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Band Guide

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The dictionary definition of band is a group of people getting together for a common purpose. In music, the concept of a band means much more than that.

The first official "bands" in popular music were big bands, which in the 1930s and 1940s were collectives of horn players, guitarists, percussionists, and singers who played swing jazz. (Actually, bands were around even earlier, given John Philips Sousa marching bands, military-style bands, and jazz pioneers that existed around the turn of the century.) But big bands had too many members to travel easily across the country, so rhythm-and-blues and newer jazz musicians reduced the number to roughly four or five people per band. This configuration was more flexible and affordable, and the trend continues today.

The first rock 'n' roll bands arrived in the 1950s, notably Elvis Presley and his three-man rockabilly combo, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana. As the music grew, the bands expanded—The Beatles pioneered the classic pop quartet, with two guitarists, a bass player, a drummer, and four members who could sing. Rock, in addition to country, folk, blues, bluegrass, and pop, has since gone through many permutations, from a lone singer such as Joan Baez to a 27-piece harp-choir-guitar band such as The Polyphonic Spree. There are no rules on this subject; choose as many or as few members as you need to properly get the music across.

Sometimes bands have an obvious star, who is often also the creative talent, and the rest of the musicians will step into the background. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz are among the examples from pop-music history—early on, the sidemen accepted their roles as supporting players. In these situations, the star gets top billing on club marquees, while the band develops into a loyal coalition of players who take orders from the leader.

Another type of backup band involves a well-known frontperson who hires musicians to bring his or her music to life. Next time pop star Christina Aguilera comes to an arena in your town, notice the people behind her—although it may not be obvious from the audience, they're a salaried band hired to keep the music going. (Sometimes they'll play the same role in a recording studio.) But some backup bands form out of longtime friendships with the leaders, sticking with them as they climb from obscurity to stardom.

These kinds of bands are worth studying: Which musicians play solos, and when? What instruments sound good together? Can you hear the keyboardist all the time? A great way to learn broad band concepts like tempo and dynamics is to pay attention to how the professionals do it.

The players in any of these backup bands probably started exactly where you're starting now—with a few friends who think it'd be cool to be in a band. These professional musicians are proof that if you work hard and do all the right things, from booking club shows to maintaining a mailing list, you have a chance. Perhaps success in a self-contained band, in which each member has an equal role in the music and decisions, awaits you. Or perhaps you're destined to play your bass in a band led by somebody else. Both of these "working musician" configurations are equally respectable—and fun.

At this stage, your best opportunity to form a band is in a self-contained group of musicians who plan to pick a style, rehearse, and perform together. You'll do all the fundamental band work yourselves without hiring outside people. (Once you get bigger and need help, the hiring will begin.)

A self-contained group can be incredibly rewarding. (Or incredibly painful, if you fall in with the wrong combination of people.) Whether you stay together for three weeks or an entire career, band members make emotional connections with each other and can stay friends forever. If they're really lucky, they'll wind up like U2, a group of Irish schoolmates who managed to stay together as a profitable and rewarding band for two decades and counting.

Once you form a band, it won't take long to realize what you're doing isn't easy. The music may come easily to you, especially if you're starting out with basic, three-chord rock, pop, country, or blues, but concepts like teamwork, cooperation, chemistry, and soul are much more challenging to master. To do so, keep in mind that a band playing together as an entire unit is far more effective than everybody soloing at the same time.

Band Types


These days, there are more kinds of bands playing more styles of music in more configurations than anyone could possibly count. Some are party bands, playing upbeat versions of familiar rock 'n' roll songs to get people dancing. Some are wedding bands, playing a specific roster of standards predetermined by the bride and groom. Some will play original music, written and performed by the band members, in an attempt to fill clubs and sell compact discs.

It's not important, yet, to know exactly which of these configurations, if any, you'd like to be. Try to let your style evolve, rather than defining it so rigidly that there's no room for experimentation or dissent. The Rolling Stones started out as a blues band, performing Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry songs, but have evolved over the decades into perhaps the most successful rock 'n' roll band in the world.

Do you have to be good-looking to be in a band? No! Check out pictures of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, ex-Cars leader Ric Ocasek, the Stones' Mick Jagger, and certain weird-facial-haired members of the Backstreet Boys. Not the hunkiest men in the world. But they all had a certain je ne sais quoi, a stage presence or charisma that made them effective and desirable as front men for bands.

Remember, too, that the image of the pop-star hero you're trying to emulate may be heavily manipulated by the time it reaches you on a CD cover, poster, or Internet page. Don't let looks intimidate you. If your band makes terrific music, it will be inherently attractive to people.

Your image will come naturally as the band progresses. Some performers have drastically changed their looks in order to present dramatic images—Marilyn Manson, for example, toiled in bands for years before becoming famous in white makeup, bright red lipstick, and creepy contact lenses. Tons of successful musicians, from David Bowie to Madonna to Britney Spears, have changed their appearance regularly to help sell their music. You can try it, too.

Many great musical movements have arrived with corresponding fashion scenes. When The Beatles became internationally famous in the 1960s, they pioneered the extreme notion of men with long hair. Punk bands in the late 1970s created their own clothing and hairstyles, with accessories such as mohawk hairdos and safety pins. More recently, pop singers like Mariah Carey, Pink, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera have drawn attention to their music by wearing very little clothing. If anybody in your band has some fashion sense, consider changing the band's look to get attention.

One of the first questions you'll need to tackle is, "How many musicians should be in the band?" Often the answer will be obvious, as you'll have three or four people who show up to practice prepared to sing or play certain instruments. But you may have to make the membership decision based on your collective musical vision—duos sound drastically different from quartets, and it's worth knowing the pros and cons of each configuration.

Duos have a rich tradition in pop, rock, and other genres, from The Everly Brothers to Simon & Garfunkel to The White Stripes—but they're limited. Many duos wind up hiring bands to flesh out the music behind them, or in the Stripes' case, hiring a bass player to complement their vocal-guitar-drums lineup. A trio, favored by such rock stars as guitarist Jeff Beck, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Nirvana, is a sturdy configuration that avoids "too many chefs" syndrome.

But perhaps the ultimate rock-and-pop lineup is a quartet, usually with drums, bass, guitar, vocals and, if the singer plays an instrument, perhaps a keyboard or second guitar. It may not seem like much, but when all four band members play together, they can create a powerful sound (or a horrible racket, depending on how good they are). Classic quartets include The Beatles, The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, X, The Replacements, Jane's Addiction, and the Foo Fighters.

You can have as many musicians as you want, of course, as long as the lineup doesn't start to mess up internal communication.



At first, when you form a band, the goal is to have fun playing together. But after you've done this for a while, and considered the idea of regular rehearsals or performing before live audiences, it may be time for the group to sit down and determine its goals.

Do members of the band fantasize about being major rock stars? Do they want to play parties on the weekends? Quit their day jobs and make a living at music? At a certain point, it may help to make a chart of where you are, where you want to be, and how to get from here to there. This process requires communication among the band members, so it may be time to start meeting (in addition to rehearsing) on a regular basis.

Making a living in a band is an extremely difficult trick, which usually requires a long trip up the ladder from parties to weddings to club gigs. But if you have the commitment, you'll have a chance. The band members will probably have to spend at least a few months working regular jobs (or attending school) while rehearsing nights and playing on weekends.

In fact, some musicians spend their entire careers as "weekend warriors," changing clothes Friday after work and heading to club gigs. Many professionals enjoy the complementary nature of these two careers.

Shooting for fame isn't nearly as relaxing, although it can be incredibly rewarding. If the band is determined to be stars—which means, perhaps, touring different parts of the country, hiring a manager, and signing with a record label—the road is long, difficult, and fraught with barriers. Playing once or twice on the weekend won't be nearly enough.

Remember that making music, at least at first, is a low-paying proposition. Don't delude yourself into thinking you'll rehearse for a few weeks, land a club gig or two, and never have to work a real job again. Many musicians toil for years before they reach this point. You'd be surprised how many well-known band members continue to work day jobs.

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