Band Dynamics, Bass, Creativity, Uncategorized

On Bass

About a year ago I hit Craigslist really hard looking for music projects to join. A week later, I was in 4-ish bands. A couple weeks after that, I bought a shortscale bass off one of my friends and I played that in 3 of the bands.

Playing bass is underrated and underutilized in many genres and in many peoples’ minds. In my relatively small experience, the differing role of bass means adjusting to being responsible for a whole different set of song functions.

In fact, there was a band in Tallahassee called BAET that had two bassists for a while. It really added to the fullness and depth of their sound. One bassist would stay in a lower octave while the other would often jump up and add little flourishes and occasionally jump on synths instead.

They were pretty awesome, but going into a new band with that in mind didn’t work out particularly well (they do their own thing and they do it well!). Instead, I learned a few key things about the role of bass in a band and how to make the most of the position:

1. Silence is often just as important as playing

Bass drives. Even in a really chilled out jazz song, it gives a pulse that connects the drums and the ‘lead’ instruments. So on certain repetitions of a section, it can perk listeners’ ears to have the bass drop and remove the vibrations in the chest that tend to put the audience in a groove or trance. This showcases the other instruments and is often very useful when fine-tuning a song’s momentum. (It can also be helpful to drop out when you aren’t quite sure what to play, in a noobie zen kinda way… speaking from personal experience ;D)

2. Bass carries song structure in a big way

When I first started sitting in on bass, I kept trying to be too aggressive with my parts and the song usually fell apart as a result. As a guitarist, I loved being in a position of just sprinkling textures or fast little legato licks over a song that stood on its’ own already. With bass, it is often more important to anchor the harmony with basic root notes, then flesh out more movement once the chords are ‘rooted’. It helps maintain the momentum of the song and can really spice up the chord changes if the progression of the song is a I-IV-V or the like.

3. Bass can inject a new genre very easily

I used to almost never listen specifically to the bass in songs. But certain rhythms at certain times can point to a surprising diversity of musical idioms. Reggae bass is generally quick 8th notes in little groups on only a few notes with strategic spaces in between. Jazz bass is usually walking and touching the color tones. Rock is boring. (sorry rock bassists, couldn’t resist! hehe) Point being, changing the groove can totally flip the genre associations people will have with the song.

4. You really do have to pay attention to the drummer

I like to do my own thing when jamming. Partially because I haven’t practiced enough to keep the harmony, timbre, and feel in my head all at once; but it’s much easier to sit in when you pay attention to what the drums are doing. I remember one of my old bandmates explaining that the bass should mimic the kick drum, if for no other reason than that was how a rock track would be mixed. Recording aside, it makes it easier to pull out a great groovy line while staying in the pocket if you match at least one part of the kit or rhythm. Then it’s just a matter of adding in a subtle counter-rhythm or melody and you’ve got a tasteful bassline coming along nicely.

5. You can spend a lot more time thinking about overall composition

There’s a learning curve for bass if you come at it after playing guitar for a while, but once you get the technique down, you might often find yourself in a position where your fingers can go on autopilot for brief stretches of time. It’s easy to write that off as ‘boring’ but sticking through it can be extremely beneficial. It gives you the (sometimes rare) opportunity to really listen to how everyone’s parts interact in the moment and assuming your band operates like a democracy or meritocracy, you can keep the re-writing process going. Any writer can tell you that re-writing and editing are where most of the work comes in and that is often true of music as well. In other words, if you push yourself to brainstorm and actively listen during practices, you can benefit the composition and the arrangement.

I had been hesitant to play bass in a band because it didn’t seem like as much fun as guitar, and that has been unfounded for the most part. Helping to hold down a great jam is an amazing feeling: you get to watch other people rip it and respond to their changes and all you have to do it keep it smooth! It definitely took a little while to find a good fit with a group and find my footing on the neck, but it always does (at least in my experience). Also, while these little tips are mostly for the bass, the same concepts can apply in a number of different scenarios and lineups.

