Anthem For The Hopeful

Oh dear. I seem to be on a bit of a roll now. With another track wrapped-up this is starting to look like a trend. One common thread I have noticed in all three of the tracks I've presented so far is that the in tail-end of the mix-down process I get itchy to wrap things up and move on to the next song in the queue. This one was no different.

Rather than walk through the process of recording, I thought I'd take a different tack and walk through the progression of the song itself. So fire up another browser window, take a listen and read on… 

The Opening

The finger-picked clean guitar at the beginning was one of the last parts of the song that I wrote. The two parts that constitute the "rocking" part of the song were already finished, but I felt like I needed some kind of gentle introduction. Since the main bit of the song has a positive sort of G Lydian feel, I started fishing around in the contrasting key of Em for some inspiration.  After applying my meager finger-picking skills and musical creativity I came up with this opening:

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This little progression doesn't really get interesting until we move into the Bm11-Am11-F6 progression. Once I stumbled onto that I knew I was on to something. The second part of the opening moves to a back-and-forth between Em7 and F6 with a hopeful-sounding move to Ebmaj7 before settling on this tortuous Gmaj9#11 arpeggio which I knew would be a prefect segue into the main part of the tune:

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There's a great example here of unexpected accidents turning into something cool. I loaded the distorted melody guitars up with a tape-delay plugin and when they finally drop out (around the 0:42 mark) there's an odd rhythmic artifact from that plugin that sounds like someone hitting a drum in a giant swimming pool. I couldn't figure out exactly what caused other than it only happened with the tape-delay plugin enabled. After a minute of frustration about being unable to find the root-issue, I stepped back and though, "hey that's actually kinda cool" and decided to just leave it in. It ends up being a nice little atmospheric moment that I never would have been able to engineer ahead of time if I tried.

One interesting thing to note here is that I mucked around with tempo changes. The original project tempo was set to the rocking part (remember, that's the part I had first), but that felt a little rushed for the plaintive, mellow opening. So as an experiment I tried setting the tempo just a few beats slower in this section. It all worked until the pause before the Gmaj9#11 chord where, again, things felt rushed. So I doubled-down on my tempo-altering strategy and added one bar of an even slower tempo before changing to the final tempo of the song. Thank you Logic Pro for your ability to automate tempo changes: 

Monkeying with tempo-changes in Logic

Monkeying with tempo-changes in Logic

The Refrain

The inspirational core of the tune was the thematic two-part melody that comes in as the entire band enters. This was one of those golden moments of inspiration when the complete musical idea came into my head all at once and it was a mad dash to try to capture it before it was gone. I happened to have Logic Pro up and running and managed to quickly put together a project to get the idea down quickly. Eventually those demo tracks became the scaffolding for the final track that you hear now.

If this sounds like a Joe Satriani B-side it's because the entire feel here is very Lydian. Between Joe and Steve Vai, those two have captured about 90% of the "Lydian market", so it can be a little tricky to explore that territory as guitarist and not sound reminiscent of their styles. 

The Counterpoint

For several months all I had was this melody and the two chords that sat underneath it. I had already resolved to live with a relatively simple structure for this song and if 80% of was just these two chords, well dammit, that was fine by me.

But I knew I needed some kind of counterpoint to this melody. Even if the solos were going to be over the same two chords as the melody, I needed some kind of change-up to demarcate the sections. After some noodling around I came up with the counterpoint that appears at 1:21.

It started with the chord-progression, which was the result of some quality "noodle-time". As per usual these days, I'm trying to find interesting-sounding chord voicings for high-gain guitar sounds and came across this nice thick voicing:

While the chord doesn't contain that many notes, the way the voices resonate against each other (assuming the guitar is in-tune) is pretty magical. Somehow the final sound is bigger than the sum of its parts. While it doesn't sound like an Eric Johnson kind of chord, I'm always inspired by EJ to find something besides the tired-old power-chord shape.

