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When to say ‘NO’ to gigs (Gigonomics 101)

The Agony of Choice In spite of advances in modern technology, it’s still not possible to be in two places at the same time. As a freelance musician — or…

The Agony of Choice

In spite of advances in modern technology, it’s still not possible to be in two places at the same time. As a freelance musician — or freelance anything, come to think of it —you have to constantly decide which gigs and projects to accept and which to decline. Sometimes, it can be difficult to make the right decision and it’s not always obvious which choice is the right one.

This is where a helpful tool called ‘The Gig Triangle’ comes in; this appeared in a column in Bass Player Magazine some years ago (I’ve searched for the original article, but to no avail) and has stuck with me ever since. It’s also proved to hold true on every gig I’ve ever been on.

What is the ‘Gig Triangle’?

Every gig or project on offer contains a balance of three areas; music, people, and money. Let’s take a closer look at each side:

1. The Music

This is a pretty basic thing, but is the music bearable? I’m not talking about whether or not you like the music that you have to play, because part of being a professional is being able to make it seem like everything you have to play is your favourite music in the whole world. Everyone also has notions of musical credibility until it’s time to pay their rent.

The real question is: can you do the gig without feeling like your soul is being eroded with every note that you play, or wishing for some apocalyptic event that would mean that the gig would be brought to a swift end? In a decade of freelance work, I’ve had this happen three times and it has never been worth it.

2. The People

Who’s on the gig? Are they going to be a pleasure to work with, or are you going to have to share a 4-hour journey to the gig with that creepy keyboard player who lacks any sense of personal hygiene?

So little of the time on a gig is spent actually playing that this is a serious issue and often has nothing to do with the musical skills of the people involved. The gig is not the music – a vast proportion of your time is spent travelling, loading in gear, setting up, and then hanging around waiting to play. You don’t want to spend all that non-playing time surrounded by people who drive you crazy, so if we assume that there’s a basic level of musicianship and everyone in the band can play then the main concern is what will the hang be like?

3. The Money

Obviously, this is why you’re doing the gig, because you need to earn a living and doing gigs sure beats working in Starbucks. But this side of the triangle is not always about how large or small the gig fee is; your time is a valuable, non-renewable resource, so you have to factor in how much prep work the gig requires and how much time you have to block out of your day in order to actually do the gig.

The Golden Rule of Gigging

So we have music, money and people on the gig triangle, and the golden rule is that there have to be two sides of the triangle in place for a gig to be worth saying yes to, which leaves us with these three scenarios:

Option 1

Gigs where there isn’t not really much money, but you enjoy the music and the people are great; this is basically every original band project ever.

Option 2

Gigs where there’s a decent fee and there’s a good hang, but the music isn’t your ideal choice; this is essentially most covers bands, unless you happen to really love playing ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Valerie’ every week for the rest of your life (and there’s nothing wrong with that at all!).

Option 3

Gigs where the people are not enjoyable to work with, but you enjoy the music and there’s a good fee – this is probably the rarest scenario.

In most cases, you won’t need to go into this level of analysis, but it can help avoid situations where you make spur of the moment choices that make you resent the gig that you end up on. There’s nothing worse for the audience, the band, or the music itself than having someone on stage who really has somewhere better to be.

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10 Years to Learn a Lick?

Confession time: I’m a terrible student. March 2019 marked an entire decade since I took a lesson with the great Dr Richard Niles, a guitarist/producer/composer/arranger who studied under Pat Metheny…

Confession time: I’m a terrible student.

March 2019 marked an entire decade since I took a lesson with the great Dr Richard Niles, a guitarist/producer/composer/arranger who studied under Pat Metheny at Berklee in the 1970s and has subsequently worked with Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, James Brown and a host of others.

I met Richard while studying for my degree at The Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, and shortly after graduating I began to realise that in spite of having a music degree I still didn’t know enough about harmony and improvisation to feel comfortable as a freelance musician, particularly as I was starting to develop an unhealthy interest in The Dark Arts of Jazz.

It turned out that I had a lot to learn (and still do). Reviewing the dictaphone recording of the lesson is hilarious and humiliating in equal measures as Richard begins to ascertain the extent of my ignorance. In order to get my rather malnourished sense of harmony on track, he gave me a set of exercises that involved voice leading through a split-bar ii-V-I progression using arpeggios.

Wait, what?

Here’s a basic ii-V-I in the key of F major (7th chords on bass are almost always better with the 5th omitted):

 

Voice leading is an expensive-sounding term for finding the path of least resistance between chords – in this case, we’re looking for semitone resolution from one chord to the next.

The b7 of the Gm7 chord (F) falls by a semitone to become the major 3rd of the C7 chord. This process is repeated for the resolution from V to I: the b7 of the C7 chord (Bb) falls by a semitone to become the major 3rd of the F chord (A):

Playing just these notes (known as ‘guide tones’, because they guide your ear to the sound of each chord) provides us with the essential outline of the ii-V-I progression:

Building an 8th-note line that includes these semitone movements can be done using a simple combination of ascending and descending arpeggios:

Why is that a useful thing to practise? Even if you’re not looking to become a fully fledged jazzer then it’s still a very nutritious exercise. My perspective is that although I don’t want to make playing jazz standards my main thing, I definitely don’t want to have to shut myself off to that area of music because I haven’t done my homework and put the hours in; improvising over a set of chords changes with confidence and musicality is the hardest thing I can think of to do on the bass.

Playing these sorts of exercises will benefit your playing in four different ways:

A greater understanding of harmony: this sort of harmony is not limited to jazz, and understanding the way in which chords move can help to improve your playing regardless of the areas that you operate in.
Voice leading: as bass players, we spend our lives moving from root to root and are often guilty of not thinking about the rest of the notes in the chord. Developing an intuitive sense of voice leading helps to strengthen the melodic content of both your solos and your basslines.
Technique: this is a great example of an exercise that falls into the ‘music, not chops’ category – everything here is derived from a musical concept, and working out how these patterns fit on the fretboard in every possible way will definitely present your fingers with a variety of technical issues to solve.
Vocabulary: This is the main reason why I was prescribed these exercises: even though I understood the concept on paper I definitely couldn’t conjure up an improvised line that fulfilled the criteria of using arpeggios to voice lead a melodic line through a split-bar ii-V-I. Developing fluency in improvisation in jazz or any other style of music first requires that you amass a collection of small fragments that can easily be recalled whenever you get into trouble and don’t know what to play, and these sorts of lines are a great starting point.

A full run-down of possible fingerings for this exercise on 4- and 5-string basses can be found here:

ii-V-I Licks I Ought to Have Learned by Now

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Taking the Sting out of Odd-Meter Playing

For many of us, the very phrase ‘odd-meter’ brings us out in a cold sweat. Chances are that unless you’ve had a very eclectic musical upbringing then you’re most comfortable…

For many of us, the very phrase ‘odd-meter’ brings us out in a cold sweat. Chances are that unless you’ve had a very eclectic musical upbringing then you’re most comfortable in 4/4 time and anything that involves stuffing more beats into a bar is rather stressful. The matter is complicated by the fact that opportunities to practise your odd-meter groove skills are heavily biased towards prog rock, technical metal and modern jazz; not the most accessible genres by a long way.

But there are bright spots to be found in far more commercial territory: Sting’s 10 million-selling, triple Grammy-winning Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993) shows the former Police frontman stretching his songwriting skills to incorporate advanced harmonic and rhythmic concepts within the confines of a mainstream pop record and includes a number of odd-meter excursions.

Here are a few of my favourite moments that will provide plenty of practice material for odd-time playing that isn’t ‘Take Five’:

Seven Days

Further proof that Sting is actually a massive nerd: this song is in 5/4, happens to be track 6 on the album and is titled ‘Seven Days’. Who doesn’t love a number-based in-joke?

This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest songs ever written; a song in 5/4 that features extensive non-diatonic harmony, uses diminished passing chords in the chorus, contains a brief flirtation with the harmonic major scale and still sounds like a great pop song.

