From my grandmother’s Edisonphone to smartphones
So we’re in rehearsal for our weekend services, working on a song pretty new to me and the team. The original artist did a great job with it, but we just can’t seem to nail it down. The groove is elusive, the tempo’s not right, so far the song is not too healthy. Will we be able to get it on its feet, or will it never make it out of the lab?
I do some quick mental gymnastics and come up with a plan. “Okay, let’s have the keyboard do this, and the guitar can do that, then if we all get softer here and gradually louder into here, it should work. Ready? Let’s try it.”
Immediately one of my musicians, who knows the song well, speaks up. “But that’s now how it is on the recording…”
And he is right. It isn’t even close.
So what do we do now?
If you are in a band or on a worship team, I’m quite sure this question has popped up. The fact is, we have a mental recording of the song playing in our heads that sounds great. Inspiring. Motivating. Awesome. The right way to play the song.
Then we go to play it ourselves, and it’s not even in the same neighborhood as the original.
The Recording Is Ground Zero
Our first impression of a song stays with us for a long time. We like it or we hate it, or it is simply background noise and we don’t care. But however we first heard it – whoever the artist was, whatever their arrangement, and whether it was live or in the studio – that first impression becomes the gold standard for us, for that song.
But rather than throw in the towel, decide to give up on our dreams of becoming great musicians and stick with our pizza delivery job, there are some options. Good ones.
7 Steps To Re-Arrange The Song
1. Assess the character of the song
Know where you’re starting, whether the song is serious, humorous, in your face or reflective. Then decide if you want to give it the same mood or try something new.
2. Identify musical hooks
There will be a melody line, an unusual chord, a really catchy rhythm or a lyric that you won’t be able to get out of your head. That would be the hook, and it will give the song much of its memorable quality.
3. Let go of your compulsion to play the song “the right way”.
This has to be a conscious choice. The fact is, every time you play a song, you are playing some sort of arrangement of it, that is, you are using somewhat different instruments and voices to replay the song, now in your own setting. Even when you try to stay as true to the original as you can, it won’t be the exactly same as the recording.
4. Assess your own abilities and those of your band.
Where are your strengths? (No matter how different they may be.) Maybe your guitarist isn’t lightning fast but you’ve got a banjo player who can hold his own. If it’s just you and your guitar, what style are you really good at?
5. Rearrange the song to reflect your strengths.
Make sure the hook is still heard, unless you want to make the song sound completely new and different. If it’s still not working, try a more dramatic change. How do you think it would sound if (insert your favorite artist here) were to play and sing it?
6. Take a chance and change the genre.
The next even more dramatic change would be to cross genres, or stylistic families of songs. For example, if the song started out as a rock power ballad, try it as an unplugged acoustic ballad. If it started out as an uptempo country rock song, how would it sound as a big-band swing tune, or maybe a Bob Marley brand of reggae?
7. Sell it.
Whether you go with an approximation of the original or something entirely out of the blue, you’ve got to let the listener know you believe in your song. Play it like your way is the only right way for the song to sound. Commit yourself to it. Groove with it. It is now your song.
Reality and My Guitar
When I started playing pop songs, I quickly realized that no matter what I did, my one acoustic guitar would never sound like the the Doobie Brothers or Earth, Wind and Fire (back in the day, these were the quintessential experts on the radio, among others). But I did have 6 strings, 10 fingers, 1 voice, and some creativity.
Realizing I didn’t have to strum all the strings at once, or that I could beat on my guitar for a little percussion, adding a hard strum on 2 and 4 to replace the snare drum, moving the bass note of the chord around in lieu of a bass player… and on and on. It didn’t sound like the recording, but that didn’t matter anymore. I could do a decent, entertaining version of the song using the tools I had.
And once I let go of “should I play it like the record?”, I had way more fun.
Do you ever feel like you’re tied to how the recording sounds? Try some of the steps above and let me know how they work for you!
Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about musicianship, music theory or worship teams to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2014 Steve Case