Playing with Other Musicians
This is an interesting subject……because most musicians really, honestly don’t want to play solo……unless there is a band behind them. Know what I mean? For example, few lead guitarists want to be the only person on stage, because then it lacks the depth of the bass, the drive of the drums, and the power of the piano. And you gotta have a vocalist, otherwise you have to carry the melody on your guitar, which means you can’t melt faces as freely. And you gotta have another guitarist, otherwise you have to anchor chords in your solo, which also sucks the fun out of your solo by meaning you actually have to stay within scales and modes (psh….who wants to do that?!).
So you want a band……but unfortunately, once the band is there, now we want to be solo……we want the band behind us only to support our face-melting. And of course that’s a gross generalization, and very few musicians would actually admit that in words (although I have met a few who would, without any shame). But it comes out in little ways. I mean, seriously; keyboardists, that last service, when the recorded song clearly had a synth solo, but the worship leader thought it was an electric guitar, and he gave the solo to the guitarist, yours would have been so much better. No, seriously. Deep down, you know it would have. And I’m the same way……I mean, I love my other guitarist, and he’s great, but really, if I could have played that part, my melody would have been, well……a tad more musical. hehe (I was going to put another winking smiley in right here so that it’s clear that I’m being facetious and making fun of myself, but if you use those things too much, it starts to look…well…a little Justin Timberlake, if you know what I mean.)
(If you didn’t know what I meant, you do now. I know he’s not supposed to be the former N’Sync member that’s ‘alternative’; but seriously…look at that photo.)
Now, I (inexplicably) have the opportunity to play in some really, really amazing worship bands……and none of them seem to be helped at all in their individual amazingness by my presence. But, they tolerate me anyway. There’s another guitarist in two of them named Danny, and he’s incredible. And he and I have really learned how to play off of each other very well……and most of the bands that I play in are very humble, and listen to each other well. I say all of this, so you know that this story is not about anybody who reads this blog. So, if you’re reading this, it’s not you. I was playing with a different worship team a few days ago, of which I’d played with a few of them before, but never the whole team. And the bassist was awesome……a little too awesome, if you know what I mean. Just all over the place. All good stuff, but dear sweet mercy! Let the song breathe a little! So, me being the humble, adapting, accomodating, and sweet-spirited person that I am, proceeded to pretend not to hear what he was doing, and play my normal U2-rip-offs over the chords as if the bassist had been playing straight ‘four-on-the-floor’. And it was pretty chaotic.
Now, luckily, I’m a minimalist anyway, so my guitar-playing is more on the melodic, soundscapey side; so it wasn’t too crazy. And plus, he was definitely a talented bass player. But what I should have done was come into the band going, ‘Ok, what does the music need? The harmonic color is being given by the bass (every blasted second, but no matter), and in order to support the vocal melody, the harmonic structure is what is needed. And then I should have melded some chordal-ness together. But instead, I threw down…..musician style. It was like a wanna-be Johnny Buckland versus Victor Wooten. (And Johnny Buckland is Coldplay’s guitarist, for those of you in the majority of the population who don’t have guitarist-fixations.) But instead of one of us losing, we both slapped each other on the back at the end of the service and lied about how much we liked each others’ playing (no……we worship musicians never do that!); but it’s the congregation, audience, or listeners who become the ones who end up losing, while we proceed with our face-melting throwdown.
(Ya, kinda like this guitar throwdown. Except, we didn’t have a photoshoot for it, and actually think this photo would be good for publicity. Is James Hetfield giving that little guy the ‘A-Okay’ sign?)
Here’s another good one……I’ve actually heard this (and said it myself in my younger years): ‘Can you turn down ‘x instrument’ in my monitor? What we’re playing is clashing.’ ?????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So now, somehow, since we can no longer hear the clashing, it’s magically no longer there! The audience can’t hear it either! Like magic! It sounds stupid, but it happens all the time. We’re up there to hear ourselves sound good……and if that other instrument is clashing with us, we just stop listening. The problem is that unfortunately, the congregation doesn’t have the choice to stop listening. Well, they do, but most (at least if you’re playing in church) are too nice to just walk out. Other venues I’ve played in……ya……you can tell when they choose to stop listening.
So the thing to remember is this……in whatever venue you’re playing in, the audience or congregation or listeners, are only hearing one instrument–the song itself, as it is coming out of the front of house speakers. We’re on stage, and hear different amps, monitor mixes, the drummer pounding his kick drum like it just tried to date his sister, and many times it’s so difficult to realize that all these different sounds are being mixed into, in essence, one sound. So one G chord played in the same register on three different instruments can get muddy quick. And three different instruments all playing their very own unique solo, anti-solo, riff, pad, swell, or whatever, can get downright disgusting in like, 3 seconds. So perhaps…..just perhaps……we should actually talk about parts……even when we know there’s an ‘improvy’ part coming up. Talk about what octaves to hang around to compliment each other, which guitars to play to either off-set each other or meld together, who’s taking the lead, if we both need to lead, or if neither of us lead. What chord inversion are you playing? When are you building? How can I help anchor the chords so your lead passage sounds better? Wait, we have a piano? (Ya, the keyboardists know what I mean. I feel you guys.) This is the stuff that makes great music.
(This is the obituary photo of the late Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen’s former keyboardist. Ya, that guy out of focus, in the bakground. My wife found this online. Notice that even for his obituary photo, they couldn’t find even one picture of him not hidden in the background of the other musicians. So I looked up another obituary, and that one had a closeup of Bruce Springsteen. Yep. Just Bruce. Although he’s still alive. The obituary was for poor Danny Federici. Ah, the life of a keyboardist.)
Listen to your favorite band, and hear the fullness. Now listen to a clip of your last service. Unless there’s people reading this blog from Desperation Band or The Editors (which is quite, quite doubtful), your clip will sound a little less clear. That’s because we listen to our favorite bands, hear the fullness, and then try to replicate that same fullness on our one instrument. Which is great in your bedroom. Get on stage and add 5 other instruments, and that fullness becomes mush.
So maybe just try it……just on one song next time. You don’t even have to be pushy about it. Take the first verse and chorus off, and listen to what the song needs. Then take a look at what everyone else is playing. Then play the part that the song needs that isn’t currently being played. You’ll be surprised, too, by how many times that part that the song needs…that no one else is playing…and that you need to play…is silence.
And for the love of everything that’s good in this world, let’s not have passive-aggressive face-melting battles. Ever. In fact, I am hereby outlawing face-melting altogether. (Oh, and John Mayer is excused from that law.)