Thanks for reading!

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Creativity, Music, Songwriting, Theory

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Thinking

Epistemsology is an off-shoot of philosophy dedicated to the study of knowledge (in a nutshell).

I’m not well versed in the field, but I believe that all knowledge can be broken down into two groups, more or less: quantitative (tangible or countable) and qualitative (intangible or abstract).

Music is one of the most interesting places where these two perspectives intermingle. To my mind, it’s perfectly expressed in the great art cliche “You have to learn the rules to break them”.

Music theory is at times a furiously complex endeavor. It is a language, sharing the characteristically large amount of exceptions, dialects, and cliches. I have relatively little experience with theory compared to doing things by ear, but learning theory is a huge benefit to my musicianship that I use literally all the time.

The closest analogue I can think of comes from literary theory, appropriately enough. My first band had two english majors, both incredibly intelligent, insightful people. I had a series of conversations with one of them about ‘constructivism‘, which, in my cursory understanding, seeks to understand the space between a word and its’ many meanings.

You can easily play a m7b5 chord without knowing what it is, just by using your ear. Metaphorically, that means you’re getting at the meaning without the label. Getting at the qualitative truth without the quantitative explanation.

So that’s incredibly abstract, but how is it useful?

Because you know that most people won’t analyze the music theory behind your work. Lots of people acknowledge the transcendent power of songs and the ‘magic’ of music but few appreciate it as a series of choices. Choices guided by music theory.

Theory is often seen as difficult, perhaps too left-brained, but it is ultimately nothing but a tool. It makes writing and learning songs faster and easier and can make communicating with bandmates muuuch easier. But the kicker is knowing when to ignore theory. A word can have many meanings and a note or melody can serve many different purposes. Sometimes a part works for a song even though it makes absolutely no sense theory-wise. Not a super common thing, but you better believe those parts are always killer.

Then there’s the extra layer of meaning: writing a song with lyrics means you are jumping between mediums (English and music) that have wildly different levels of connotative meaning and space-between-meaning-and-label. Getting both ‘languages’ to jive in a way that creates more depth? That’s the good stuff.

So, knowing music theory, even in a basic way, allows you to connect with the traditional framework of understanding music: similar to how knowing English connects you to that shared framework of understanding. A good example would be the comparison between killing off a beloved character at the end of a novel and that thing Adele does all the time that makes people weep. There are just some things that are hard-coded into our brains or society or maybe language itself. Kinda like how the parts of your brain that register pitch are lined up by pitch. I could honestly go on and on about this, so I’ll go ahead and wrap it up now.

Thanks for reading!

 

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Band Dynamics, Creativity

Marathon Practices & Creative Saturation

Trying to make a band “work” is difficult. Schedules conflict, visions diverge, and sometimes no matter how hard you try… it doesn’t click.

This is a multi-disciplinary skill: you have to communicate precisely, consider others’ goals and visions, and keep in mind how to optimally position yourself relative to everyone else in order to make the band work as an organization, as a relationship, and as a brand. (And that leaves out writing your own part, arguably your ‘main’ job!)

This balancing act is draining, even when everyone is doing it.

Now, I come from a background of marathon practices. When I joined my first band, I would get to the singer/songwriter’s parent’s house in the early afternoon, only leaving early the next morning if at all. Of course, we couldn’t physically play and write for 10 hours straight, but we would routinely get in a solid 5 – 7 hours of effort.

I love working on music, but trying to stay open and creative for that long is something that most people can’t do. It’s slippery. It encourages a mindset of ‘lay down a part so there’s something so we can call it finished’. I think it hurt the quality of my contributions to the band.

Ok then, said the devil’s advocate, so how do you organize a disciplined practice that still gets at the optimum creative potential of each member?

In two words? RECORD. EVERYTHING.

Have a short practice, where you only hit a few songs. But you hit them hard.

