G D11 Am7 and Em. It masks the chord changes more, and for a second starts to take on its own life. Then right back into the chords so as not to take away too much, but hitting those chords harder…it’s the high point of the song, so you increase in intensity, but make sure you’re giving the song it’s integrity. And then back to the little melody to close…so hopefully it’s as if that melody was always there.

And finally, here’s the video. After all that text, this is probably going to be a bit of a letdown, but…hey. hehe

(EDIT: Totally forgot to say……obviously, I was not recording those layers live in that video. I recorded each track separately, edited it, and then ran it back later while I video’d myself playing each part as it was introduced, in order to show visually the different voicings and such. Should’ve said that earlier; I wasn’t trying to pretend to be magic…or Phil Keaggy…same difference.)

So there’s the overdrives cutting through a mix, 8 layers of electric guitar, and some anti-solo construction. Obviously, this post was a little bit too in-depth for the small amount of stuff that actually went on in the song. Many times, just use your ears and you won’t have to think through all this stuff. But one, I didn’t know exactly how much explanation folks wanted; and two, it’s not a bad thing to know what’s going on when you hear and play things. In fact, for myself personally, the more I learn, it seems the less I play. Usually, when I play something really fast and technical (and my ‘fast’, by the way, is probably ‘half speed autopilot’ for most of you, hehe), it’s usually because I can’t come up with anything better. So…well…can’t go wrong with pentatonic. ;) So, apologies if this was incredibly boring. If it was, just point and laugh at my biting of my lower lip guitar face in the video. I even made it a point to try not to do that! haha

And lastly…I said I wasn’t going to mention them, but you didn’t really believe me, huh. How dare you. But…uh…you would also be right. I’m gonna let the father of anti-solo’s explain in 2 minutes what just took me like, 2 hours to say:

I’ve posted that before, but I don’t put a limit on how many times you can post gorgeousness.

Play for the good of the overall music. It’s even more important in a humility aspect for those of us trying to play in worship services, but that’s for another post. For now…whether you choose 37 notes or 1 note, choose it for the actualization of the song and music as a whole. Choose it to wrench people’s imaginations of things they didn’t know they remembered. And pour your heart into each note. Unless, of course, those notes are reverse-hand finger-tapped whilst trampling Stevie Ray Vaughn’s ghost with your genius. There is no possible way to pour your heart into that. ;) And somewhere, right now, John Mayer just played a solo that makes that last statement a complete lie. :D

Splendid.
Karl.