Five Parts We Shouldn't Write

Part of Articulate’s charge to “Make Your Music Say What You Mean” is an emphasis on thoughtful part-writing. A well-constructed guitar part is, very literally, music to our ears, and I firmly believe that every player is capable of creating parts of which they can be proud. My general facilitation strategy is to provide a wide range of concepts that can be applied in an equally wide range of contexts, adding to players’ toolkits like a friend asking, “Have you tried this before?”

However, as much as I prefer to frame things in the affirmative, there’s definitely some merit in discussing what NOT to do. Sometimes, it can be more straightforward to avoid mistakes that to shoot for successes, and with that in mind, here are 5 kinds of parts we probably shouldn’t write:

(Caveat: sometimes we do the “wrong” thing on purpose, and it totally works, so if you feel the need to purposefully go against one or more of these suggestions, don’t let me stop you. Also, like the majority of Articulate’s content, this post focuses on musical situations in which we’re adding guitar parts to pre-existent songs written by others. The “do what you want” factor is certainly more present when approaching our own music.)

1. The Concealer

Perhaps the most problematic parts we can write as a member of a musical team are those that interfere with the parts that are already being played. The fact is, when two instruments try to occupy the same space, one will bury the other almost every time. We often don’t consider how stealing sonic real-estate can affect our musical experience, but among the myriad of problems created by competing parts are impossible monitor mixes, frustrated bandmates, and audiences that “couldn’t really hear you that well.” The principle here is that a thoughtful player will insert their instrument into a mix of parts in a way that contributes to the musical whole without making things lopsided. This is especially important in relation to the vocal, but valid in relation to anything that makes sound.  

2. The Grandstand

In a culture that often sees raw note output as an undeniable indication of mastery, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to turn every song into a guitar exhibition. The desire for people to know that we’re pretty good at our instrument is totally normal, but turning every song into a technique or theory masterclass is the equivalent to bragging in every conversation, and will probably cost us as many friends. There are certainly some instances where you gotta wank that guitar around, but letting someone ask you for that kind of part before spewing it on everything is probably a good decision.

3. The Autopilot

I’ll be the first person to celebrate the unique ways in which each player approaches their instrument. The way we tend to play expresses who we are, but a part that’s comfortable isn’t always the right part. Learning how to mold our own styles to different musical situations is kind of like learning how to dress for different occasions. We can still be unquestionably ourselves, if only in different musical outfits, and learning how to stretch our style authentically can allow us to step into a wide variety of contexts without being cheapened.   

4. The Costume

While it’s definitely lame to play the same kinds of parts for every song, it becomes painfully obvious when we try to play like someone we’re not. Realizing that an unfamiliar technique or idea would "probably sound sick here" is an awesome reason to woodshed, but not such a great reason to hack the same concept into a song we’re working on now. Knowing our technical, but also aesthetic limits can help us avoid feeling and sounding like a bad impression of another player, and finding the balance between being ourselves and being musically versatile is a lifelong, but rewarding process.

5. The Rebel

A cool sounding part in isolation may not sound so cool in the context of a fully formed song, even if the part is well played and theoretically bulletproof. Especially when we write our parts in isolation, we can often find ourselves trying to force a particular part into a song like that airplane passenger who insists that they should be able to carry on that giant rolling hockey bag. Parts that stretch the aesthetic of a song are awesome, but parts that we laboriously force into a song are often just as tedious to digest as a listener. Going with the flow is hard for some of us, and sometimes letting a good idea go is even tougher, but when we allow ourselves to match the aesthetic and feel of a song with our own parts by default, we’ll be rewarded with more efficient, productive, and positive musical experiences.

While I still believe that it’s better to shoot for success than to avoid failure, there is, admittedly, some security in knowing what losing looks like. I hope this post adds at least a touch of that security to your next part-writing venture, and may your music always say what you mean!