Playing Together as a Band: Sonic Range – Pt. 2

Andrew Stanley —  January 17, 2013 — 7 Comments

Blog - Sonic Range 1

When playing together in a band context, by now, I think we would all agree that the sonic range I’m playing in (the octave I’m singing or playing my instrument in) is just as important as the rhythms I’m playing, right? Knowing this importance is one thing, but working it out in rehearsal can be very challenging and time consuming.

If there’s one instrument that runs the highest risk of eating the whole pie (100%) in the sonic plane, it’s the keyboard. The lowest note on the keyboard is an A – two semi-tones lower than the low B on a 5-string bass guitar. If your bassist is playing a 4 string, the piano has a whole 5th below the low E on the bass. No one in the band can possibly play those notes in the low A-E range except the piano player. You might think, “Great!  Sonic room for me to play without worrying about anyone else running into me.” Well, let me put it this way, if there’s a bass guitar player in your band, let them live up to their name and actually be the bass player in the band. Keyboardists, let the bassists have their range and take that left hand and bring it up the keyboard.  I know, that’s almost two whole octaves chopped off of the low end of the keyboard. There is an exception to almost every rule, but when it comes to the keyboardist’s left hand, I wouldn’t have it playing much lower than the C that is one octave below middle C. When keyboard players get their left hand away from what the bass player is playing, the sound will significantly tidy itself up and the listener will feel more depth to the overall sound.

There is an exception to almost every rule, but when it comes to the keyboardist’s left hand, I wouldn’t have it playing much lower than the C that is one octave below middle C.

An important note to make here, if your band does NOT have a bass player for any particular reason, keyboardists, it’s your time to shine! You’re the ones with the range so fill it in and don’t leave that range untouched.  It’s needed in the mix, but the instrumentation determines who plays it. (Also helpful to this conversation is a deeper look into the dynamic range and tonal qualities of the keyboard, check out the post – Taking It Apart: Piano)

What about the acoustic and electric guitars?
When the keyboardist moves the left hand up the octave(s) to get out of the way of the bass guitar, we run into the potential for clash between two other instruments. Take a look at the typical range that each instrument in the band sits in …

Blog - Sonic Range 2

As stated before, the best way for a band to sound clean is to spread the parts out sonically.

Acoustic Guitars are not very likely to spend a whole lot of time in their upper ranges. If you’re in an “unplugged” setting and with two acoustics, you have one up on capo 5 or someone playing lead lines, it would make sense for the acoustic to take the upper register. But, if you’re in that setting, you’re much less likely to run into the non-existent electric guitar and piano parts. In a full band setting, let the acoustic guitar sit in it’s lower range, where it’s designed to be. Also, a good flag to raise when it comes to the acoustic guitar in the mix of a full band — what you’re going to hear is significantly more percussion and scratching than actual tone (For more about this conversation, check out the post Taking it Apart: Acoustic Guitar). With this in mind, an acoustic sitting in 1st position (no capo, regular chords) will not cause too much of an issue. Keep an eye out for future posts when we talk about how to maneuver with two acoustics playing together.

… when it comes to the acoustic guitar in the mix of a full band — what you’re going to hear is significantly more percussion and scratching than actual tone. With this in mind, an acoustic sitting in 1st position (no capo, regular chords) will not cause too much of an issue.

Electric Guitars are more versatile in that the range could potentially span from the low E string all the way up to the 22nd fret of the high E string in the matter of one song! Intentionality is key when it comes to playing the electric guitar well. Without another instrument in the mix (eg. violin, saxophone, clarinet, etc.) the electric guitarist needs to be most aware of what the keyboardist is playing and vice versa. We’re not going to get into the conversation of lead lines yet (the catchy, single line, melodic hooks that are often found in the upper registers of the keyboard, electric guitar or auxiliary instruments), but those are a great way to spread the range out.

