The Ensemble Part 2

Issue # 408 July 2016

We ended last month’s piece talking about various rhythm parts a guitarist could play. Moving right along, putting it into perspective…

Picture this: A full rhythm section, in a good-sized studio, eye contact between the players, a nice headphone balance, a groovin’ piece of music – and that, for me, would be one version of heaven!

These occurrences took place on a daily basis in the decades leading up to the ‘90s, at which point music-making/recording became much more of a cottage industry. But I digress…

In many of the dates I described above, there would be multiple guitarists. With each player working a different part (acoustic guitarists could often ‘double up’), we’d find ourselves pieces of a most wonderful musical tapestry. Thrilling.

Some arrangers were very specific with what they wanted each guitarist to play; lots of written notes. Then others trusted their good guitar sensibilities and left it to the players to come up with the parts. Assuming the piece was uptempo, and we had four electric guitarists, one might play chox, another would do that single-stringy-droney-muted ‘popcorn’ part. A third might play melody lines intrinsic to the stature of the tune (maybe sometimes doubling the bass line), and a fourth might improvise around the singer’s voice – or could play a melodic ‘hook’ …and volume swells. Plenty of tasks to go around. At once.

And the acoustic guitars! I had some of my happiest moments playing unison rhythm parts as one of a four man grouping. Whilst we didn’t do a lot of these, in the Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ style, this was an intrinsic part. Other times, one player will play beautiful nylon-string arpeggios and the steel string player might play a gentle pulsating rhythm. Oh the possibilities!

Another aspect of the NYC studio scene that I always smile about is how noncompetitive it was. There were literally dozens of ‘first call’ guitarists. And we were a fraternity. It was a delightful feeling. Anecdotally I recall an incident where I called a client – one of the biggest advertising music houses in the city. I rather bluntly asked if they would consider hiring me for a lot more dates. The response was something like “Well Elliott, we love what you do, but know that we also love what guys like Spinozza, McCracken, Vinnie Bell and others do, and we like to spread it around.” The light bulb went off immediately. Plenty of players; plenty of work.

‘Too Big To Fail?’

When discussing recording techniques, their advantages and pitfalls, one of my favourite tales is about achieving ‘the biggest guitar sound ever’. (You’ll soon see how this affects my mini-thesis on ‘the ensemble’.)

I was hired to play on percussionist Jimmy Maelen’s lp dubbed Beats Workin’, produced by legendary mix-master John Luongo. On one of the tunes, I was asked to give the ‘biggest guilt sound ever’. Of course I happily obliged. My Strat, my highly customised Fender Super Reverb amp (delivering a full 100 watts RMS). It was very loud. But sheer volume was not enough. It had to be way bigger! So here’s what I did: I had the assistants open the lid of the Steinway, put a cinder block on the expression pedal (so that all the strings on it would ring sympathetically with the sounds of the loud electric guitar); same with a couple of acoustic guitars. Me also mic’d various other bits – tom toms, a bass drum, and assorted resonant spots in the studio.

I laid down my overdubs, came back into the control room to hear what we had wrought. The sound was HUGE, Everyone was smiling and laughing, and we knew that we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do. Fab.

A few days later I get a call from the producer. ‘Elliott,’ he says – ‘I think we goofed. The sound is so huge, that we can’t place it into the recording without its taking over absolutely everything else. Would you mind coming back in and we can do it perhaps um …a bit less large?’ Of course, I returned, did a more sonically compatible overdub (same notes and chords, just smaller), and we all walked away very happy.

So the reason for telling this story is to reinforce once again that it all boils down to appropriateness. Not just the notes and voicings, but the timbre, texture and placement of the parts to be played. ‘If it doesn’t add quality to the mix, it distracts. Let’s not distract.

See you next edition…


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