Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Latin Rock Music, Part 5

My Writing Process, Part 5

For rhythm or chordal roles, I stick with simple 2- and 3-note chords (often octaves or root-fifth inversions), and play a sparse pattern that creates a rhythmic counterpoint with the other instruments.

Since there is no roadmap (that I know of) for writing guitar parts like this, it often takes a frustrating amount of experimentation before I happen upon something that works. However, over time, it has gotten a bit easier.

Creating a Latin Rock Groove

Traditional Latin bands don't usually have a "kit" drummer. Instead, the combination of Timbales, Congas, and hand percussion forms a rhythmic tapestry that drives the music. However, Latin Rock dictates a heavy sound with a classic drum set. To make that work, you need to a drummer that knows how to play an open groove so that the percussion has room (our drummer happens to be very good at it -- a lucky break for us).

In addition, since the music we're playing has a rock flavor to it, the grooves are different than standard Latin grooves. So, there are a few basic formulas I use to create a groove.

1) Build it step by step. Starting with vocals, then the various instrumental lines, we experiment with various feels until we find one that works. Sometimes this takes a while!

2) Avoid guitar "strumming." It's so easy to play a typical rhythmic chord pattern on the guitar. Unfortunately, it seldom adds anything to the arrangement. When not playing melodies or arpeggiations ("montuno"), I pick unusual intervals and triads and focus on creating an open, distinctive rhythm. Often, this happens at the end, after the rest of the band figures out their parts.

3) Don't be afraid to "lay out." As musicians, we're used to playing every measure of every song. It's just habit. If a certain instrument is not needed in a certain part, don't force it! Just leave it out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Latin Rock Music, Part 4

My Writing Process, Part 4

Hooks Don't Have to Be Just Melodies

One of the lessons I've learned about arrangements is that hooks can -- and should -- occur anywhere in a song. Sure, the most important one is the chorus melody (and lyric) that listeners can remember. But a cool guitar riff, a simple synth line; even a drum groove or percussion fill can be a hook.

Once the song is "written," the challenge during the process of arranging is to create and refine those hooks throughout the song. As players, you often have to "step back" from the music, and hear it like a non-musician listener would. A simple break that seems elementary to you may be just the thing that gets an audience pumped.

Other Songwriting Techniques

In the vein of song writing techniques, I have another that may not be that common: I don't record any part of a song until we're actually working on the full arrangement with the band. Seem crazy? It works for me, and here's why:

Once a song, or even just an idea, gets recorded, it makes it more difficult for me to adapt it. As a writer, I'm constantly editing and refining what I do, so that as I'm creating a song, it's gradually evolving. In fact, one important part of this process is mistakes. In playing something, if I make a mistake that happens to sound cool, I incorporate it!

The other reason is that I find it difficult to focus my energy on the writing process at the same time as the recording process. If I try to do them simultaneously, one or both of them suffers.

Fitting Rock Guitar Into Latin Music

Since my inspiration is not Santana but rather more traditional Latin music, having the guitar serve as a prime instrument is an obstacle. In these genres, the roles are very defined:

- Piano plays the "montuno," or repetitive syncopated chord arpeggiations. This carries the harmony.

- Bass plays a sparse, angular pattern that avoids the "one" beat like the plague. This helps to set the rhythmic tone.

- Horns play the lead lines, and add chordal stabs, swells, and other effects. Thus creating -- other than the vocals -- the key melodic components.

- Guitar, when it is used, generally plays a supporting chordal rhythm pattern, and is pretty much in the background.

So, how does someone who grew up playing rock "lead" guitar fit it into a Latin format? Fat, overdriven guitar can work for playing melodies, but not in the way that a trumpet or a horn section can. To make the guitar work in a lead role, I utilize several techniques:

1) When we need horn "stabs," the keyboards cover them, and I play a montuno-like pattern on the guitar.

2) In order to achieve simple, trumpet-like melodic lines, I have the vocalist or a synthesizer double the line with me, in addition to utilizing doubled guitar technique (one bent note matching a straight note).

3) I employ playing techniques to enhance simple lines, such as bends, slides up or down, and unique, syncopated rhythmic phrasing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Latin Rock Music, Part 3

My Writing Process, Part 3

These days, other than a style called "singer-songwriter" (think coffee shop, single performer with a guitar or piano), arrangment is such an integral part of music that it seems bare without it. And, a well-done arrangment can make or break a song. This is definitely an arena in which Santana excels. To me, the epitome is "Jingo," a song from Santana's first album (sometimes called Santana by Santana).

Jingo has -- are you ready? -- one chord. One! Lyrically, it's almost as spare: it has three syllables. Not words, syllables! But even given this dearth of elements, it is an interesting song that draws you in and keeps you interested. How? The arrangement is clever and subtle, using diverse elements that build excitement and keep the song moving.

Songwriting Traps and Pitfalls

Having worked in the industry and around musicians for so many years, I'm pretty familiar with some of the pitfalls all songwriters face. To me, the most dangerous one is lack of self-evaluation.

Be Your Own Worst Critic

Look, songwriting can be learned and improved upon, just like any other skill. But in order to get better, you have to be willing to critique your own work. When I'm crafting a song, I'm constantly asking myself these questions:

- Is this part really needed? Is it adding to the whole, or just a diversion?

- Is each melody compelling? Does it make you want to hum along, and is it memorable? Or is it just an exercise in musical technique?

- Could this part be stronger? How?

Working the Songs Out In Rehearsal

When I started this project, one of the rules I had was: every song had to be worked out and played "live." I did that for several reasons:

1) How many times have you gone to see a band and been disappointed in their live sound as compared to their recorded sound? I didn't want our band to be guilty of that;

2) In the studio, it's easy to cover up a song's deficiencies by adding more tracks, thickening it with layers, etc. But live, you can't do any of that. If a part isn't working, you simply have to write a better part!

3) Having limited instruments makes you focus on the melody more. Why? Because if you only have one instrument to play the melody, or if two instruments play the melody and only the bass player is carrying the harmony, the melody better be pretty damn strong!

Having these limitations forced me -- as a songwriter -- to write competent melodies that stood on their own. Or keep trying until I did!