Know Your Job Description In The Band, Part 1

Lion's Gait at Sullivan Park, 2013
Lion’s Gait at Sullivan Park, 2013

This group is called Lion’s Gait, they are friends of mine and worship leaders at our church. They held a worship concert at Sullivan Park a couple of weeks ago, and did a really nice job, from slow and soft to loud and rocky!  You guys inspire me!

Separating Roles

Whenever a music team plays together, the goal is a seamless, interesting, balanced and engaging presentation of the songs on their list. And though no two teams play a song the same way, each player or vocalist really needs to know what the parameters are for what they do. They need to know their job description in the band.

When bands don’t separate instruments in the mix, when they don’t concern themselves with making audible distinctions between them in terms of style and role, they are probably never going to sound any better than a garage band (no offense if you do play in a garage band, I played in several and learned a ton). But they usually have the sound of the original recording streaming through their minds when they play. If they are to get anywhere close to the sound in their heads, each player needs to know what sort of techniques on their instrument will add to the arrangement in a pleasing way.

Do you know what your job description is in the band? Have you ever thought about it this way?

The Rhythm Section

Here are my thoughts on how to have each rhythm section player think about their slice of the audible pie:

The drum kit lays down the rhythmic framework for the song (1/8s, 1/16s or triplets, typically), and any unique emphasis (latin beats, pushes and crashes). The kit provides the basic groove of the song which might be somewhat empty to very full, from simple to complex, from straight on-the-beat rock patterns to push-beats, train beats, shuffles and cadences. As well, the drums are the primary source of tempo (from slow to fast) and contribute a dynamic range (from soft to loud) that is foundational, including the ability to get louder or softer over a period of time (crescendos and diminuendos).

Drummers should routinely practice with a metronome to gain mastery over tempo, practice varying styles of beats, and practice fills that are everywhere from 1 beat to several measures in length.

The bassist’s responsibility is to set down both rhythmic and tonal foundations for the song. Rhythmically, the bass is to compliment the drums, locking in with the kick drum. Tonally, the bass will emphasize the root (the letter name) of each chord in the song’s chord progression, allowing the mid-range instruments to provide the chord itself. The bass can drag the beat by playing at the very last moment of each beat, or it can anticipate, trying to rush the beat slightly, which will rhythmically propel the song forward, giving it much more energy.

The bass player should know several ways to play both major and minor chords and have a clear understanding of note names in the first seven frets. He/she should also have a working knowledge of rhythmic frameworks, with at least seven or eight rhythmic patterns with which to start any song.

The acoustic guitar player typically plays rhythm guitar, playing the chord progression of the song, filling in the mid-range frequencies in the band. The guitarist might strum the chords or pick individual strings in a repeated pattern (whatever the keyboard is doing, the guitar should do something different. If the keyboard is playing block chords, the guitarist may want to pick, and if the keyboard is playing broken chords, the guitarist may want to strum.) As well, the acoustic guitar can provide single tone licks or fills that offset, or answer, the vocal. In a softer song, the acoustic guitar might be used to play a lead line as a solo.

The acoustic guitar player should have an ever-increasing library of chords and chord forms at his/her disposal, being able to play any simple or embellished chord anywhere on the neck. Right hand techniques should be experimented with in order to express the emotion of the song properly; it is the right hand that plays the guitar!

The electric guitar player should have the same knowledge of chords that the acoustic player has, but more often than not will need to play bar chords up the neck. While the electric guitar is second to none in driving the rhythm of a rock song, its range is mid-to-high, and so its primary function is to add color and texture to a song through right hand technique, and also through the use of outboard effects that provide a spectrum of qualities (distortion, wah, chorus, delay, etc.) The electric guitar is well-suited to playing lead fills opposite the vocal and accent chords that emphasize certain beats over others. And the electric guitar shines when it is playing a lead line in almost any song from a soft, clean murmur to a high-pitched scream!

The electric guitarist should practice getting a dozen or so unique and useful sound qualities out of his/her “rig” (series of outboard effects pedals). And a priority should be placed on learning scales and modes in all positions on the neck. Licks are useful but can be overused easily.

The keyboard is even one more mid-range instrument that can handle the chord progression. Playing in block or broken styles, the range of the keyboard extends even beyond that of the guitar, with the ability to produce intricate voicings in any range. The keyboardist can play lead fills to compliment the vocal or lead lines during an instrumental. And a decent keyboard these days will provide hundreds of textures, from piano and organ to orchestral instruments and various sound effects.

The well-trained keyboardist will know how to move from one scale to another with ease, having fingerings worked out for any key. Knowledge of how to play a progression in many genres is helpful. In worship settings, the keyboard is the primary instrument for underscoring, or padding, during moments of reflection or prayer. Practice quiet, rubato chord improvisation to prepare.

These instruments are the bricks and mortar for pop and rock music. We’ll cover other instruments as well as vocals in part 2.

If you are a rhythm section player, how well do you know your job? What aspects of your technique have you been struggling with?

And as always, if you have any questions about music or music theory, leave your comment below or feel free to email me at [email protected].

© 2013 Steve Case