As a musician have you ever heard the saying “Playing The Song Instead Of The Instrument”? I was having a discussion with some fellow musicians the other day and we were discussing the problem of musicians overplaying during a song. It’s something that I guarantee you’ll have to deal with at some point if you’re playing in a band.
Let’s define what overplaying is: Overplaying is when you play too much to suit the song. Let’s use the drums as an example. A blatant example of overplaying would be changing the beat deliberately to 5/4 without the rest of the band, just for a measure or two to show you can do it. Blatant overplaying would also be putting a drum break in every bit of extra space in a song. Lets look at the guitar, overplaying would be throwing in a solo lick after each phrase or running the solo on long after it gets boring. For all the instruments blatant overplaying would be a part that is way too busy for the song. If the song has a tempo of 80 BPM and 3 chords then a bass line that consists of all 16thnote runs spread over 2 octaves is most likely overplayed. A “too busy” bass line can just kill a song.
Another example of playing the instrument instead of the song is by formulaic pattern playing. I’ve heard drummers that have a pattern to their drum breaks regardless of the song. They’ll put a drum break at the end of the intro, verse, chorus, bridge and solo just like clockwork on every song. That’s not a bad thing and it’s not blatant overplaying but it makes me wonder if they’re really listening to the song? Perhaps the song could be made more engaging by running the 4/4 groove right from the chorus to the verse without a break. The same can be said for fills played on every other instrument.
So how can we Play The Song Instead Of The Instrument? The most important thing we can do is use our ears and listen. Get familiar with the song and be aware of what the song itself is trying to say. Is it a love song? A fight song? A song that deals with teenage angst? The subject matter of the song can dictate where you should go with your part. A balladmay mean laying back and letting the chords ring out with a tasty fill placed here and there. A fight song may need you to completely focus on laying down a simple, primal rhythm. The second thing you can do is to stop playing for a minute and pay attention to what everyone else is doing. Listen for a space that you can fill while at the same time leaving space for other instruments to fill. You may need to back off while the keyboards build an ambiance behind a building vocal line. One of the most powerful things any player can do is stop playing for a measure or two and then come back in. Your re-entry into the song will make you stand out way more than a fancy 128th note run. Just remember it should support the song.
One of the very hardest things for a band to learn is how to lock their parts together. It’s not individually glorious for the drummer and bass player to lock in on a repeating bass drum rhythm for an entire verse. Yet that’s what can really move a song along. If the guitar, bass and drums all lock in on an 8th note driving rhythm for an entire verse, then the bass and guitar drop out while the drummer does a drum break, that’s power! That’s playing the song on the part of everyone. Not playing the song is when you drive that rhythm then everyone does a break at the same time and it ends up sounding like cats fighting. Another way to play a song is to do a coordinated break where everyone plays a break together using the same note phrase and rhythm. It takes some planning to do this stuff but that’s what sets the great bands apart from the poor ones.
Which brings me to my last point, communication. You have to talk about what you want to do in a song. It’s a good thing to plan the breaks out and to plan when an instrument will drop out and let another instrument come to the front. That makes a song interesting to listen to. We have to remember that the song is greater than the individual instruments. So let’s all make a commitment to start Playing The Song Instead Of The Instrument.