May 18th, 2009 by BenCirillo

Playing With Soul Is Harder Than Shredding

ben-cirillo-picture1Controlling Complexity

Geddy Lee was always my hero from the first time I followed my older brother to a Rush concert at Alpine Valley. He was fast, and he played crazy riffs in odd time signatures and, oh yeah, he was fast. When I started playing bass, I wanted to play just like him.  And so I did. Every new song I learned (mostly Rush songs, go figure) had me playing faster and faster and crazier and weirder stuff. If it didn’t have twenty billion notes per second I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t want to even listen to it, much less play it.

stand-up-bassWhere’s The Groove Gone?

Then I grew up I found myself with a few dilemmas.  One, while I was focusing on my speed I’d skipped over the basics. I could play a fretboard-exploding riff but couldn’t hold down a simple groove. Two, my music collection sucked. I’d skipped over a lot of good music just because I thought it didn’t have enough notes.  Somewhere along the way every beginner gets the notion that the quality of a song is directly proportional to how difficult it is to play. When you grow up, you realize that complex ? good, and in fact sometimes the best things are the simplest. Even Geddy Lee figured that one out, and did so well before I did.

less-is-moreLess Can Be More Sometimes

Jeff Goldblum had a famous tagline in Jurassic Park: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” That applies to us as musicians. Just because you can play 27,000 notes in that section doesn’t mean you should.  A simple, repetitive chord structure or riff can make a catchy song. Add in too much complexity and a song will stop sounding like music and start sounding like what it is: musical masturbation. Of course, there’s a flip side: If the song is too simple and repetitive, it’ll be boring, uninspired and probably annoying.  You have to strike a balance between so simple it’s boring and so complex it’s noise. There is no magic formula; this depends on you and your style of music.

complexityUsing Complexity Wisely

When we talk about a complex piece of music, our minds go to one thing: lots and lots of notes, usually in a very short period of time. But there are lots of different ways to add complexity to your songs other than just adding notes. Here are some ideas:

1. Add More Instruments:

Pink Floyd were masters of creating complex music out of simple parts. Break down any Floyd song, and neither the bass part, guitar part, keys or drums are particularly difficult to play. But by cleverly layering these simple parts in a complex arrangement, you get songs that are both interesting and easy to listen to. Years later, bands like Radiohead and The Beta Band mastered the art of taking a simple thing and just adding a part, then adding a part, then adding a part until you had a huge symphonic sound made from simple pieces.

2. Play The Same Thing In A Different Place:

For solos, the oldest bass player trick in the book is to play exactly the same thing you were doing, just one octave up. It’s the stupidest, easiest thing in the world, and it gets people every time. Pull out some Jaco riff and people ignore you (unless they’re also bass players, in which case they hate you). Play one octave up and people think you’re a god. This works on guitar, too. Change octaves and people respond, and unless they’re also musicians they probably won’t realize you didn’t really do anything special. If the octave thing is too cheesy, try playing a fifth up or down. This creates movement and also contrast against the rest of the band, but in most cases it still fits without having to change anything.

3. Create Dynamics:

Dynamics in music officially refers to changes in volume, used to create a sense movement and mood in a piece. Rock music, however, is usually so overcompressed that any actual changes in volume are leveled out and lost to the world. So a better way to think about dynamics is changes in intensity. By switching back and forth between more and less complex sections, you can create a change in intensity. Note that simple is often more intense than complex. In Tidal Wave ( we used a more complex pattern for the verses then switched to a simpler rock-anthem feel for the chorus. In Wide Awake, we use complexity to build tension in the verses and simplicity to release it in the chorus. The outro gets crazy complex, then dissolves into simplicity to end the song.

4. Use Odd Notes And Chords:

Sometimes, instead of playing lots of notes, it’s playing the right note that makes all the difference. Venture outside the pentatonic scale to find those underused intervals and chords. Again I return to Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, who could move you more with a well-placed major 7th as all the shred gods with all the sweep arpeggios and pinch harmonics in the world.

5. Use Different Rhythm Patterns:

One of my favorite tricks is to use different rhythm patterns rather than lots of notes to create a complex bassline. I use this all over Mercury Rising and Wide Awake. Rhythm complexity doesn’t have to mean odd time signatures like 7/8 or 5/4. It can be as simple as changing up your subdivisions or playing unusual accents. In “Spirits in the Material World” by the Police, Sting creates a funky feel by starting his 2-bar bass phrase on the “and” of 2 instead of the downbeat. The song is still in a simple 4/4, but it sounds quirkier than it is.

6. Use Effects:

A well-placed effect can transform a boring chord or riff into something way more interesting. I’ll go over effects more in a future post, but for now consider that a creative use of effects can create as much texture as the creative use of a scale. Remember, though, that effects also come with an off-switch. Just like with everything else, overuse can quickly jump the line between interesting and annoying.

listenLearn To Hear, Not Fear

For those of us that like to play more complex music, there’s always that secret fear that if you don’t play enough notes people will think you suck and will come take your guitar away.  With time, you learn that difficult doesn’t always mean good. Music is not an Olympic event; you don’t get skill points for pulling off tough stunts. For the thoughtful musician, adding complexity is not about showing off, it’s about creating movement and balance.  If you always play as technical and complicated as you can, where do you go from there? Thirty-second notes in 7/8 all the time is just as boring as quarter notes in 4/4 all the time.  When you learn to listen for musicality instead of stunt guitar, you might just find that creating interesting music isn’t as complicated as you thought.

Until next time keep on grooving, and let me know how I might help you out by leaving a comment

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