Developing your chops: Last issue covered the basics of being a dependable, righteous band musician if you’re just starting out. Let’s now get past the philosophy and start practising. Sure, you’ve always loved music – maybe you played it as a littlie and now you’re serious enough to join a band. But there is a world of difference between taking guitar lessons and playing in a band. This article will get you ready for that experience, and maybe give you some perspective and development goals if you’re already jamming with your mates.
Learn to Listen
There is a big difference between merely hearing a noise and really listening to the information the noise conveys. Some musicians have such well-trained ears that they can hear which instrument is playing which note in a complex texture, which model instrument and amp are being used, and a dozen other details. Your ears don’t have to be that well-tuned, but if you are going to join a band, you at least have to be able to listen to the music that you are going to be inside of.
A good way to do some basic training is to put aside your tabs, sheets and notes for a while and use your ears to work out what is happening on your favourite recordings. Sit down with your guitar or keyboard, with an mp3 player and a notepad and learn some songs right off the recording. While it’s very important to know how to read music notation and tabs, reading can make things too easy on your inner ear and make you a less spontaneous player when jamming and improvising. Sometimes it’s better to have no cushion between you and the music.
Listen to a song all the way through several times. As you go, pick out different structural features that will solidify your understanding of it. Start with the chord structure. How many bars of which chord? When does it repeat and how many different sections? Play along here and there. Don’t be afraid when you hear a very complicated chord, like a G13 or an F#m11, either work it out, look it up or just fake it for now.
Then listen to the bass line and see how it relates to the chord structure. You’ll find, especially with alt music (or Beatles tunes), the bassist is not always hitting the root of the chord. Don’t be a snob about this if you’re a lead guitarist, there’s no way for you to soar if you can’t see the ground below. Then work out rhythm patterns, hooks, and lead breaks. Start this process with basic surf, punk, or garage-type music, then work your way up to more complicated arrangements. Don’t start with ’70s prog-rock!
Learn to Play Along
Most guitar and drum teachers take the approach of having their students play along with recordings or jam tracks. If your teacher has not yet started you on this, then see if they think you’re ready. In any case, if you have a teacher, they should be aware that you are planning to start or join a band soon and they should be getting you ready for that eventual step forward. Here are a few pointers on how to make the most of this technique.
First of all, pretend that you are not a rock god (I know, it’s hard sometimes). A band that grooves tighter than a club owner’s fist is a team. It’s not a soloist with a supporting cast. When you play along with a recording your primary goal is to be on the money, in the pocket and rock steady.
Let the music itself be the dominant voice – there’s no way to get inside it if your ego is too big. Which leads to the next point: learn to turn down. I’ll have more to say about this later in this series, but for now you should just realise your chops aren’t going anywhere unless you can hear the beat clearly and interact with the different musical elements.
Once your instrument is part of a balanced sound picture, then you can easily use my next tip: listen for cues. Playing a new song can be like visiting a foreign country. It helps to navigate if you can recognise some of the big landmarks as you’re making your way through. You’re much less likely to get lost if you pay attention to that drum fill that sets up the chorus, say, or follow the bass line into that tricky guitar hook after the bridge. Finally, make sure that the process always moves you forward, and improves your technique as well as your smarts.
Learn to See the Big Picture
The most important thing you can learn from playing along with tracks is to get that sense of knowing where you are within the song structure. You are simultaneously co-ordinating your notes along to the music, thinking ahead to the next change, and keeping track of how the overall musical timeline progresses. Not only does this make you a smarter player, it also increases your confidence.
After a while you can start to see how different structures have different effects on your energy and offer you variety of musical opportunities. You can pump up with a quick Garageband song, rip out some solos with a blues tune and then chill out with a ballad. Knowing the structure also means that you can give each part of the song the right attitude; like starting strong, scorching through the middle and then driving home the ending.
Learn to Share
Now that you can play through a song competently, it’s time to team up with someone and jam a little. Most beginning guitarists, bassists, and drummers will have some experience with this from their teachers. It might be a little different for a student changing over from classical piano to rock keyboards. In any case, it’s always best to have some experience sharing music informally before you start practising in a band.
Try a few different things when you get together musically. The blues is the most obvious way to start, since the structure is so straightforward and you can trade solos back and forth. Also try some songs that are part of the same musical language and direction that you share with your mates. Don’t be afraid to have some fun and play a song that you normally wouldn’t listen to. The point is not to be Mr. Perfect Rock Star at this stage – it’s enough to just keep a beat and enjoy yourself at first.
The whole process of jamming, trying out tunes, and bouncing off ideas is usually how bands spring to life around young musicians. Make sure that by the time this happens, you’ve got a good grasp of scales, chords and riffs; your ear is ready to sort the changes; you can play steady and think ahead, and you’ve had a chance to play with a few different musicians. I’ll cover the next step in Part 3: Forming Your First Band.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz superstar Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra.