The other day I was talking to some young musicians that were just forming their first band. One of them asked me which instrument was the most important instrument in the band. This is a question I’ve heard a lot over the course of my career and I’ve had a lot of discussions with other musicians about which instrument is the most important in the band. Is it the Lead Singer? Everyone focuses on the singer when the band is playing right? How about the drums, you couldn’t have a rock party without drums. Everyone loves the lead guitar, always getting high-fives after a good solo. What about the bass, no bottom end means no rumble in the chest and it’s a lame show without some good shaking going on. Without decent keyboards the music loses it’s harmonic texture.
The thing about bands is that they’re greater than the individual parts. When you play in a band you’re contributing to a bigger sound than just yourself. I’ve played with some musicians that had a superiority complex and when you combine that with a musician’s normally big ego it can be a real problem. You may have a singer who believes that the whole point of the band is to support the vocal. It’s easy to believe that because vocalists play a very important role in a band. The most famous bands usually have the best singers. The singer gets a lot of time in the spotlight because they’re delivering the melody and the words. That being said, you can’t sacrifice things like groove and feel to make the music move. A singer is just saying words to a melody without some great musical backing giving the vocal harmony and rhythm to play off of. Keeping your listeners interested is super important and you can really perk up their ears with a good drum break, bass lick or solo. When the singer comes back in the impact is greater for the listener because they got to focus on another instrument for a bit. I think it’s interesting how many lead singers from great bands have gone on to have less than stellar solo careers. Case in point, one Mr. David Lee Roth.
Being a guitarist, it always cracks me up when a guitarist believes they’re the greatest guitar player around and that without their amazing guitar skills the band would crumble. The sad fact is, the guitar is one of the most commonly played instruments in the world. Great guitar players are a dime a dozen and guitarists are one of the most easily replaced members in a band. Put up an ad at your local music store advertising guitarist auditions and you’ll have a bunch of phone calls in no time. But still, guitar players have one of the biggest ego’s in the band. I believe it’s because they get to share a healthy dose of the spotlight with the singer. The truth is, as a guitarist you’re playing backup 95% of the time.
Actually, every instrument in the band is backing someone else up 95% of the time or more. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to mesh with your bandmates. I’ve played with musicians who were so determined to be heard and stand out from the band that they just stepped all over the music by overplaying. Overplaying is a symptom of someone who doesn’t understand their function in a band. The miss the big picture that they’re creating something as a group not as an individual. The best players listen for areas of the music that their instrument can fill in a musical way thus creating a beautiful piece of art with a group.
So to answer the question, which instrument is the most important in a band? The answer is that they’re all equally important and that includes the singer! All band members will have times to stand in the spotlight on their respective instrument and the great musicians will know when to pull back and let someone else have the spotlight. It’s the mark of a great band when each member gets a chance to stand way out in front and do something cool with their instrument. Remember, you’re creating something together, not individually.