Playing Together as a Band: Lead Lines

Andrew Stanley —  January 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

Blog - Lead Line Header

Once the band is locking into each other rhythmically and not clashing with each other sonically, you’ll have a great sounding rhythm section. One thing is missing from that picture though … Lead Lines.

A lead line is basically the melodic line that you hear at the forefront of the mix. It is determined in rehearsal as “the most important sound of the moment” that will attract the listener’s ear. It can be anything from the riff of an electric guitar to the sung vocal line of the lead vocalist. We all understand when and where the vocal line fits into the overall picture of the song (the songwriter determines that) so in talking about lead lines this week, I want us to focus on those melodic lines that, in a band context, we typically hear in the electric guitar or right hand of the piano.

A song without any lead lines would be excruciatingly boring.

A song without any lead lines would be excruciatingly boring. That’s why I’m struggling to find an example of one. It would have to be a song with no vocal line, and no instruments that stand out at any particular part of the song. On the contrary, a song also cannot have multiple lead lines that don’t relate to each other playing at the same time. Rarely will you hear an electric guitar playing the hook of the song while the melody of the song is being sung. You’ll sometimes hear it towards the climax of the song while the singer is ad-libbing or over long sustained vocal lines, but gernerally speaking, stacking up lead lines will not be your best option.

Take a listen to this clip by Bruce Hornsby. You’ve probably heard the song a million times, but listen for the pieces in this clip that attract your attention …

The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby (To Play: click on the link then click on the blue and white play button that appears when you hold your mouse over track “1”)

For the first 8 bars of this clip, the obvious focal point is the sung melody. It’s what’s furthest forward in the mix. It’s what the average listener will unintentionally listen to. There is an electric part that leads into bar 5 of this clip, but that would be considered more of a fill than a lead line. We’ll talk about fills one day soon.

Keep listening though … do you hear what starts happening at bar 9? The lead line gets passed back and forth between the piano and the vocalists – 1 bar each. It’s a very intentional shift of attention from one instrument to the next, but they never fight for that attention at the same time.

Another thing to make note of is that lead lines are catchy — it’s what will be stuck in your head when you finish listening to the song. They’re typically singable. If you’re not able to sing the line that you’re playing on your instrument, it might not be your best option for a catchy hook to play as a lead line.

Be intentional in rehearsal to determine what is most important at every point in the song and when you’re given the go-ahead to own a particular lead line, practice practice practice! If you’re playing or singing a lead line, people will naturally be listening to YOU.

Some further listening examples to break us from the expected “Electric take the Lead” mentality:
Lean line being passed between two vocalists: Hero – Jars of Clay (Track 10)

Lead line in piano while vocals continue: Clocks – Coldplay (Track 5)
Important to note -in this context, Coldplay finds the more important line outside of what’s being sung so they draw attention to the piano over Chris Martin’s melody in the chorus. This will never be the case in corporate worship settings as our attention is always on the words we’re singing. I just find this example interesting.

Lead line played in multiple instruments at once: Stand Up (For It) – Dave Matthews Band (Disc 8, Track 3)
Because there is so much emphasis placed on the line played in the instruments while the vocals are singing, I would argue that the lead line in this case is actually not the melody being sung, but the one being played by the electric, bass, and acoustic. Good thing — the lyrics are not necessarily the most … ‘wholesome’, let’s say.

Andrew Stanley

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