You can’t beat two guitars, bass, and drums.
The traditional way to start a music project is to form a band. Starting a band is often easier than starting a solo project, as long as you’ll find the right people. Always remember that you’ll need to get along, and this may have to be the case for a longer period of time. Regular changes in your lineup will cost you a lot of time and energy, and in the end this will only slow down your progress. If you play in a band already, then now is the time to analyze if your band really works. It doesn’t make sense to proceed if you already feel that your band may break up soon, or if you think that you have some major problems in your lineup.
Any problems should be addressed and solved right away. Avoid losing your time with projects you don’t believe in.
The first thing you need is vocals and a groove. The groove is based on the drummer and the bass player, this means that you’ll have to start with 2 people if your singer is playing the bass, or 3 people if he (or she) isn’t. The groove is very, very important, which means that your singer will only be able to play the bass if he or she is really good at it, being able to manage both things at a time. If this is not the case, then get a separate bass player.
The singer can play any instrument by the way, but he / she can’t play drums – unless you’re a pure studio project, or your singer’s name is either Phil Collins or Don Henley. You may also have 2 lead singers, although it will be very, very hard to find two people that will sound really great together. There are very few examples of good bands with more than one lead singer, such as ABBA or the Bee Gees for example.
And even if you should be very lucky to find two people who accidentally sound great as a duo, the risk that one of them may quit after some time is quite high. So forget about it, unless you’re very lucky and you’re really sure about what you’re doing. Of course you will find bands with a male / female duo in the Top 40 from time to time, but those are generally one hit wonders who won’t sell many albums and who will never make it into any greatest artists list. Or you just go with two frontmen or girls who are no great singers at all, but who are really unique and outstanding. Think of The Prodigy’s Keith Flint and Maxim for example, they both can’t really sing, but they’re just incredibly great performers. Any of your musicians can be background vocals of course, and instrumentalists that are able to sing can be a big bonus sometimes.
If you have vocals and groove, then the next thing you’ll need is the rest of the instruments, which will generally be guitars and keyboards / synths. You will either need 1, 2, or 3 of them, depending on the music you’re making and on how good the players are. Which brings us to instrument player quality.
None of your musicians can completely suck.
Everyone must be able to tune their instruments, everyone must be able to keep the tempo, to remember the song structures, and to play without making mistakes all of the time. Everyone should also know about the technology he or she is using, and everyone should have equipment that works properly. If this is not the case, then address those problems instantly. If problems can’t be solved, then don’t lose your time and replace those band members right away.
On the other hand, none of your musicians will have to be a virtuoso.
The best drum or guitar solos will not save you if your songs suck. The ability to write great songs, to develop interesting ideas, and to come up with great riffs and hooks will be much more important than any musician’s ego trip.
The problem of the music industry is not that we don’t have enough virtuosos, it’s that there are not enough GOOD RECORDS.
Having one virtuoso in your band will not save you if the rest of the people in your band suck, and a virtuoso will never be happy in a band of incapable losers. Let’s just conclude that it’s way better to have a bunch of musicians who are very creative and great songwriters, than to have one or two geeks who only perfectly handle their instruments and wish to play 10 minute solos on all songs.
Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.
Back to the band structure. The most traditional setup will include two guitars, but if your guitar player is very good and your genre allows for it, then you may also have only one – think of Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, or Pantera for example. Having three guitars doesn’t make much sense, in fact only very few bands can deal with a setup as complex as this, such as Iron Maiden for example. The same is true for keyboards and synths. If you’re doing electronic music, then you may have up to 3 people on the keys. If you have both guitars and synths, then try to reduce the total number of guitarists and keyboard players to three.
Having too many instruments will result in an undefined sound, and you will risk that the good elements will get drowned in an undefinable mess of irrelevant sounds. Sometimes it’s good to have musicians in your band who play multiple instruments, as this will allow for great diversity while the total number of people in your group will still remain quite small.
Always remember that you cannot compensate a lack of quality by quantity.
The maximum number of band members will be 6, but only if your singer does not play any instrument. If your singer plays an instrument, then you shouldn’t have more than 5 people in your band. You may only have more people if you will have additional instruments, such as percussion or brass instruments for example. Think of Slipknot – they have 9 members, but 4 of them are mostly responsible for percussion, keyboards, turntables, and backing vocals, while 5 of them make up the quite traditional core of the band – vocals, two guitars, bass, and drums.
Having a singer who can either play guitar or keyboards (or maybe even both) is a great solution by the way, as this will allow for great flexibility when performing your songs. Think of Freddy Mercury for example, who played both guitar and piano when needed, which allowed Queen to get along with only four band members. The ability to play an instrument may also make it easier for the singer to contribute to the creative process.
Which brings us to songwriting. In most cases not all members are involved in the process of writing songs. Most members will help out with feedback or additional ideas, but usually there is a core group of one, two, or three people responsible for most of the basic songwriting.
If you take a look at the greatest bands of all times, then you’ll see that a songwriting duo consisting of the singer and the lead instrumentalist seems to be a great success formula, where the singer is writing the lyrics and the instrumentalist is writing the music.
But this doesn’t have to be the case, and you’ll also find great bands with just one primary songwriter (think of Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode for example), or more than two. In some bands there is a duo responsible for the vast majority of the songs, while other members have been writing successful songs too (think of Another One Bites The Dust, written by Queen’s bass player John Deacon).
So in the end there is neither a rule nor a real success formula that will guarantee anything, but it should be clear who’s mainly responsible for the songwriting and who’s not, although anyone may contribute at any time of course. If you’re a band, then it will also be very important to have a consistent look. You can’t risk that the audience will confuse band members with the stage crew, or that one of your members looks as if he was playing in the wrong band. This problem will be addressed very soon in subchapter 4.3.