One of the best things I ever did for my production and studio playing chops was to become a prolific songwriter. When you write a song, then play on it, the song is top priority, even over your own playing. I would listen to finished demos of my songs 500 times. It’s then that you say, “Why did I play all those stupid licks?” My need to impress folks with my drumming prowess, overcame my duty to serve the song. I learned pretty quick, don’t do that! You’re gonna regret it. It’s self serving, not song serving. We call it, ‘musical self gratification’, if I can be so crude.
When’s the last time you sat down at your favorite restaurant, famished and looking forward to a great meal? Imagine the waiter bringing you a plate topped high with Salt, Pepper, Cumin, and Thyme, and says “enjoy!” You’d look at him like he was insane! Yet vocalist do this on so many songs I hear.
Think of your song as the main course. If you add no spice, it’s going to be bland and tasteless. Boring. But, if you add too much spice, what are you going to talk about? The dish? No! The Spice!! Your focus is going to be not on the song, but on the vocal acrobatics, tricks, and licks, which are leading the focus away from the song.
I had the pleasure of recording a bass player in my studio that is probably the top player on records in Nashville. He’s the most recorded bass player I’d guess for the last 10 years. It’s a privilege to get to play with him, but when he records in my studio, I also then have the ability to study his playing on protools after he leaves.
So I noticed one thing about his playing. HE PLAYS THE BASS!! It doesn’t sound like the NAMM show or walking into Guitar Center. He’s funky and his pocket and time are perfect. But it serves the song, first and foremost. Then, once, maybe twice per song, he’ll step out, usually towards the 3rd chorus or closer to the end, and slap you upside the head with a crazy lick! BAM! Then, before you can figure out what just hit you, he’s back playing the bass. Simple yet effective. Spicy, but not overpowering.