Ever have a song that really works when it’s a piano or guitar and vocal, but just doesn’t seem to cut it when the whole band gets hold of it? That’s because one of the biggest problems with songs that don’t end up sounding as good as they do in your head is because of some common arranging mistakes. Arranging is an art form just like everything else in the music business so it does take some talent and experience to get a song to really click, but you can easily avoid some of the common pitfalls by observing the pointers below.
Most well conceived arrangements are limited in the number of elements that occur at the same time. An element can be a single instrument like a lead guitar or a vocal, or it can be a group of instruments like the bass and drums, a doubled guitar line, a group of backing vocals, etc. Generally, a group of instruments playing exactly the same rhythm is considered an element. Examples: a doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies singing the same melody. If the bass plays very tightly with the kick and snare, that can be a single element too. Two lead guitars playing different parts are two elements, however. A lead and a rhythm guitar are two separate elements as well. So what’s an element then?
There are 5 elements in every arrangement.
Foundation - The Rhythm Section. The foundation is usually the bass and drums, but can also include a rhythm guitar and/or keys if they’re playing the same rhythmic figure as the rhythm section. Occasionally, as in the case of power trios, the Foundation element will only consist of drums since the bass will usually have to play a different rhythm figure to fill out the sound, so it becomes it’s own element.
Pad - A Pad is a long sustaining note or chord. In the days before synthesizers, a Hammond Organ provided the most often used pad and was later joined by the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Synthesizers now provide the majority of pads but real strings or a guitar power chord can also suffice.
Rhythm - Rhythm is any instrument that plays counter to the Foundation element. This can be a double time shaker or tambourine, a rhythm guitar strumming on the backbeat, or congas playing a Latin feel. The Rhythm element is used to add motion and excitement to the track.
Lead - A lead vocal, lead instrument, or solo.
Fills - Fills generally occur in the spaces between Lead lines, or can be a signature line like the intro to Coldplay’s “Clocks” or the Stones “Satisfaction”. You can think of a Fill element as an answer to the Lead.
Where Things Go Wrong
The biggest problem with most arrangements that don’t work is that they have too many elements happening at the same time. You can’t have 4 percussion elements, 5 guitar elements, 3 keyboard elements, a rhythm section and lead and background vocals and not get physically tired from listening because there’s just too much going on!
The mind unconsciously longs for simplicity and rewards a simple arrangement with attention, which is what we want to have happen, of course. But what does simplicity mean?
You should never have more than 4 elements occurring at the same time. You can get away with 5 every once in a while, but 4 is usually the max. “But there’s usually more than 4 instruments playing in most things I listen to these days,” you say? Yes, but they’re usually playing the same parts. For instance, if you have a doubled guitar part with a 3rd track playing the same part an octave above, that’s 3 instruments playing only 1 part, so that counts as only 1 element. If a guitar is doubling a bass line, that’s only 1 element. If you have a lead vocal that’s doubled with another vocal an octave above, that’s still only 1 element. A symphony orchestra may have 120 instruments, but when you break it down they’re all just playing a limited number of elements. Eventually, everything comes down to 4 of the 5 elements mentioned above.
Keep these tricks in mind and your songs will sound better and so will your recordings too! More on arrangement in an upcoming post. You can also read more about arranging techniques in my book How To Make Your Band Sound Great (where a lot of this article came from).