Understanding Signature Elements: Play your damn part, correctly!

Well, these are crazy times we find ourselves in, aren’t they? As I’m sure you’re already inundated with news feeds/posts/articles quite outside your normal reading, I’ll spare you anything other than what this blog is supposed to focus on which is music! I see many posts/videos of musicians across the world taking it upon themselves to learn a song/lick/style that they hadn’t previously focused on during this unprecedented downtime (I’m doing the same thing because hey, there is no time like the present to practice!). This is fantastic and a great use of this time period. Please allow me to toss another challenge out: re-learn (correctly) songs you already “know.” Now, before everyone overreacts . . . let me ask a question:

What makes a signature element/line to a song?

Like many things in the arts and music specifically, the answer to this is open to many interpretations. So, take this for what it is: an opinion. Context is everything so for my “opinion,” this is targeted at players that work primarily in a band context who have been given time to prepare, so I’m going to leave the coffee house/recital reduction-oriented players out of this (though this might be good food for thought for you folks as well!). So, to answer the above question, let’s get ridiculous at first: could you imagine playing Sweet Home Alabama without the guitar part at the beginning? And to even the playing field, how about Don’t Stop Believing without the intro piano part? Or Superstition without the correct drum intro/groove? Now, I have heard variations (and in some cases been asked to play) different versions of most if not all these tunes at one point or another due to someone wanting to change it. Intentional re-styling is fine, but in a typical situation, I would argue that “most” gigging situations require us to play it like the record, or very close to it. Why? Because these parts are essential to the song and signature, if you will. The artist/producers/songwriters/arrangers wrote them that way because the parts worked well together and they thought it sounded good, and in the case of the aforementioned tunes, were wildly successful as a result. Why then, do many players refuse to learn/play parts correctly? I’ve heard many excuses for this: no will know the difference, no one cares, and the everlasting classic: I’m not getting paid enough. None of these excuses are valid in my opinion. Do we have to sometimes change what we are playing depending on instrumentation? Yes, absolutely. But, to default to phoning in parts when necessary instrumentation is present just comes off as half-assed.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? For me it goes way beyond the “but that’s the way the song goes” argument. The parts that are most often sacrificed on the altar of laziness (it’s right next to the shrine of mediocrity) are the ones that fulfill a specific role in the creation of the pocket. Be it a keyboard part, bass part, guitar part, or kazoo part, some of the most well written and grooviest tunes lose their punch and drive when these signature parts are dropped. Does learning/playing these parts make the songs harder to play? In many cases, yes. When played correctly, do they contribute to the pocket and essence of the song in a powerful way? In my opinion, absolutely. Songs like Higher Love, Rosanna, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Human Nature, You Got the Love, Somebody Like You, Love on Top, and even California Girls (we could keep going for days through all genres of music) all have elements across the band that contribute strongly to the overall presentation of the tune and with each unnecessary part subtraction, fall further and further into a state of degraded punch.

Now, I realize that it may come across like I’m speaking in absolutes. Believe me when I tell you, I am not. What am I saying? I’m saying that special care needs to be taken when learning/performing tunes. Here are a few guidelines that I propose:

  1. Understand that you as a player serve the music.
  2. Try to recognize what role a part is playing on a particular song. Textural? Rhythmic? Melodic?
  3. Always start with the original part/lick.
  4. If deviation is required/requested, then do it knowingly and intentionally with full understanding that the next gig you play may require that song to be like the record.
  5. Play with intentionality. Own the part and own the sound. Fill your part of the equation.

So, once again, I toss out the challenge to re-learn some songs that you already “know” but may not know how to play correctly. While it may seem cumbersome . . . the work pays off and I think you’ll be amazed at what happens.


Aaron Kusterer is a musician, tour manager, and composer based out of Long Beach, CA. He has performed with artists such as Eddie Money, Juanes, and Jennifer Batten (Michael Jackson) to name a few. He has also performed across the globe during a 10-year stint with the United States Air Force Band, 6 years of which was spent as a music director and tour manager. In addition, he owns and operates Advantage Tour Management. For more information on him, check out: AaronKusterer.com.

 

 

 

 

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