How to Make Instrumental Rock Work
We’ve all been there: you’ve found yourself a killer bassist, a raucous drummer and, perhaps, a fellow guitarist wingman or keyboard wizard. At this point there arises the inevitable question of a singer, soon followed by an ill-fated series of personal ads, band equivalents of online dating and a few misguided attempts from the drummer, all of which can all prove fruitless and disheartening.
Still, there’s no reason to stop recording and gigging just because no-one’s opening their mouth onstage. A whole host of successful acts function just fine without a vocalist and, in many cases, sound all the better for it. Without a singer getting in the way there’s more room for riffs, melodies and rhythms from each and every band member, plus there’s no risk of cancelling a gig just because one of you has a cold.
With the recent surge of UK and US instrumental talent, not to mention resurgence of a number of decades-old acts, it seems timely to provide a guide on how to make instrumental rock work for both the listener and the musician. Some of these tips require equipment, some need specific skills, while others just offer a new way of looking at existing approaches. With each nugget of wisdom comes a recommended track from well-established and upcoming instrumental acts, providing a demonstration of the advice in context and allowing you to learn how to best use it in your own music.
So, here are ten ways to make instrumental rock work…
Dynamics are, in short, the most important aspect of instrumental music. Try dropping instruments in and out, developing the parts other members are playing and judging when to quieten down and for how long, if, of course, you can get the drummer to ease off on the crash cymbal. An essential part of instrumental dynamics is being able to easily switch from a clean, or lightly-overdriven, tone to full-on distortion, whether this is achieved through a channel-switching amp or standalone distortion pedals. It’s these sharp dynamic contrasts which make it possible for a single riff to last as long as twenty minutes, as seen in a number of recordings from instrumental pioneers Mogwai.
Recommended listening: Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
Following from the previous step is tremolo picking, one of the trademarks of “post-rock” and its almost orchestral take on guitar music. Limber up your picking hand because considerable stamina is required in order to perform the rapid-speed octave melodies which typify the genre. You’ll soon find that tremolo picking a guitar line can bring a certain raw, physical intensity that can’t quite be captured by simply sustaining notes.
Recommended listening: Explosions in the Sky – The Birth and Death of the Day
Along with distortion, delay and reverb comprise the two most important weapons in the instrumental guitarist’s arsenal. Without a singer to pad out the mix, delay and reverb can help to thicken textures and create a sense of atmosphere akin to the ways in which a film score heightens the calm or chaos on-screen. Delay is particularly effectively in both quiet, clean picking sections as well as all-out tremolo picking destruction. Be careful with reverb in live settings however as, in combination with the venue’s natural reverb, it can result in a muddy, indistinct guitar tone.
Recommended listening: Mogwai – New Paths to Helicon Pt. I
Open string hammer-ons and pull-offs
While it may not be one of the most recognisable aspects of “post-rock” or its accompanying genres, this technique has been put to great use in a number of compositions by Northern Irish instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar. Alternating between higher frets and their respective open strings helps to expand a band’s live sound, especially if you’re the lone guitarist in the group, as you’re able to cover both the mids and the highs almost simultaneously.
Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Gang (Starting Never Stopping)
Another, less technique-orientated, method of orchestrating your sound is to make use of octavers and pitch-shifting pedals. These can help to make one guitar sound like several guitars, while octave-up shifts can help to occupy the space where the audience might expect to hear a singer or additional harmonies.
Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Search:Party:Animal
Again, if you’re looking to create a multi-layered, almost polyphonic wall of sound from a single guitar, tapping is another way to achieve this. We aren’t talking Van Halen-esque solos here though; instead, ease off on the distortion and try fretting a chord with your left hand while tapping a melody with your right (don’t forget to reverse these instructions if you’re a leftie). A compressor may be required in order for every note to sound clean and even but, with practise, this technique creates an intricate, almost percussive, feel.
Recommended listening: Talons – In the Shadows of Our Stilted Homes
If you’re worried about the live performance of your studio masterpiece and how to replicate all those synths, horns and string quartets, consider the use of samples or, if you’ve indulged in a number of guitar overdubs, looping. As long as the drummer’s working to a click track, there’s no risk of going out of time and your audience gets to experience the track as it was intended, with the added bonus of the band rocking out onstage. Even if you didn’t feature any additional instruments, why not find some appropriate samples to add a human element to proceedings? Leicester four-piece Maybeshewill often feature speeches from their favourite movies, as well as synth overdubs, at their live gigs, further developing their already epic sound.
Recommended listening: Maybeshewill – Not For Want Of Trying
Slow it down
You’ve got a killer riff and the rhythm section’s locked in but your song still doesn’t quite convey the feeling you intended. Never be afraid to slow it down. While this can sometimes border on ambient styles (a line many instrumental acts often tread), the apocalyptic sensations it instils in the audience will more than make up for an extended running time. Try combining with reverb and delay to create a colossal, unending wall of sound.
Recommended listening: This Will Destroy You – Communal Blood
If your band’s tighter than a pair of Topman skinny jeans, consider some off-the-wall and unpredictable timing shifts. Not only will it display your technical expertise and musical know-how but also give the impression of a band who is dangerous and unhinged, ready to break free of its musical confines at any moment. Either that or you’ll come across as a bit nerdy: there’s a genre called “math rock” for a reason! When writing, try to imagine where to take the song next and sing the rhythm and melody lines before attempting to transpose to the guitar.
Recommended listening: Three Trapped Tigers – Cramm
The best part about having no lyrics is that there are no boundaries when it comes to song titles, so use your imagination. You want to write about that hilarious incident that happened to your drunken friend last week? Do it! Seen a catchy slogan or found two random words which just sound right together? Make good use of them. Scottish quintet Mogwai took a number of song titles for second album Come On Die Young from National Enquirer headlines so the sky’s the limit!
Recommended listening: Mogwai – You’re Lionel Richie
This entry was posted on July 3, 2011 by Michael Brown. It was filed under Features and was tagged with delay, distortion, dynamics, electric, guitar, heavy, instrumental, metal, octave, pedals, picking, post-rock, reverb, rock, tapping, technique, time signatures, timing, tremolo.