SESSION SECRETS The world of session guitar
In this unique feature Jon Bishop has recorded five new song charts, live, with a band of pro West End players. He’s tabbed his suggested parts and there are backing tracks for you to try too.
We got a top West End band to create five cool tracks to demonstrate the art of creating great guitar parts; nine session legends talk about their studio lives. Plus: Top 10 Session Tips!
Welcome to our exclusive feature on the world of session and ‘show’ playing. Many GT lessons home in on a technique or concept, but here we are looking at the art of putting all the elements together to make a functioning, credible song.
The challenge was to record tracks in five different styles in my studio (Apple Tree Studios) in Dorset. I enlisted the help of band mates from the hit musical tour The Bodyguard in which we performed the soundtrack of the hit film starring Whitney Houston. Drummer Alan Dale and bassist Olly Buxton are top professionals and have performed and toured with some of the biggest names in the business. In eight months of playing together eight times a week the band has grown to know each other’s playing inside out, and this can make a big difference in terms of feel and groove.
All the tracks were recorded in a take from start to finish, following a chart referred to as a ‘lead sheet’. We have included these so you can see what we had to work from and how the parts were formed. In these days of programming and satellite overdubs, players don’t even have to meet each other, so the sound of musicians gelling together is a luxury, and one that was particularly rewarding to be a part of.
Creating great parts is a combination of theory knowledge and the vocabulary of the specific style. A popular trick is to tip the hat in the direction of key artists or musicians that are masters of the style in question. This use of pastiche is prevalent in current ‘top 40’ music where producers use iconic arrangements as jumping off points - the Bruno Mars hit Locked Out Of Heaven uses The Police for inspiration; Justin Timberlake took Quincy Jones’s slick production on Michael Jackson records and guitar style of players like David Williams for many of his hits. The process to write and perform the parts for our pieces is listed as we go.
Funk Rock Track 1
Artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Lionel Richie successfully incorporated rock elements into their funk and R&B roots. Mega-selling solo songstresses like Anastasia, Jessie J, Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have all combined funk and rock elements. We took inspiration from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album and Alan laid down a disco style drum groove. For a guitar part in this style simplicity and consistency are key. The devil is in the detail and playing a simple part with consistency takes discipline. It’s tempting to change things around on the fly, but this can be confusing for the listener. For the solo we shift into rock mode with a soaring Prince style F Minor Pentatonic wig-out.
Soul Ballad Track 2
The soul ballad has its roots in Motown and Stax. Many artists have used this template including Amy Winehouse and Adele. We’ve based our soul track on Adele or Ed Shearan style ballads. The rhythm guitar tips its hat to Steve Cropper and Curtis Mayfield, and the accented chord on beat 2 and 4 is found throughout the performance. Triad chords are good, strong choices and these can be added to with the odd 7th chord. The solo takes inspiration from blues guitarists like BB King and John Mayer. The sparse phrasing is counter-intuitive, as it feels natural to play more. C Major and C Minor Pentatonic are perfect for creating a soulful and melodic solo.
Pop-Rock Track 3
This track is based around funk jazz bands like Jamiroquai and combines a persistent groove with pop and rock vocabulary - slash chords, octaves and single note ‘popping’ lines. Effect pedals provide a sonic edge and the phaser provides an instantly retro vibe. The auto-wah adds a funky vocal sound to both the rhythm and lead parts - even fast soloing lines that a foot wah-wah pedal could not possibly articulate. The soloing scale of choice here is E Dorian mode.
Dance Pop Track 4
The electronic dance style has fused into today’s pop songs and performing these arrangements live brings a new set of challenges. Alan used a drum pad to trigger electronic sounds that were integrated into the acoustic kit. Olly used an octaver and a bass synth pedal to fatten up the bass tone. The role of the guitar is to fit into the electronic sounding backdrop and not sound like a guitar per se. On our track the guitar plays open-voiced triads with a rhythmic delay and modulated ambience to mimic a synth ‘pad’. A volume pedal then removes the guitar’s inherent attack when swelled forward. Funk guitar techniques like single-note popping lines can be integrated into dance tracks and this is a key feature of tracks by artists like The Weeknd. Funk guitar strumming works well and Nile Rodgers proved the point in the stellar hit Get Lucky, by Daft Punk. For the solo we used a single repeat delay at the same volume as the original note. If this is set at a dotted eighth note, and an eighth note line is played, the delay provides the illusion of a sequenced stream of 16th notes with an electronic edge. Key artists to listen to that incorporate dance elements in their tracks are Justin Timberlake, Usher, Kylie Minogue, Pharrell Williams and Rihanna.
Arena Rock Track 5
When getting into arena rock mode it’s worth thinking about how the parts will sound when played in large performance spaces. Megaselling bands like Def Leppard deliberately wrote guitar parts that would work in an arena setting. Slower tempos and relaxed drum fills and guitar lines work best. Busy ideas can get lost in the ambience and natural reverb of the larger venue. In this case simple is most definitely best, so remember guitar solos don’t always have to be a blistering shred fest. This track is in the style of bands like The Foo Fighters and The Darkness, but the stadium rock solo draws inspiration from artists like Bryan Adams where melody and delivery are key (think of Adams’s guitarist Keith Scott’s deliciously simple but incredibly melodic solos - perfect for huge, resonant spaces).
The GT audio includes five recordings with fully tabbed-out guitar parts. There are also backing tracks with the guitar performances removed – check out the charts provided, and when you’ve played what we came up with, see what parts you would record for these songs.
Many thanks to Universal Audio for the loan of the Apollo interface for the recording, and to my compatriots Alan Dale and Olly Buxton for their fantastic contributions on drums and bass. Have fun and see you next time.