Have philosophical discussions about the tension and release of each part and what the flow of the song should be.

Respectfully challenge your bandmates to change their part: what if it was half-time? In a different key? Referencing a different genre?

(Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” is at the heart of what I’m getting at here.)

Then practice ends. You part.

And when the mood strikes you, you listen through the recordings. Sometimes in the background. Sometimes in the car. Sometimes as you fall asleep at night.

In other words, you let the song seep into your subconscious without hammering it consciously.

An oblique strategy, wouldn’t you say?

 

 

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Creativity, Live Music, Music, Recording

Garage to Gig

A friend of mine recently published his first ‘zine. Now, I’m relatively unfamiliar with the whole movement and idea, but it seems to boil down to making intentionally localized pamphlets with a strong and unified aesthetic. The aforementioned friend is a huge graphic design and architecture nerd, so it was a real joy to see him put out a very cool collection of his work.

Naturally, this got me thinking about music. I’ve played music with this guy for a couple years now after circling each other in different bands and his ability to put a distinctive touch on a song has always been very inspiring for me. Even though it has been a minute since he released anything in the traditional sense, he has added his flavor to a lot of local projects (mine included).

But what worth does that have in a tangible sense? That was my initial reaction. I’ve fallen for the more commercialized idea of how you should create and share music so hard that there are times when I wonder what new songs are worth unless they’re collected into an album. What are they worth without the hours in front of a DAW? Without the cover art and the release show and all that.

I’m just now getting to the point where ‘everything’ is an acceptable answer. It doesn’t have to be fleshed out. Instead, the lo-fi sketches can spill out, with unsteady legs, mysterious and ethereal: a snapshot of a work in progress handed dignity with a firm grasp.

In coming to appreciate the imperfections in recorded music, I’ve also come to a headspace that allows me to enjoy bands even if I don’t like their genre or image. I do my best to open myself completely to the ideas they are putting forth and I watch the interactions between the band members. I watch their bodies communicate their ebbs and flows into and out of the pristine moment. In this mode of acceptance, I can strive to get straight to the heart of the ethereal live performance, quieting my critical mind.

When it works, when I can let go, it is the meditative and transformative power of music. A subtle difference in perception perhaps, but monumental within the mind and spirit.

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Band Dynamics, Music, Promotion

“Social” Media and Bandwagons

I’m linking to this article in part because I am in a Social Media Management class right now and also because I’m trying to get an idea of how to work around the craziness that is constant communication.

Anyway, the article keeps coming back to the point that the only way to use social media to build authentic success is to create relationships with other people.

And relationships are freaking hard.

But once you put in the effort to start a good relationship with fans and other bands, you are more free to branch out in subject matter and get a really good feel for what kind of people like your music and therefore, how to approach your relationship with them. Everyone gets more comfortable with each other.

This, of course, carries its’ own contradictions because this is music: you do it with other people but its because you love it. So much of the process is (in my case at least) bottled up in your head, that trying to explain why you made a part the way you did comes out “I wanted to do a major-y, kinda lilting thing that, like, call-and-responses the space between your calls”. In other words, basically gibberish unless you have a shared headspace.

And even then, I’ve sat through my share of practices when two people start to tear into one another personally and creatively for half an hour and it hurts me, almost physically. Everyone who plays music to gig and record will come across a few things that become “their baby”. That part that makes a song ‘click’ as a coherent idea, the lyric that makes your heart break a little. The juicy, emotional, gnarly parts of composition and performance that make it all worth it. And each person is giving it their all.

And then your bandmate shuts it down, hard.

That kind of miscommunication and mis-alignment of aesthetics can tank really good ideas. Avoiding that is in large part based on good communication and negotiation skills and creating good relationships. And while I’m not going to go on a tangential rant about how language choices frame your perception of life, making a real effort to be vulnerable and connect with other people who love a different part of the same bigger thing you do will only ever serve you well, both within a band and when networking… “socially”.

 

 

 

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