Once I had this little Eb-F-G progression (I'm always a sucker for that one), I needed a melody. These days I find that I write in two modes: pure inspiration and noodling. The first one doesn't happen that often, but usually results in the best stuff which often forms the core of my tunes. The second one is harder in many ways and often relies on hard work and serendipity. For the counterpoint I just cycled the progression in Logic and just played and played and played over it until something popped out that I liked. What you hear in this section is the result of several hours of creating, auditioning and rejecting lots and lots of ideas. 

One note about the arrangement here is the use of two guitars, spread apart by an octave. The melody had two guitars and when the song moved into this section with just a single guitar it felt like the energy ebbed a bit. That was the opposite effect of what I was going for since I imagined this part of the song to really be a fist-in-the-air rallying cry kind of moment. I tried a few harmonized lines but they took up too much sonic space without really raising the energy level. In the end I fell back on the ol' "octave trick", which felt like a bit of a guitar-trope, but was the most effective solution.

The Breakdown

Okay, okay, okay. I know I said I was going to keep the song simple, but I couldn't resist this little breakdown in G Lydian. The tension between the fifth and sharp fourth was just too good pass up and it serves both as a break from the high-energy counterpoint as well as a "recharging station" before going into the solo. The little harmonics were a last-minute thing I threw in after realizing that these were all in G and would work great over the breakdown chord because, you know, why not?

The First Solo

When it came time for the solos I knew I just wanted to groove on the G-C vamp. But that meant a lot of blank canvas to work with and the possibility of under- or over-filling it. So I set up a cycle marker in Logic for four bars at a time and just started improvising ideas until I found something I liked. I'd hit record, get a couple of takes and just move on.

Since the changes were so simple, I didn't really need to overthink what was happening harmonically underneath me too much (Giant Steps it ain't). So I made a conscious effort to completely forget what key I was in and just conjure up melodic constructs from my inner-ear. I also tried playing things that were physically unfamiliar which resulted in a lot of lines with large interval leaps of fourths and fifths. 

This approach led to some unexpected delights, particularly with syncopation. One of my favorite moves these days is to work in some double-stops at the end of single-note lines. I think the first time I head that done effectively was Steve Vai's For The Love of God (around the 1:43 mark). The first time I heard it I thought it was such a great, unexpected choice that it really stuck with me. In my case, the same happens at the 2:11 mark. I can't say that I consciously decided ahead of time to do this, but as I was improvising over the tracks it just naturally fell out my playing. I guess that's what we might call an artifact of "personal style".  It also didn't hurt that the syncopation that I played there just happened to fit with the fill the Drummer track came up (more serendipity).

At the 2:20 mark I start another cycle of the progression with this quick flurry of legato lines: 

Minimizing the sonic impact of the pick is one of the keys to smooth legato.

Minimizing the sonic impact of the pick is one of the keys to smooth legato.

This is somewhat of a new direction for me technique-wise. Like any rock guitarist I use my fair share of hammer-ons and pull-offs, but I wouldn't say that I had much of a true legato technique. I've been a huge Allan Holdsworth fan since I first started playing and, aside from his other-worldly harmonic sensibilities, I just loved the fluidity of his legato technique. So in the past year I've consciously spent time and effort developing more of a "true"  legato approach, which is different than just chucking hammer-ons and pull-offs around here and there.

I can't say that I can execute it anywhere near the graceful precision of Holdsworth, but I'm a lot close to it than I've ever been. The key is really all about handling the dynamics of each note. With Holdsworth (the gold-standard of legato playing), you cannot tell when he switches strings which is why he sounds almost like a horn player. Even as much as I love Joe Satriani, his legato-playing sounds very "guitaristic" and it's pretty easy to hear the three-note groupings and string-changes. For whatever reason, I prefer the Holdsworthian approach. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Joe's approach, it's simply a matter of taste.

As an aside, I will say that Tom Quayle's legato lessons have been very helpful in this regard. If you have any interest in developing this kind of technique, his lessons are worth checking out (he's also a hell of a player with fantastic Holdsworth-level legato fluidity). 

