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How a Pop/Rock Band Works

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(under construction)

Why they call it a rhythm section:

If we all trace our ancestry far back enough, sooner or later we'll find primitive tribal societies where all the music was made by drums, with a little bit of singing or primitive wood flutes helping out. Long before the rules of harmony and song structure were laid out, drummers were getting together and jamming.

If you look at basic 3-5 piece rock, country, pop or jazz groups, you'll find that each instrument is responsible for contributing certain rhythms to the mix--as if each instrument where another drum. The rhythm that the guitar player is strumming is just as important as the chord that he's fingering.

Roles of the different instruments:

Drums: The drummer is the primarly timekeeper of any band, but in most pop music situations he is much more than that. In addition to timekeeping, the drummer sets the overall rhythmic feel of the song, and is responsible for kicking  important spots in the piece. In fact, he often starts and almost always stops each song. In most rock environments, the drummer is the de facto conductor of the band.

Bass:  The bass also sets down a basic rhythm which should mix well with the drum beat. Most imporantly the bass outlines the harmony (and with it, the structure or form) of the song being played. When you listen to a song, notice the difference between what the bass player plays on the verse, and what he plays on the chorus or bridge.

Rhythm Guitar (or keyboard):  The rhythm player adds detail and flavor to to the foundation that's set up by the bass and drums. The rhythmic contribution of this player lies in the strumming (guitar) or comping (keyboard) patterns which contribute to the song's feel. The harmonic contribution is made by playing the actual chords of the song. While the bass player may be outlining the root notes, the rhythm player is playing the notes that make a chord major or minor, plus those sevenths, ninths and thirteenths that help season the harmony.

Two or more instruments can share the rhythm function, but they must listen to each other, and have a good idea of how they'll share the job without causing a train wreck. Big bands, for example, often have both a piano and a guitar. They commonly divide the labor by having the guitar play a strum pattern of four quarter notes per measure, while the piano colors and makes musical comments. A funk band, like the Average White Band, may employ one guitar to strum chords and another to play a funky single-note, staccato 'chicken pickin' pattern. (listen to the Average White Band's song Cut the Cake) It's a great example of building a groove by combining distictive drum rhythms and bass lines, with two independent rhythm instruments.

Lead (guitar, keyboard, vocal or horn): A lead is a melodic passage in the song. In many cases, it's a figure played by the lead guitar, synthesizer or horn player between verses or other sections of the song. The term can also refer to the song's actual melody.

How Do They Learn Songs?

If the band is covering tunes from existing records, each player listens to the recording and imitates his counterpart in the original group. He notes how many times the song's form repeats itself, along with any special introductions or endings. Each player makes note of the rhythm patterns played by his instrument and how it fits into the overall feel. Notes and melodic lines are learned by hacking--trying the pattern over and over until it is correct.

Written music is seldom used. Many musicians can't read it. Plus, commerical sheet music is often unavailable or inaccurately written. 

Professional musicians who do read music often write their own arrangements or charts, for band members to use. This is more and more in vogue since so many horn players have jazz training. In fact, it's very common for the rhythm section of a pop group to be playing by ear, and for the horn section to have written arrangements--usually written by one of the players.

Adding Horn Players to the Mix

You can add any number of horn players to a pop band, but there are a number of things to consider. A single horn fits in most easily. Adding more horns can make a band sound more powerful or unique, but there are a number of things to consider when dealing with horn sections.

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