By Linda Taylor
A friend sent me a demo, Americana/Country-ish vibe. Full band but the loudest instrument was the strumming acoustic guitar, which was doubled in the chorus.
As politely as possible I told my friend no one ever, ever needs that much strumming, not even in a vibe like this. Strumming is for house concerts and singer/songwriters when no one else is on stage. Find a nice part and ditch the strumming.
Fast forward to last night’s rehearsal. We’re working down an old Isley Brothers tune, Harvest For The World, which has been given a Latin/Pop twist. In keeping with the original, I’m playing a big constant strumming part, using more complex voicings than we usually associate with acoustic guitar strums. No 8th note has been left behind and I’m using most of the notes.
It works because the acoustic part is the driving force in this arrangement, effectively, the hero. The other instruments take co-starring status. The keyboards go to a cloud cover ambient vibe, supporting the harmony without overtaking. Drums are kick centric, the hi-hat never saying more than 8th notes, again leaving the drive and time-management to the acoustic. Bass is being bass and not being Jaco. Percussion is staying low, congas, leaving the upper mids and highs to the guitar. The vocal is a lilting relaxed melody that easily floats over the strumming acoustic. 3:30 later I make a note to apologise to my friend.
I think of the instrumental elements of a track as characters in a play. You have a hero, strong or weak, it’s their story. Then we have the funny neighbour, the snarky teenager, the nagging mother, loyal dog, the seductress, the grumpy boss. All of these characters are necessary and support the hero’s story no matter how minimal their presence is on the stage. For example, you may have a nasty power chord that comes in for 2 bars, spikes us into the bridge, and never appears again. That’s your grumpy boss. He only had 2 lines but put a charge under our hero’s bum and the story took a turn.
Every element in your track must have an identifiable role. In my Harvest experience, the acoustic was the drive, the shaker, the constant rhythmic chord work. The acoustic on this track is the hero, now everyone needs to fill supporting rolls. The keyboards become the friendly neighbour (always present and in your garage but never doing anything), the drums become the seductor (agreeing with me no matter what I say), bass is the loyal dog (sorry dude), percussion is the snarky teenager (stealing the scene). While these characters aren’t in every scene, they make a big splash when they do.
If you can’t identify the roll of the part, get rid of it. Try this in your next arrangement and let me know what happens with your story.