Refrain

After 16 bars of the main vamp, it was time to break things up again. I wanted to save the main melodic theme for the outro fade at the end, so the refrain makes its second appearance. The basic melodic structure is the same, but the improvised bits are little different. In my head this section could be broken into the die-cast melody part and the "flourish" part. You can easily hear where these are just by comparing the lines I played in each version of the refrain. 

I mentioned earlier that I went with guitars doubled over and octave to get a sonically big sound. I mucked around with octave pedals (or their digital equivalents) and didn't like the various harmonic artifacts they produced (all true to the originals). So I went the hard route and double-tracked the guitars. This is one of those places where I could have spent an enormous amount of time obsessing over getting the tracks to line up perfectly. I did record a number of takes and comped the best of the lot, but I was unwilling to open up FlexTime and start bumping notes left and right in the timeline. I've certainly gone to that level before, but for where I was at the recording and mixing cycle, I was ready to wrap this one up. So even though the lines don't match up with Vai-level perfection, they sound good to me and I'm happy with a few warts on them. 

Second Solo

Now it's time for the second go-around and as a solo instrumentalist you have to ask yourself the hard question, "what the hell am I going to do this time?" 

More than the first solo, the structure of the lines in the second solo were very much dictated by the end of the previous line. For example the opening notes of the second solo are all up around the 15th and 17th frets. I ended up here because at the end of the refrain section I wanted to "launch" the second solo with a big bunch of harmonized guitars all playing a single note. Harmonically it's essentially a chord played with four different guitars, but sonically it does something a little different.  The top note of the harmonized chord is the opening of the second solo. After two bars in that register, I wanted to change things up so I moved a little lower down with this legato line: 

The first bar descends out of the harmonized crescendo, the second ascends with another legato flourish

The first bar descends out of the harmonized crescendo, the second ascends with another legato flourish

…which then needed some kind of denouement. That was solved by this repeating descending figure which I dressed up with lots and lots of pinch-harmonics: 

Apply pinch-harmonics in the first bar early and often!

Apply pinch-harmonics in the first bar early and often!

Now I've moved myself near the bottom of the guitar's range and set myself up for a potentially awkward transition out of this neighborhood. In one of those moments of pure accident I grabbed the 5th-fret harmonic on the G-string, pushed the whammy down and then grabbed the same note on the 15th fret of the E-string. It sounds like a single note, but it's actually two different ones and it turned out to be a great tool for changing ranges again.

I'm particularly happy with the space between the bent-string lick and the furious descending lick that follows it around the 3:14 mark. One teeny-tiny remaining aggravation is that I never got a "real" take of that lick that was as good as the one I got in my rough demo tracks. Sigh. 

The fast descending list that I only nailed once…on the demo.

The fast descending list that I only nailed once…on the demo.

The end of the descending lick hints at some octave-like sounds so the next phrase features some sliding octaves which melts into this fun little phrase: 

Mr. Summers, meet Mr. Holdsworth

Mr. Summers, meet Mr. Holdsworth

I always think of this shape of stacked fifths as being the "Andy Summers chord" since it's the basis of Police classics like Message In A Bottle and Every Breath You Take. The stacked fifths cover so much ground when arpeggiated like this that I always think they sound sort of exhilarating. The legato flurry that comes after it was another happy accident. It's actually a little outside of the underlying chords as its outlining a G7 (that pesky F) over the G major 7 sound, but somehow in this context it works. 

The end of that legato phrase then got me thinking about how I could ramp up the flurry of notes even more and there's no better way of doing that than breaking out two-handed tapping. What I didn't want to do was the obvious Eddie Van Halen figure. That's so completely Edward's thing that no guitarist can really play that with a straight face. So it's up to the rest of us to come up with something different. 

After noodling around with a variety of tapping patterns, I settled on this one which uses two fingers on the picking hand across two strings: 

I hold the pick with my thumb and index finger while tapping with the middle and ring fingers.

