For all the deep and abiding love I have for the traditional rock band set-up (singer, two guitars, bass and drums) or any other variation thereof, I’ve long believed that the true value of a song boils down to just how good the acoustic version is. If a song is still awesome and impactful when you remove all the fluff and bring it back to a single guitar/piano and singer, then it’s a genuinely good song. It might sound like a weird distinction, I know, but my years of playing and singing and performing and teaching have taken me through thousands of songs, and when you can’t perform a good solo acoustic version (because you have so many other things going on in the record that you can’t mimic the sound in a satisfying way without at least 4 guys), you know you’ve got a problem.
Now, of course, that isn’t to say that full-band acoustic versions aren’t awesome as well. Obviously, having more people adds harmonies and solos and a generally greater breadth of sound. But I see a bright potential future in which every child is taught to sing and play an instrument as a pivotal part of their schooling from the age of 4. Movies, television and the internet have largely turned us away from active entertainment, (singing, dancing, making music, games/sports, etc.) to passive entertainment, in the which we are merely viewers, not active participants. This is why a lot of popular music has reverted to simplicity and beat. People have become so stagnant in their lives that anything that makes them want to move their body is lauded.
But if you raise up a whole generation of musicians… Nothing teaches collaboration and teamwork like making music together. When you play in a band with others, you all need to be perfectly synced, otherwise the song doesn’t work. It’s very hard to sing and play together and not feel some connection to each other. This is one of the reasons recent attempts at small-group-learning in music classes has been so successful. With all the divisiveness in the world lately, we all need a little more empathy and open-mindedness, and music seems, to me, at least, to be the answer.
And if teaching every child music is indeed the answer, then that revolutionizes our music industry, because actual musicians don’t just want beat, they don’t just want easy, they want meaningful, powerful, moving, they want art. There are a tonne of songs that I never would have really enjoyed as a teenager if I had just heard it on the radio, but because I learned of it through the acoustic versions of other musicians and guitarists, and the song was just so good to sing and play, I learned to love it, even when I thought the original was disappointing.
Now, most bands tend to have a main songwriter, whether or not it’s the lead singer, who will generally write the songs acoustically, and then the band will come together to fill in the song. This can actually be an easy process if they’re all good, creatively-minded musicians, because they’ll jump on the inspiration bandwagon and invent something within the limitations of the song they’ve been given. But what if they’re not? What if they’re decent musicians, but they’re not particularly creative? What if they just want you to tell them exactly what to do and they’ll do it, but can’t come up with their own original guitar solo or bassline or drum-break or whatever?
Or what if you don’t have a band at all? What if you’re just a singer-songwriter trying to do it all yourself, and you’d like to record some demos for self-promotion, but you want to try and fill in your sound, so it’s not just acoustic the whole way through?
I’ve definitely been there. You need to be proficient at more instruments, but the more you know about guitar or piano, and music in general, the easier it is to pick up new instruments quickly. Not to mention, having a more “professional-sounding” demo will generally get you more attention than something acoustic, unless, of course, it’s your thing and you’ve built a YouTube following on acoustic versions. (Also very doable.)
So, today, I really wanted to dig into some professional song-building tips for each of the main instruments you might want to incorporate into your recordings/teach to your back-up band. Because the guitar and piano are the two main harmonic percussive instruments on which songwriters tend to write songs, I’m going to assume that that’s what you’ve started with, and flip back and forth a little between them as I go along.
There are generally two distinct guitar roles in a band. Rhythm guitar and lead guitar. The rhythm guitar will mostly strum or pick/arpeggiate chords, whereas the lead guitar will play riffs, solos, or other arpeggiated patterns, depending on what fits best with the song. Amplification and effects pedals being what they are, there’s almost zero need to ever have two guitars playing the exact same thing. It would be a complete waste of resources.
Most bands will have one, two or even three guitarists. In a one-guitarist band, the guitarist will generally switch between lead and rhythm depending on what is needed more at any given point in the song.
In a two-guitarist band, they will generally split evenly between rhythm and lead, with the better guitarist usually being the lead guitar/soloist, unless of course they also happen to be the lead singer. However, in cases where both guitarists are relatively equally-weighted, they might switch up roles back and forth between songs or even in the middle of songs for the sake of having either dueling or twin guitar solos.
In a three-guitarist band, you tend to have two guitars play lead with a lot of twin riffs and solos, while one does rhythm, although that does vary based upon the needs of the song. When McFly and Busted joined forces to form the supergroup McBusted between 2013 and 2015, they had three proficient guitarists and two great bass-players, and usually divided the parts up as follows: lead guitar, rhythm guitar with open chords, rhythm guitar with power chords, high bass and low bass, with a little bit of switching back-and-forth on riffs and solos to share around the love because each of the guitarists was more than capable.
