Improvising in a pop style

Although ‘pop’ is a very loose term (from the word ‘popular’), the common consensus is that pop music as we know it today derives from rock ’n’ roll music in the 1950s. Since then it has progressed through many phases and directions, often linked to a decade or period of time. Yet despite this massive variation there are many key trends adopted by the vast majority of pop tunes. These include relatively short length pieces (2-4 mins), repeated choruses and structures featuring repetition, simple drum grooves and ‘hooks’ – melodic lines or other musical features, designed to be as catchy and instantly recognisable as possible.

The basic pop song structure looks like the below, although variations (including added ‘pre-chorus’ sections) also often occur.

Trinity-R&P-Basic-Pop-Song-Structure-final

The style is often influenced by other genres, such as rock, soul, Latin or dance, and has provided some of the biggest names in recent musical history, including Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson and The Beatles.

Improvising in the style

Despite being a broad genre with many variables depending on context, there are some common trends throughout the vast majority of pop songs and styles, which we can explore to create an idiomatic pop improvisation or accompaniment.

For example, pop songs usually have simple structures with phrases or sections in groups of 4, 8 or 16 bars. Make sure you are aware of how long each part of the structure is so that you can shape your solo accordingly. For example, if you are playing over a repeated 16-bar chord sequence, you may wish to play a phrase for 4 bars, develop this for another 4 bars, play a different (but still related) phrase for the next 4 bars and then return to the original phrase for the last 4 bars. Or you may wish to end phrases in key points within the harmonic sequence, to create a big release of any tension built up throughout the improvisation.

It is sometimes useful to remember that the style is catering to popular tastes, with many songs written for dancing, so try not to overcomplicate your ideas. Short, simple statements can be used to powerful effect when played with conviction and understanding of the style.

Rhythmically, it is important to keep the momentum going, without coming across as being too aggressive. Try to tailor fill-ins or busy rhythmic patterns to the structure of the phrase or section you are playing. For example, drummers can use fill-ins as an effective way to give the piece a ‘lift’ into the next section, or to indicate the end of a section, by saving their fills for the last bar of the section.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

The Beatles are one of the most iconic pop bands the world has ever seen, taking the UK and the US popcharts by storm in the 1960s. With a plethora of hits including ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’, their musical and fashion style developed over their decade-long career. Starting out with a clean-cut, witty up-beat Brit-pop style, they moved towards a more hippie, psychedelic and experimental approach. To this day the band’s music is revered by millions around the world, with one of the key members, Sir Paul McCartney, still writing, recording and performing sell-out tours regularly.

Often called the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson first came to fame with his siblings, as part of The Jackson 5 in the 1960s, featuring on hits such as ‘I Want You Back’ (1969) and ‘Blame It On the Boogie’ (1978). He later began his solo career in 1971 and became one of the most prolific pop songwriters and performers ever. His 1982 album ‘Thriller’ is still the best-selling album of all time and he has countless hits under his belt. These include hits resulting from his legendary collaboration with Quincy Jones, such as ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Billie Jean’.

More recent pop sensations include artists such as Britney Spears, whose debut single ‘…Baby One More Time’ reached number one in every European country it charted within in 1998. Her upbeat, commercially accessible style and youthful vibrancy was typical of the pop image of the late 1990s and early 2000s. More recent female pop singers such as Katy Perry, Jessie J and Pink have tried to shake off the ‘produced’ and manufactured image, instead appearing more independent and confident than their counterparts in the early 1990s. This can be seen in hits such as Beyoncé’sSingle Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’ or Christina Aguilera’sBeautiful’.

Examples of pop songs in the syllabus are:

Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ by Elton John (keyboard), ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ by The Crystals (vocals, keyboard), ‘Super Trouper’ by ABBA (vocals, keyboard), ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (vocals), ‘Price Tag’ by Jessie J (vocals), ‘Flashdance (What A Feeling)’ by Irene Cara (vocals), ‘You Got The Love’ by Florence + The Machine (vocals), ‘Can’t Fight The Moonlight’ by LeAnn Rimes (vocals), ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry (vocals), ‘Crazy In Love’ by Beyoncé (drums, vocals), ‘Cry Me A River’ by Justin Timberlake (vocals) and ‘She’s Out Of My Life’ by Michael Jackson (keyboard, vocals)

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Shining the light on Session Skills: Open the new books and listen to the music

Hey Rock & Pop musicians, hope you’re all enjoying your music. I know that many of you are taking Rock & Pop exams right now or in the next month.

A couple weeks ago I was in Sri Lanka holding a Rock & Pop workshop. We all met at a great local venue and we played, sang and worked on understanding the Rock & Pop exams to their fullest. I must tell you I heard some great singing and playing… Sri Lanka has got it happening for sure.

If you don’t know, all the Session Skills support books are available now and they are full of great info and tips. They are divided into Initial–Grade 2, Grades 3–5, and Grades 6–8. Each instrument has its own set of books and CDs. In the Rock & Pop graded books there are two examples for playback and two for improvising, well in these new Session Skills books there are twenty, yes twenty, examples for each grade: ten examples for Playback and ten examples for Improvising. This will give you and your teacher a wide range of practice material and top tips to help develop your listening and reading skills.

Further supporting your journey to be a musician, the ten Improvising examples for each grade will help you build your style bank so you can play and perform the styles required in each grade. The parameters are outlined for the grades, giving you and your teacher more insight into how to communicate and perform your music.

