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Becoming a Great Band

What does it take be become a “great” band? Believe it or not the collective skill of a group is not determined solely by the skills of its individual members. There is a level of ensemble technique that really elevates a band to be beyond average and gets the group noticed. As with all things there is no short-cut and it’s a combination of individual contribution, communication, practice, focused effort and honesty. In this lesson we’re going to cover a few techniques for tightening the links in your band and taking your group to the next level. We’ll go over techniques that your band can practice as a group.

Have you ever sat in on a really good jam session? How about a really bad one? Do you know the difference? I am willing to bet that the good-session had lots of interact playing and musical “dialogue” between the musicians. The bad one probably had people playing together-ish, with each person focused on their own statement rather than weaving a cohesive story. This boils down to communication and is the most important aspect of ensemble playing. Ultimately you want your band to share a single driving heart-beat and develop a near telepathic link between all the members. Thankfully there are ways to develop open non-verbal communication within your band.

1. Start looking at each other. When was the last time you (the bassist) locked eyes with the drummer during a song? How about the guitarist? Incredibly many musicians will focus in on their instrument or the crowd and never look at each other. Make a point to visually communicate with your other band mates, you’ll be amazed at how much this one little change can help.

2. Understand your role in the band. My first serious band was a punk rock group – loud, driving bass lines punctuated with mosh pits and flailing around on stage. Eventually I started studying jazz and that influenced my punk rock playing… it sounded terrible. In my brain it was “oh man! This sounds so cool with jazz, I bet it will sound ten times as cool in punk rock!” False. Also I did not really have the foresight to hear how bad it really sounded until after we did a recording. The moral of the story is that I did not understand my role as a bassist in a punk rock band. My role should have been to drive the song with heavy percussive root-centered riffs and instead I was trying to show case my new found skills. Your goal should always be to make the band sound good. There is a time and a place for everything – including the walking bass lines in punk – but focus on how you can make the band sound great. Surprisingly it often means playing less and focusing on the right note rather than cool notes.

3. Keep a notebook of songs you write with detailed practice notes. This will give you and your band-mates discussion points and will get your talking about what you produce. Have each member comment on what every other member played and write it down! The other advantage to this is you can come back and see what works and what doesn’t. It also gives you some direct perspective on understanding your role in the band.

Beyond communication there is a level of musical synergy that you have to achieve as a group to get to the next level. There is a tipping point where the sum of what you produce as a band will be greater than your collective individual abilities. This is awesome when you get there. In order to help develop this synergy you should start practicing together – and I mean technical practice, not let’s noodle and make a song practice. A few tips:

1. Start each rehearsal with 15-20 minutes of drills. You won’t believe how difficult this is and how much it pays off. Have each member in the band come up with a drill you can do as a group. Obviously some drills will be idiosyncratic to certain instruments e.g. scales in ascending and descending fourths are cake on the bass but not easy on the piano, however middle ground can be found. Start simple – have everyone play major scales together while the drummer keeps a steady time with the kick on the downbeat. If you can get through that, have the drummer put the kick on beat 2 and do the drill again. Then beat 3, then beat 4. If you get through all of that start making the rhythm really difficult – have the drummer put the kick on the “and” of 1 and beat 3 together. Then try playing only every third note (that’s note, not beat). Try having different members play on different beats. You see how complex and challenging you can make an ensemble drill, just around the major scale? Your goal as a group should be to develop a single unshakable pulse that lets each of you play in any manner without breaking the time. This will take a while to develop – definitely start small and build your way up, it’s more important to get into the habit of really practicing drills together and then add in the complexity. You could even make a bunch of drills and chart them out for future weeks – goal settings is a great way to stay motivated ;-)

2. Transcribe a song as a group. Transcriptions are a great way for students to learn from their idols. Guess what – the same concept applies to a band. Pick a song you like and work as a band to do the most accurate cover possible. Do it as a true transcription – no cheat sheet tabs – and try to match the voicing exactly for each instrument. Do NOT write anything down until you can play the song perfectly as a group. Only AFTER you have it nailed should you write anything out. This process can help your group find its voice. Check out my previous lesson on transcriptions for some additional tips.

Your recorded music may sound great, but if you really want to stand out you’ve got to have a stage presence. Great bands put on great shows because they are deliberate in their stage actions. Knowing how to work a crowd and put on a great show is just as critical as playing great songs. Get a video camera and designate someone (a sibling, significant other, manager etc) to record all of your live shows. At the next rehearsal sit down with the band and watch the whole video. Now it’s time to be brutal – what should you change? Think back to shows you’ve seen and loved and what makes them great: Victor Wooten is just as much an entertainer as he is a musician, that applies to Les Claypool and Flea as well. Have you ever gotten the chance to see Tool live, or Green Day? These guys have incredible stage presences. Now compare your recorded live show to a great live show – what are the differences? Think about coordinated action, where people should stand, general guidelines for how people should move – you don’t have to plan every detail, just be aware that awesome shows are not random occurrences.

There you have it! You’ve got a strong starting point down the path to band greatness. Start communicating with your other band members, work on practicing together to develop synergy, and honestly analyze your live performances – you’ll be known as a local powerhouse in no time!