Email from January 2012

Knowing When Not to Play!


Tuesday 1/31/12


Sometimes it's what you don't do...


Yesterday I was driving around listening to the ol' satellite radio, when I heard Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild." It's a cool song. And, it includes the first use of the words "heavy metal" on a record. ("I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder...") (For more info about Heavy Metal Music, its intricacies, harmonic structures, lyrical themes, and sub-genres, see the Wikipedia entry.)

As I listened to "Born To Be Wild," I was impressed with what wasn't being played.

In the verses after each vocal line, "Get your motor runnin'..." the guitar player plays the familiar E, E, E, E6, E7. But the organ only plays one E chord.

Likewise, in the chorus, during, "Born to be wi,iii,ii,iiii,iiiild..." (where he makes "wild" into five syllables...) the organ plays E, E, D, D, E while the guitarist only plays single E and D chords.

The casual listener doesn't notice when one instrument doesn't play every note... but the overall result is that, by laying out for some chords, the musicians let the song breathe.

The exact opposite happens with many bands. I've seen groups with three guitarists and all three of them were playing the same thing. That approach makes a lot of noise, but not the greatest song. Song presentation is a lot more effective if you let a little air into the mix. A studio musician once told me, "The trick is knowing when not to play."

Hmmmmmm... I wonder if this approach applies to interpersonal relationships?


See you soon,


PS: Michael Monarch, the guitarist for Steppenwolf, often used an unusual guitar, 1958 Rickenbacker Combo 800. Here's a youtube video, "Born To Be Wild." You can see shots of the guitar at the 1:30 mark. Here's a Combo 800.

PPS: I know what you're thinking: the bass lines on "Born To Be Wild" are quite nice. How could a guy who looked as stoned as Nick St. Nicholas play those? Well, it turns out that the first two Steppenwolf LPs featured Rushton Moreve on bass. (Who may or may not have been as stoned as Nick St. Nicholas...)

PPPS: Oddly, back in pre-Steppenwolf 1965, Nick St. Nicholas was the bass player in John Kay's first band, The Sparrow. He left before the band changed its name to Steppenwolf. In late-1968 he was re-hired by John Kay to replace Steppenwolf's leaving bass player, Rushton Moreve. Thanks to the wonders of you tube I found a video of The Sparrow. Pre-Steppenwolf.

PPPS: You're probably also thinking: And how about Steppenwolf's keyboard player, Goldy McJohn! He had one big white-guy afro! Yeah!

PPPPS: OK, we may as well mention the drummer: Jerry Edmonton.

PPPPPS: Of course, John Kay ended up with the name. (He probably WASN'T stoned when the contracts were being signed.) He's touring today as "John Kay and Steppenwolf," with a bunch of guys who weren't born when "Born To Be Wild" was recorded.

PPPPPPS: Like me, you've probably always wondered about the guy who wrote "Born To Be Wild," Mars Bonfire. First of all, why did he pick a stage name that's so hard to say? Go ahead, try it: Mars Bonfire Mars Bonfire Mars Bonfire. Whew. And, secondly, what was his relationship to Steppenwolf? Well, it turns out that he's the brother of drummer Jerry Edmonton. Except Edmonton isn't their real name either. It's McCrohan. Those wacky Canadians!

PPPPPPPS: And by "E6" and "E7" in the third paragraph, above, I really meant "E add 6th" and "E add 7th." If you played E6 and E7 you'd be doing the jazz version....



Carl's Guitar Corner Archives

Copyright © Pittsburgh Guitars