I hold the pick with my thumb and index finger while tapping with the middle and ring fingers.

The timing of this one was a little tricky to get right but, as far as I can tell, it's thirty-second note quituplet pattern. Basically I'm just trying to cram the five-note tapping sequence twice into the span of a single quarter-note. After recording the lead part I punched-in the bass and rhythm guitar parts to slowly build an eighth-note rumble underneath the tapping to really accentuate the climbing effect. 

At the end of the tapping I climb back down (really across) the neck, only to make another dizzying ascent back up with a lot of wide intervals: 

Down and back up for a dizzying ride

Down and back up for a dizzying ride

Since the energy of the solo is peaking at this point, big jumps in range on the neck sounded better to me, which is why I lead the next phrase off down on the fifth fret of the fifth string. For some reason, with just the right delay, these phrases made me think of thunderstorms and in the original mix I couldn't quite recapture that feel of a big thunderclap. So then I figured I try the obvious and simply put some directly into the mix. What you actually here on beats two and four (perfectly aligned with the snare) are cannon samples with some delay and EQ tweaking. Bombastic? Sure, but why pull punches at this point? 

Yup. Cannons. Got a problem with that?

Yup. Cannons. Got a problem with that?

The solo finishes with one more large-interval climb up the neck and finishes with a little string-skipping theme: 

Merrily we skip along

Merrily we skip along

The Climb

Coming out of the second solo I wanted some kind of transition before going back into the main melody and fading out the song. Somewhere in the back of my musical brain I knew I wanted some kind of angular jump through several chords that resolved in a break where the band dropped out and I bust out my inner-Paul Gilbert to lead back into the outro melodic with a fast alternate-picked line. 

Given these somewhat vague requirements, I pieced-together the section starting at 3:46 by "digging the tunnel at both ends". That is, I had a rough idea of how the angular chord-jumps were going to start, and I knew how I wanted the end to sound (when the band drops out). So then it was just a matter of trying different measure counts to get the intervening chords (G-D-F-D-Bb-C-F-G) to work out.

Once I got the "chord-jumps" figured out, I had to figure out some kind of melody to play over it. If you take a step back, the chords in the angular jump section really come in pairs, which means I could think in slightly larger chunks than how the listener might hear the chord changes.

What I ended up with was essentially a single theme played over each chord-pair with some stylistic variation to keep things interesting, them finish it all off with the most furious alternate-picking climb I could come up with:

Finish big or go home, right?

Finish big or go home, right?

One of my favorite quotes from Steve Vai is about how speedy guitar-playing, when executed well and in the right context, can be exhilarating. That rush of acceleration, like a race-car jumping off the line or jet climbing straight up in the sky was what I was going for. 

This is one of my favorite moments in the song. Not for the technical execution (though my inner guitar-nerd is certainly pleased with that), but for the musical effect it achieves. I've heard Vai say he doesn't think he's a very good alternate-picker, but I think some of his fast alternate lines are absolutely thrilling. There's something in the way that the lower notes in the run are muted slightly more than the higher notes which I just love. This line is as close as I've ever gotten to achieving a similar effect.

The Outro

When I first conjured up the main melody, I knew that its anthemic quality would sound good as fade-out. Normally I'm not a big fan of fade-outs—they feel like a cop-out to me. But here I felt like having the theme fade out was "comforting", for lack of a better word. To me, that melody made me feel hopeful more than anything else, and I liked the idea of the band continuing with it forever, even when the listener was done with the song. 

When I finished the big climb out of the break I found myself in a part of the neck that was a little different from where the main melody was played. I started playing around with different counter-melodies and in a few minutes came up with one I liked. 

When I thought back about what the song was about (a triumph of hope in the face of despair) the opposing melodies came together in a very satisfying way. Each melody had its space to say what it needed to say, then the two come together. In a time when we seem to have devolved into so much tribalism this was a comforting musical reminder of how we could all have our different viewpoints, but still work together and that, my friends, is why the song is called Anthem For The Hopeful.