Ensemble playing is nearly a lost art in rock. It’s different than playing parts in well-defined arrangements and it’s different than jamming. It’s also different than passing around solos. But it actually involves all three. The players in a mature ensemble group learn to live in each other’s heads while they perform and become a flexible, flowing, spontaneous unit that can take a theme out to the stratosphere and still have it make sense in the band’s context.
Think of King Crimson during the Starless and Bible Black and Red era, post-Kid A Radiohead, the John Coltrane Quartet, Phish and the most famous ensemble group of the classic rock era, the Allman Brothers.
Dickey Betts, the co-founding guitarist of the Allmans who celebrates his 69th birthday on Wednesday, December 12, is a perfect example of a great ensemble rocker. Employing his ’57 Les Paul Gold Top, Betts developed the twin-guitar harmony approach that made the band’s sound indelible on tracks like “Revival” and “Dreams,” often planning with Duane Allman for their guitars to play a third, fifth or sixth apart as they explored scales. And Dickey and Duane’s love of the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis also led them to employ a modal strategy in many of their solos and guitar workouts.
Developing an ensemble sound doesn’t have to be that precise or strategic, necessarily. But following at least a few of these tips will make your playing within a group — especially in a band with another guitarist or other guitarists — and your group sound better.
• Know Harmonies: You don’t have to study theory extensively to play in harmonic intervals with others. Just know the harmonies for each chord or keep a chart handy until you learn them. Such charts are widely available on line. And listen to the Allman Brothers.
• Define Your Tone: Even if you love reverb, it makes sense to trim it back as far as tolerable when playing in a large group and especially when playing with other guitarists. In a room full of sound, reverb can make your tone get lost in the soup. And find the sonic spot where your guitar can cut through the mix, which will involve adjusting your tone pots and amp settings until you find a sound that punches through without consuming the bandwidth of other musicians.
• Pick A Role: On a song-by-song basis, know what you’re going to do. If you’re the rhythm guitarist, play rhythm; if you’re the lead player, dig into your riffs and fills and solos. It’s tempting to drift into multiple roles during group improvisations, but crucial to have defined turf so you don’t step on others’ toes or lose yourself within the music.
• Write Arrangements: One of the best ways to define who does what and where they do it is to have written arrangements. This doesn’t require reading notation. Chords sheets with cues will do until each song’s roadmap in ingrained. And when that’s part of muscle memory, the real fun in embellishing, soloing and other creative playing begins.
• Study The Masters: Coltrane, the Allmans, Radiohead and all of the above are good examples. So are Cream — where Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton often raced in lockstep during improvisatory sections — even though they were a trio. Listen to their recordings, read about their styles and techniques, and even try to imagine where they were coming from as artists and people. Insight will come.
• Get In Step: Be sure you’re playing in time. You can be old school and use a metronome or play to recordings to develop rhythm chops, or go to YouTube where you can find and play a variety of ready-to-rumble backing tracks like this example. Just plug in and play along, relaxed, but aware where you’re lagging or racing so you can focus. A single player who is off rhythm makes an entire ensemble sound weak.
• Listen Closely: Pay attention to what others are playing and notice if you’re too loud or too quiet, or if you’re stepping on other musicians’ parts and solos. Just because someone else raises volume doesn’t mean you have to as well. Ensemble playing isn’t like the Arms Race. In fact, it’s the musical ultimate of Détente.
• Just Play Rhythm: If you’re playing in an ensemble and lose your way, just play rhythm. It’s safe and sensible, and if your time is good you’ll never be wrong. Plus rhythm is the foundation of music and there’s nothing dishonorable about serving it, as some of the greatest guitar players including Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards amply displayed.
• Push The Envelope: That said, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. With extended technique and effects, and ideas about counterpoint and creative atonality, a guitarist can move a performance into an entirely different realm. The trick is knowing your fellow players and the music well enough to feel when stepping “outside” can work.
• Stay Cool: It is important to be relaxed, confident and friendly when you’re playing in any group. That balance can be set off by a variety of issues, from excessive individual volume to the drummer stealing the guitar player’s girlfriend or boyfriend (like that could ever happen…). For the record: noodling between songs is incredibly rude and it’s a habit far too many musicians indulge in. It’s unprofessional and wastes others’ time, and robs fellow players of the silence that’s needed to rest the ear. And too many players do it. Do not be one of them. Ever!