A while back, I did a column on learning new material. This month, let’s tackle sequencing a new song. This can be as simple as programming a drum rhythm to creating a full blown, multi part sequenced performance.
Each of you will determine, by trial, error and comfort level, how much “help” you need to perform in a solo or duo setting. Some musicians are quite comfortable playing solo guitar or piano with nothing else added. I did this myself in the late 90’s at a steakhouse in Frisco, TX. It was hard work but I grew as an entertainer. For performers who get tired of a single instrument, with or without vocals, there are several alternatives.
First is the Porchboard. It’s great for musicians who pat their foot constantly. Run this powered board through a bass amp or PA system and you get a full, deep low sounding thump. It needs no batteries and zero programming! Even patting the foot on beats 1-3 or 2-4 can often add the missing link to an otherwise good arrangement. It works better for seated performers than standing, in my experience.
The drum machine has been around for four decades and can often be all that’s needed to really solidify a solo or duo act. Beginning with the groundbreaking Alesis HR-16 in the 80’s, drum machines now sound good enough to help make a performance memorable. They keep solid time and unlike a real drummer, don’t speed up or slow down. There are many different ways to include a drum machine. You can create a simple loop with one or more instrument sounds. If you want a very minimalist approach, this can be quite effective. Some musicians simply create a groove and play the entire song with one pattern. If you want to go one better, consider having two parts for a song, perhaps with a hi hat and side stick for the verse. Then kick things up a notch with a ride cymbal and snare pattern for the chorus. I have used the approach with my duo with keyboardist/vocalist Bryan Stroud. He employs an Alesis SR-16 with two footswitches. One starts and stops the drum machine and the other changes patterns from A to B. With lots of practice, Bryan plays keys, key bass and engages our percussion help. This helps us stretch a song if needed, without being locked into a static arrangement.
We have enjoyed using this approach during the past 15 years and our audiences seem to like it also. Here is a YouTube link from a few years ago at a country club gig in Arlington, TX
One thing important to remember is that the correct mix helps make or break a drum machine pattern. If you see a performer live with a real drummer, note how loud the kick and snare drum sounds are, relative to their mix. You may decide you don’t care for the cymbal sounds of a drum machine. In that case, turn their levels down and keep the snare and bass hotter. With a quality sound system, you may be surprised how many more folks are dancing at your shows.
Recent models from Akai, Alesis, Korg, Roland, Yamaha and Zoom allow more sounds than a typical drummer might employ on a kit. One style that’s easy to sound authentic on with a drum computer is Latin. It’s hard for a kit player to add timbales, maracas, congas and shakers while continuing to play a typical kick/snare/cymbal performance. It’s a breeze, relatively speaking, to do so with a drum machine. This may help you play gigs you might not otherwise qualify for without quality percussion sounds.
One important caveat- unless you really understand drum rhythms, there are a couple learning curves involved with a drum computer. First, a drum machine is a computer with its own language and skill set. Many of these machines are manufactured overseas and the owners’ manual may leave something to be desired. Give yourself time to learn how to create patterns and mix them before trying it on an unsuspecting audience for cash. Second, you should understand rhythms and perhaps learn to write a basic drum chart. This helps when programming a difficult song pattern. Take your time and record several gigs to get a feel for the overall effect of having a drum machine in your act. A good music theory book can be helpful, especially for self taught players.
I got my first drum machine back in 1991 and began learning programming and sequencing. I had been working with a larger band and was ready to try downsizing. I haven’t looked back and am grateful for the advances in electronics that make it possible for me to sound better than ever with fewer performers. Next month, we’ll tackle computer sequencing.
Riley Wilson is a guitar and bass teacher, writer, voice talent and performer based in North Texas. He does solo, duo and trio gigs all over the Southwest. His websites are www.guitarmadesimpler.com and www.wrileywilson.com