The verse groove provides a great training ground for 5/4 playing. The bass part consists of a simple, ascending root – 5th pattern throughout the verse, leaving plenty of space for you to count (and feel) the meter without having to play anything too complicated.

 

The chorus contains a rhythmic development of the verse part. Here, the bass uses a simple root-octave pattern to clearly outline the 5/4 meter’s 3+2 subdivision:

St. Augustine in Hell

This brooding, organ-driven tune is built on a repetitive bass figure in 7/4, which can be thought of as alternating bars of 4/4 and 3/4. Notice how the rhythm of the initial idea is displaced and contracted to achieve the odd meter:

Love is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)

Sting allegedly wanted to write a song in 7/4 and sought appropriate numerical lyrical inspiration from the 1960s Western film The Magnificent Seven (itself a cowboy twist on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), which also helps to explain the song’s country-influenced chorus. The verse groove is built on a bluesy idea that hints at A7, while Sting’s vamp under the piano solo (starting at around 4’11” on the track) features some more chromatic playing:

 

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5 Wonder-ful Pentatonic Unisons

Five of Stevie’s 5-note lines Stevie Wonder’s vast body of work is rightly revered by musicians (and, indeed, non-musicians…) for its harmonic and melodic invention; Stevie has managed to seamlessly…

Five of Stevie’s 5-note lines

Stevie Wonder’s vast body of work is rightly revered by musicians (and, indeed, non-musicians…) for its harmonic and melodic invention; Stevie has managed to seamlessly weave jazz-based ideas, such as chromaticism, extended chords, and tritone substitution into his tunes and still sell vast numbers of records.

One of his definitive compositional devices is the use of pentatonic unison lines, which have provided instrumental hooks for some of his biggest hits. While some are deceptively simple, others might have you breaking into a sweat on a gig. Let’s look at some of Stevie’s best pentatonic lines, the musical concepts he uses to construct them and how to play them:

‘Isn’t She Lovely’

This is the shortest (and easiest) of Stevie’s pentatonic ideas, but the rhythmic placement of the line transforms a straightforward ascending E major pentatonic scale into a memorable hook. For an extra challenge, think about how many different fingerings could you come up with to play this:

‘Superstition’

I can almost hear readers groaning at the sight of this: “Surely he’s not going to try and teach us how to play ‘Superstition’?!”

Although this is one of the most-gigged songs ever, I doubt that many people faithfully reproduce every nuance of the original synth bass line (I know I don’t…). Nailing all of the legato phrasing and grace notes requires deft fretting hand articulation, as many moves that come naturally on a keyboard are rather awkward on a fretted instrument tuned in fourths. My preferred approach is (unsurprisingly) to use an octave pedal with 100% wet signal to maximise the ‘synthy’ quality of the part:

 

‘Master Blaster (Jammin’)’

The underlying concept here is C minor pentatonic sequenced in 3-note groupings, which will be nothing new if you’ve ever sought out pentatonic scale exercises. The potential difficulty in this line is getting the position shifts right; I’ve marked in the fingerings that I use, but you might have another alternative that you prefer to use:

‘Sir Duke’

A fairly demanding exercise in playing the B major pentatonic scale (with frequent additions of the minor 3rd as a passing note) all over the fretboard, ‘Sir Duke’ is a classic example of what I’d term ‘bass Chinese Whispers’, where gigging a song for many years without referencing the original recording results in some considerable approximations of the actual part. I find myself playing the 8va section of the line in the lower octave and putting in hammer-ons wherever possible:

I also tend to mutate the last line somewhat, playing it more like the horn line on the Natural Wonder live version (my ears can’t decide if Nate Watts does this, too). Attempting to write this out resulted in the following triplet horror, which is easy to hear but a nightmare to read:

‘Do I Do’

This one still causes me to panic somewhat, because 16th-note pentatonic sequences at 114bpm are near my upper limit and this one sounds very vague on a gig unless I’ve been practising it regularly. This line is a great example of how rhythmic displacement of a simple pentatonic sequence (B major pentatonic in 4-note groupings) can have great results:

 

 

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