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
July 3, 2011 | Categories: Features | Tags: delay, distortion, dynamics, electric, guitar, heavy, instrumental, metal, octave, pedals, picking, post-rock, reverb, rock, tapping, technique, time signatures, timing, tremolo | 1 Comment
Among the latest crazes in the zany world of effects pedals are amp imitation overdrives and distortions. Since digital amp modelling became all the rage with products from Line 6 and the like, boutique manufacturers saw an opportunity to exploit this desire to make a Fender sound like a Mesa (to take an extreme example) and many have focused their efforts on so-called ‘amp-in-a-box’ pedals. Companies such as Catalinbread and Wampler have crafted many of these all-analog devices and the end products have become flagship products for the companies involved. One of the earliest ‘amp-in-a-box’ pedals to hit the mainstream was MI Audio’s Crunch Box, which the company claims ‘captures the huge sound of a Marshall on steroids’. As one of the fastest selling boutique distortion pedals in the world, can the sound of the Crunch Box live up to its considerable sales record?
On The Surface
With its hot-rod red power-coated finish and white knobs, the Crunch Box will certainly stand out on a crowded pedalboard despite its diminutive size; the overall dimensions of the pedal are slightly smaller than a standard MXR enclosure, which is good news for anyone lacking real estate on their board. A sturdy 3DPT switch provides true bypass for complete tonal integrity when off while the jacks and knobs feel reassuringly rugged. Controls are refreshingly simple, with volume, tone and gain providing all the necessary adjustments on the outside. Inside the pedal is a trimpot that controls the presence of the pedal; MI Audio recommends using this to adjust the unit to your amp in terms of both presence and bass response. The pedal runs from either a 9V battery or a standard Boss-style power supply, with the option of running up to 25V for increased headroom and volume. Finally, a standard red LED informs the user that the stompbox is on but, judging from the sounds produced, you and your audience will both know when this raucous red box is in use.
With tone and gain set to noon and volume to taste, the Crunch Box will bring a smile to anyone looking for a loud, unabashed, all-out rock tone from a stompbox. One of the first sounds that springs to mind is Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello. As a loyal JCM800 user, the Crunch Box is perfect for emulating his riff-led swagger with a neck singlecoil and a healthy dose of distortion. Further up the gain range leads a sound that’s tight yet thick, perfect for ‘80s metal or Satriani-esque instrumental passages with a touch of delay and a bridge humbucker.
With a particular focus in the midrange, the Crunch Box is also ideally suited to more old-school, less aggressive tones. Although it doesn’t function particularly well in the lowest gain range, losing both volume and treble frequencies, the 9 o’clock region is perfect for emulating Jimmy Page’s riffs and solos; the Crunch Box’s amp-like response to picking intensity proves particularly effective in this lower gain area. Further, use of the guitar’s volume knob reduces the pedal to a, while not totally clean, at least less distorted state, ideal for some dynamic contrast within a chord progression or riff.
In terms of versatility, the Crunch Box’s tone control is effective in shaping the pedal’s frequency response but, since the internal trimpot proves so useful, the two together could prove to make the pedal that bit more versatile. Indeed, I initially found myself taking the pedal apart and putting it back together again more than I care to mention, eager to make tiny tweaks depending on the volume at which I was playing. I eventually settled on a sound I was happy with but the whole process was somewhat time-consuming. Still, full treble on the tone control provides a sharp, abrasive sound perfect for some drop-D grunge riffing while minimum tone still proves usable for darker sounds within a mix.
One aspect of being in a band that guitarists often forget is the importance of the mid frequencies. Metal players in particular are prone to scooping the mids and boosting the bass, not only rendering the guitar muffled and indistinct in a live situation but also clashing with the bass guitar. While many distortion pedals are prone to falling apart at loud volumes, the Crunch Box excels at live performance, ensuring that those ripping solos are sure to melt at least some faces. While some of the pedal’s tones in isolation may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s often surprising just how powerful they can be when accompanied by bass and drums. The ability to cut through a mix like a hot knife through butter is one of the reasons why Marshall amps, and pedals like the Crunch Box, continue to be so popular today.
The Crunch Box remains an impressive stompbox thanks to its amp-like feel, ability to retain definition with complex chords and copious amounts of gain. Although some boutique distortion pedals (Suhr Riot, Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion) may have superseded it in recent years, it is worth noting that the majority of the innards of these high-gain distortion devices are based upon Marshall’s popular series of distortion pedals from the ‘80s and ‘90s, in this case the Guv’nor. While the lack of the former’s 3-band EQ may put some users off, the Crunch Box still provides a number of ways of tweaking the base tone of the unit, including the internal presence trimpot and the option of increasing headroom via a voltage boost. Still, there is no escaping the Marshall-esque tones exuded from this Australian rock machine and, in that respect at least, it is a one trick pony. It’s lucky, then, that it does that one trick so damn well.