So, if you’ve written your song on the guitar, you probably just have chords with some strumming or picking and maybe an intro riff to begin with. What you can do right away to start building your song into something larger is to start splitting up guitar parts into rhythm and lead and so on. Does it need to be a single guitar intro riff or can it be broken up into lead, rhythm and even bass? Can I add chords underneath? Can I double it with a harmony line on the repeat? Are the intro chords the same as the verse and/or chorus? If so, can I bring the intro riff in again underneath the singing like in No Doubt’s Hella Good?
Like McBusted, in verses/choruses, you could double the same chords as power chords, bar chords and open chords, to create the effect of multiple guitars, especially if you have the ability to create different audio effects on each. Adding distortion on some guitars and not others, or different types of distortion creates a fuller sound.
Alternatively, 90s pop sensation, Hanson, use a trick in some of their more recent albums in which they have two rhythm guitars playing the same chords, but one is transposed up with a capo on the 3rd or 5th fret so the chords are the same but the inversions are different, creating something akin to a 12-string guitar effect. You can also have one guitar arpeggiate chords, while another strums over the top. Furthermore, you could do like Carlos Santana, and play little lead licks in call-and-answer fashion, playing cat-and-mouse with the singer/vocal melody.
If you can play guitar at any sort of decent level, you can play bass. No disrespect to bass players. Obviously, there are some amazing bass-players out there who can do things you just can’t do on a normal guitar, but any good, reasonably advanced guitarist can play intermediate bass. You don’t need something fancy here, especially if you’re just trying to fill in the sound and not feature the bass in any particular way.
The most important parts of the bass line are first, hitting the bass notes of each chord, and secondly, finding the balance between the core pulse and the rhythmic feel of the song. For instance, if the rhythmic feel of the song accents the offbeats of the third and fourth beat of the bar, you might want a solid downbeat on the first beat of each bar with two more on those same offbeat accents before the chord change. You might throw in a fifth or a third every now and then but only to jump back to the tonic/bass note of the chord or use as a leading note to the next chord.
It also wouldn’t take much for you to learn a few different bass lines in different genres just to see firsthand how they function. Mark Hoppus (best known from Blink 182) notably played two-string chords on his bass in a number of songs, creating a really interesting, ear-catching effect. As they were a three-piece band with just a single guitarist however, his bass-playing formed a more central function within the band’s sound, and was essentially mimicking a rhythm guitarist in those moments.
The piano can be really powerful when used correctly. It has, all by itself, a larger range than a 24-fret guitar and 6-string bass put together. Because a piano uses little hammers to strike the strings, it creates a rather different sound than the plucked or strummed guitar. It is therefore useful for adding both tonal flavor and greater breadth of pitch to your overall sound. You can play blocks chords, arpeggios, bass lines, riffs and solos on a piano, not to mention specific piano effects like glissandi, but you can’t effectively mimic the strumming of a guitar, and they’re obviously far less easily portable. This is why you see guitar bands without pianists, but almost never see bands with multiple pianists and no guitarists.
If you’re adding piano to your guitar song, it’s probably most effective if you focus on using it in ways that you can’t do better with a guitar. Coldplay is a good contemporary example of this. The arpeggio-riff from Clocks is easily done in octaves on the piano, creating this very spatial spinning sound, but it could not have been done nearly so effectively on guitars without multiple guitarists. Similarly, in The Scientist, the block chords create a different sort of “trudging along” effect that, again, wouldn’t have been as effective on a guitar. In short, you want to play to the instrument’s strengths.
One of the other ways the piano is chiefly used as filler is with keyboards and synthesizers, almost all of which are based on the piano keyboard. There are literally thousands of effects and sample libraries available, especially on the internet. Many are available for purchase, but there are still many available for free. Such sounds can mimic string-sections, haunted or spacey sounds, strange acoustic effects, you name it.
Drumming steps out of the world of guitars, pianos and bass and into more solely into the world of rhythm. Almost every recording program you can think of has drum kit plug-ins and midi libraries and it’s unbelievably easy to lay down a basic beat to your song without an actual drum kit on hand. Similarly, most drum libraries include a vast range of other percussive sounds like cowbell, triangle, woodblock, clave, washboard and shakers, that can really add a fun, distinct feel to your song.
Remember, the primary purpose of the drum kit is to be the central time-keeping and driving force for the song, solidifying the beat and any important accents for the other instruments to follow. It doesn’t need to be boring, but it certainly doesn’t need to be complicated either.
Last, but certainly not least, if acapella groups and looper pedals have taught us nothing else, it’s that the human voice is one of the most diverse instruments we have at our disposal. Not only can you layer harmonies over your main melody in a recording, but you can use your voice to create other effects, adding depth to your song. I don’t want to go in-depth into how to write harmony lines here, because that’s a big theory discussion and can be saved for another another article another day.
Obviously, there are a lot more instruments, and a lot more effects available in software, but part of the fun of music and collaborating between different instruments is experimenting with different sounds and learning a lot of this stuff as you go along. Hopefully, some of these ideas have at least given you a headstart, but ultimately, it’s up to you expanding yourself as a musician. And the more instruments and songs you learn and analyze, the more you can see a lot of these things yourself.