For example, take a look at what the possible boundaries could be in a song that’s in the key of E …

Blog - Sonic Range (Possible Spread)

The bass and acoustic guitars are fairly stationary, but the electric’s range has been condensed by two whole octaves off the low end to allow for the piano to chord in the couple octaves surrounding middle C. By sticking in these ranges, the potential for clashing is minimized significantly and you will find you have a much cleaner sound in the end.

Now, boxing each instrument into a sonic range that they cannot break out of is not healthy for a musician. None of us like to play in a box. I show these pictures and talk about these things to drive home the importance of not playing on top of each other. If you want to spend the time in rehearsal to figure out when the piano and electric parts are going to switch their ranges and work together in that way, awesome! Do it — be creative and break out of these boundaries. But in the process, don’t stop listening to everyone else around you and pile your parts up all in the same sonic range.

With all of this in mind, the 100% rule begins to take a new light. If there are only so many physical notes available to play on all of our instruments and spreading them out among multiple players is the key to clarity and excellence as a band, then the overall approach in our player very quickly shifts to the importance of simplicity. Everyone is going to have to pull back from what they are capable of playing and start playing more open chords more sporadically.

Next week, keeping along the lines of sonic ranges, we’re opening the can of worms: Congregational Singing Range — the first step in actually getting people to sing WITH you.

Andrew Stanley


7 responses to Playing Together as a Band: Sonic Range – Pt. 2

  1. Hi Andrew

    Thanks for a refresher of these articles. However I don’t know guitar positions, as
    I only taught some classical picking and simple chords.

    Could you give me pitch ranges of capos on acoutsic guitar ?

    I think the acoustics usually end up playing higher than keys because they always have capos. How does a 2nd capo change things – range wise.

    What is the maximum octaves of separation you would have between the vocals
    and guitar or keys ? (How high above is ok to play)


  2. Hey Laura — great questions.
    The capo actually doesn’t drastically affect the range of the guitar. Every fret represents one semitone and it’s rare for an acoustic player to use the capo on a higher fret than the 5th (maybe up to the 7th if there’s another guitar in below). Meaning, on a guitar in standard tuning, the average range for a guitar range on capo 5 is now A-A (2 octaves). For more information on how the capo actually relates to the transposition of the song, check out this post:

  3. As for your question on octave separation between instruments and voices, it really just depends on personal taste. When the piano gets up into it’s higher ranges, it starts to sound thin and piercing. The electric in its upper ranges (usually in soloing) can sometimes add momentum. It all depends on what sounds best for the direction you’re taking the song. Sometimes there are no theories or formulas better than just trusting your ear!

  4. Thanks Andrew

    I knew a capo moves a semitone per fret. I guess I’ll just have to count the frets to figure out what they are playing. (Usually just one guitar playing… I’ll figure out what range they are in.

    It’s easy to stay out the bass player’s range, but want to not overlap the acoustic when they decide to capo. (I also try to keep
    my small hands in reach of the lead line when a vocalist drops phrases or can’t find the pitch)

    Bu what does a 2nd capo do ? (the acoustic has 2 separate capos on it) ??


  5. You’re just talking about fundamental frequencies here, when the overtone series makes a huge difference in the sonic spectrum. A piano playing a bass line adds all these partials in the upper frequencies (and a percussive attack) that a bass guitar doesn’t.

    The illustration of range makes it seem like the piano should be playing above the voices, but of course, that’s where all the overtones are–of voices, drums, electric guitars, B3, etc.

    It’s not to say we shouldn’t leave room for each other, but it’s a lot more complex than just trying to keep middle C from getting crowded. If the sound is getting crowded, it’s just as likely that the solution is the application of effective EQ from a good sound engineer.

    • That’s an excellent point, Nate. The complexities of the individual notes is mind blowing for most people to think about. There is a real benefit to doubling up parts for the benefit of getting those sonic differences within the same notes. However, intentionality is crucial. I hope that these discussions drive people more to using their ears and playing what sounds best more than taking these words at face value. As a musician, we know that there is an exception to every “rule”.

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