Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: Animals As Leaders guitar genius, Tosin Abasi
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
TA: With instrumental song form, you don’t have to adhere to the traditional rules like verses and choruses, so there’s more freedom to experiment. Also, without lyrics and the human voice, space is freed up in the listener’s imagination. With the boundaries of what’s generally considered a song and the a human voice removed, there is not only a lot more scope to be creative; you can actually do a lot more with the instruments and parts without making the music too busy.
GT: Any tendencies that you tend to embrace or avoid?
TA: I approach each track differently but always with the goal for it to feel like a song. I want it to be thematic, and have its own identity. I try to avoid clichés. I don’t have many rules, it’s a pretty raw creative process.
GT: Is a typical song structure always relevant for an instrumental?
TA: If you want a track to feel like a ‘song’, a pop structure can definitely help it to do so, but I think we are a little more adventurous than that. Some of our songs are structured with a pop sensibility in mind; however, we try to always make it different in some way.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
TA: It can be really valuable. The lengths of phrases, the amount of scale you want to use or not use. When you start to mimic the human voice you realise that a lot of vocals toggle between three or four notes that are actually quite close to each other, as it’s rare that the human voice wants to do large interval jumps. Then you realise that with the few amount of notes you’re using, the way you play them becomes a big deal. Because we use syllables when we talk and it might be the same note but multiple syllables, if you’re playing the same note on the guitar, how do you get them to sound different. It’s really cool to study the voice, as far as melody writing is concerned.
GT: How do you start writing one?
TA: I don’t have a standard approach. I’d usually be messing around and then something happens. I’ll happen upon a phrase or little musical idea, and from there if it’s strong enough it’ll catch my attention. So I’m playing but also taking a listener’s perspective at the same time. Sometimes there’s a mechanical element as your fingers are playing freely but then you stumble on something, so it’s a kind of inspiration because from there, you guide it and develop from that seed it into an idea.
GT: Often a guitr solo starts low and slow and finishes high and fast. Is this useful for instrumentals?
TA: This sounds like a musical cliché, but I think it is one because it’s effective, and creates an arc in the narrative. This is a useful structure to follow if you’re trying to make something work as it’s tried and tested, and it’s always good to end on a crescendo or high point. But following this method is a little obvious so I always try to do something different with my soloing. However, lately I’ve found myself coming full circle and writing things little more like this.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
TA: My guitar tone, haha! Something clear. If you’re trying to communicate a musical idea it needs to be received clearly. With distortion I like a lot of mid-range and as little gain as possible; just the minimum amount to get the sound I’m after and to not over saturate the tone. I dial it back to where it’s sustained enough so that it also retains string clarity. I prefer guitarists who create their own sounds, and obviously as guitarists we will reference other players, but you should be encouraged to carve out your own voice.
GT: Do you have favourite keys or tempos to compose in?
TA: Apparently I like around 155 bpm. Keys… I don’t really work in keys, I just use whatever works for the idea.
GT: Do you find Minor or Major keys easier to write in?
TA: Minor… but I don’t really use keys in the traditional sense. I use modal harmony, but it’s rare that’ll utilise an entire key. I use Major scales quite often but against Minor chords, so I think the simplest answer is Minor.
GT: Do you have any favourite modes to play or write in?
TA: Yes, I like Dorian and Lydian.
GT: What about modulations into new keys?
TA: I don’t really do that too often.
GT: Do you view the backing band differently to how you would on a vocal song?
TA: I don’t think so, but maybe there’s more focus on the instruments. For example, the drummer can play with a certain freedom that maybe he or she can’t if they’re playing a verse or chorus with a vocal over it.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
TA: Go for it!
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
TA: Steve Vai’s Passion And Warfare. Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets. Kurt Rosenwinkle, The Next Step.
SOME SONGS ARE STRUCTURED WITH A SONG SENSIBILITY IN MIND, BUT WE TRY TO MAKE IT DIFFERENT IN SOME WAY
Tosin Abasi is one of the most creative players around today