Sunday, November 29, 2015

#ALittleThunder Has Revolutionized Four-Chord Rock (and Other Genres)

After all these years, decades really, I think I've figured out my signature sound.

Let's back up a bit.

There's a relatively old joke that makes the observation that every new AC/DC album was basically the same as previous albums. Once upon a time, I thought it was a bad thing. It's not. An easily-identifiable signature sound is a hallmark of badassery.

Modern-day country music is basically pop songwriting with twangy vocals and miscellaneous fiddles. Once upon a time, I thought it was a bad thing. It's not. Genre conventions are an interesting study in cultural traditions.

I've encountered my share of genre snobs, who denigrate one form of music while elevating the one they happen to like the most. Once upon a time, I thought it was a bad thing. Well ... it still is a bad thing to be a genre snob. Even though you might not end up playing a specific style of music ever, it is important to keep an open ear and an open mind when it comes to music. Don't knock it until you understand it.

Four-chord rock music really caters to two specific musicians: The vocalist and the guitarist(s). It does few favors to bassists and drummers, unless the music gets more complex.  Drummers must be slightly masochistic because they basically lug around about five drums, about five cymbals, hardware, a throne, and sticks wherever they go. They set up the drum kit, play for a bit, take down the drum kit, then transport everything again and again.

An electronic drum pad coupled with a couple of foot pedals -- theoretically -- can solve this problem, especially when playing shows wherever. Maybe one day electronic drum pads will be the go-to instrument in four-chord popular music, especially four-chord rock -- maybe four-chord post-rock with the electronics. Then again, maybe most non-famous drummers enjoy being their own drum tech and road crew.

I've neglected to define my idea of "four-chord" rock. It's basically sloppy, garage-style, punk-ish rock 'n roll. Guitars are distorted, and vocals are competent enough to stay in key and cut through the band. The meter of a song will either be four-four time or six-eight (three-four) time. Songwriting follows the popular music structure of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, and the like. It's as basic as it gets, with some potential for epicness.

Bass players in this now-defined four-chord rock genre have the disadvantage whenever they play with heavy guitars or vocalists with lower vocal ranges. Whenever two instruments occupy the same frequencies, the sound gets -- for lack of a better word -- muddy. A heavily-distorted guitar, as opposed to a fuzzy guitar or an overdriven guitar, will encroach on bass guitar territory. A baritone vocalist might not even cut through the band. The overall muddiness of the sound might render fancy walking basslines inaudible. The four-chord structure of songs will just render the bassist to play the root note of each chord as simply as possible.

Perhaps the concept of the bass player is better in jazz, funk, or progressive rock music. With a pickup called A Little Thunder, the rhythm guitarist can also be the bass player. After all, the rhythm guitarist is usually responsible for much of the tone decisions that muddy up a band's sound.

Hopefully more and more four-chord rock bands will embrace the idea of the rhythm guitarist/ALT bassist. (The electronic pad touring drummer is an unlikely pipe dream.) There are bass players who have learned the low-note craft, but they are not given the opportunity to be Flea or Geddy Lee while thumping low end in a four-chord rock band. Let them find other bands and genres that allow such an opportunity. There are guitarists who, by necessity due to genre conventions, play bass but can't hear themselves because the muddy mess of a four-chord rock band. Let them play both with A Little Thunder, and everyone can learn why heavy bands might sound muddy.

As I've written in a few earlier blog posts, I have created a reasonable one-man live band setup for myself. I have a guitar with A Little Thunder, and another guitar with a single-string pickup that I rigged up before I learned about A Little Thunder. I have a drum machine that also triggers a couple of LED light units -- one for low frequencies, and one for high frequencies. I sing through a vocal harmonizer, in order to actually sound decent as a vocalist.

Here's the basic recipe for my four-chord rock, one-man live band. The guitar is slightly distorted with an emulator pedal that tries to sound like a Vox AC30, but not too heavy, as to muddy up the bass. The tone of the ALT bass -- same guitar -- is tweaked with a bass overdrive pedal. Basslines, played either on the Low E or A strings of the same guitar, are kept quite simple. I'm either going to play with the kick drum, straight eighth notes, or do a simple groove, whenever possible.

My drum machine is programmed with a bunch of generic patterns, as well as song-specific ones. The generic patterns are usually 4/4 backbeats, 4/4 snare on 3, and 6/8 beats with the snare on 4. I can start and stop a pattern with a foot pedal, and I can tell the pattern to go into a fill and another pattern with that same pedal. I can adjust the beats per minute to however fast or slow I want. The big downside to using a drum machine is that I'm missing cymbal hits and other fancy techniques that only a human drummer can provide. Since I'm using a drum machine, perhaps I should think like an EDM DJ and try to make the patterns dance-friendly.

I try to sing head voice almost exclusively, so that the vocals can cut through the band. My natural chest voice doesn't cut through the instruments without mixing help. Perhaps a sound engineer could EQ my chest voice to cut through the band, but my goal is for a simple, one-man band setup! I usually get my vocal harmonizer to go a 3rd above the melody, to thicken and sweeten the sound. The Boss VE-2 is smart enough most of the time to figure out what key I'm singing in, referencing the chords I play on the guitar.

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

I'm also trying to incorporate more Ebow into my music, but it's kind of unwieldy to hold the Ebow while plucking a decent bassline and singing. I'm currently working on a solution!

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

With an electric guitar, simple basslines, a drum machine, and harmonized vocals -- I'm basically playing the one-man version of an '80s new wave band or something!

A video posted by Ryan DeRamos (@ryan_deramos) on

There's always room for an extra musician to play a sweet guitar solo, though.

I usually record all my performances, good and bad, with a Zoom H1 audio recorder. While I've figured out my signature sound for now, there's still room for adjustments.

That's blog post five out of six for the end of November! The marathon writing session is almost over! Cheers!

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