Check out these new Session Skills books at your nearest music shop or on our online store. They will absolutely boost your Rock & Pop music education.

I was also in Qatar recently for an awards ceremony and I had the good fortune to meet up with Stephen Devassy, a player from India. For all you keyboard players, you should check this guy out. If you know him from his rock/fusion and film music in India then you know the deal. If not, Google him. Great rock stars come from all over the world and all backgrounds. He also took Trinity exams back in the day.

So Rock & Pop drummers, guitarists, vocalists, bassists and keyboard players, you have the tools to keep rocking the music with our new Session Skills books. So keep on learning, communicating and performing your music. Don’t forget to check out our Rock & Pop Improvising in the style blog posts which we post monthly.

Later,

Tyler, Rock & Pop Czar

Check out our Improvising in a metal style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

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Improvising in a metal style

Metal is a genre of rock music developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely in the United Kingdom and United States. Often viewed as the more extreme end of the scale of rock styles, metal takes many features of rock music to their upper limits, including volume and aggression. Heavily distorted guitars, extended solos, driving drum beats and relentless energy are all closely associated with the style, which was initially given exposure and popularity through bands such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.

Though the metal genre is rarely lauded by music critics, many metal bands have achieved great success and a lasting legacy throughout the decades following its inception; including the likes of Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Rush, Slayer and more recent acts like Slipknot and System of a Down. Followers of the music are often dubbed ‘metalheads’, usually donning the status with pride and wearing dark clothes, band t-shirts and other more gothic styles of fashion. The metal movement is a large and thriving community, with music at its heart and metal-dancing or ‘mosh-pits’ commonplace at concerts.

Improvising in the style

When deciding how to improvise in the metal style, it is important to think about the nature of the music. Themes of metal songs are often dark and angry, performed with aggression and extreme volume. Therefore, it is important to try to reflect this in your tone, volume and delivery. Guitarists would be advised to utilise heavy distortion or overdrive, if they have the capabilities. Vocalists might explore ‘belting’ or ‘screamo’ techniques (although make sure you always explore these techniques with your teacher, as if done incorrectly they can damage your voice).

Bassists generally receive less attention in metal music, often adopting a supporting role, but you can still think about creating a rhythmically driving and consistent bass-line, which is going to help push the song forward. Like guitarists, keyboard players should think about the voice they choose to utilise; this should be loud and harsh to match the style of the genre. Keyboardists and guitarists could also explore common metal techniques such as bends, slides and hammer-ons, which regularly feature in improvised solos.

Drummers play a key role in metal, often choosing big, open sounds to ‘ride’ on, such as open hi-hats or even a crash cymbal. This is usually played alongside strong and clear bass drum patterns and snare drum back-beats. Fill-ins are often elaborate and employ most or all of the tom-toms available.

Whatever instrument you are improvising on, be sure to maintain the high levels of energy and forward motion of the piece. Unlike some other genres, you should try to be either precisely on top of or in front of the beat to create tension and drive. It’s also worth checking out the key of the section and chord changes within it so that you can choose your notes and melodies accordingly.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner JJ Wheeler:

Influential artists

There has been a plethora of great metal bands over the years, many of whose careers span several decades, such as Iron Maiden. Their anthemic songs such as ‘Run to the Hills’ still rock festivals and stadium tours to this day. Metallica took the world by storm in the 1980s and 90s with songs such as ‘Seek & Destroy’ from their debut album ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and the metal classic ‘Master of Puppets’, which is now entrenched in metal history.

As with most genres, many bands have injected their own influences into the music to create distinct musical flavours. One example is Slipknot, whose extreme heavy style and expressive performances (complete with costumes and face masks) helped them to stand out from the crowd. Check out their single, ‘Wait and Bleed’.

Another example is System of a Down, whose music is influenced by a range of unexpected styles, most notably Armenian folk. Since coming to fame with songs such as ‘Chop Suey’, they have taken more of an openly political stance, with their latest tour named ‘Wake Up The Souls’, to commemorate and raise awareness of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

This cross-pollination and development of particular stylistic features has led to the further growth of many sub-genres of metal, such as death metal, nu metal, black metal, punk and thrash metal.

Examples of metal songs in the syllabus include:

Bring Me To Life’ by Evanesence (vocals), ‘Run To The Hills’ by Iron Maiden (drums, guitar), ‘N.I.B.’ by Black Sabbath (bass), ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath (guitar), ‘6:00’ by Dream Theater (bass), ‘YYZ’ by Rush (drums, bass), ‘Freewill’ by Rush (guitar), ‘Would?’ by Alice In Chains (bass, drums, guitar), ‘And The Cradle Will Rock’ by Van Halen (drums) and ‘5150’ by Van Halen (guitar).

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a country style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a country style

Country music was born in the 1920s in the Southern United States of America. The style is a development of American folk and also shares similarities to blues and Western music. The typical country songbook consists largely of ballads and songs for dance, traditionally performed on a variety of instruments such as the banjo, electric and acoustic guitars, double bass, steel guitar, fiddle (violin), vocals and harmonicas.

Initially dubbed ‘hillbilly’ music, ‘country’ became a term that generally encompassed this style and Western music; today the term is a general umbrella name for a variety of sub-genres which share similar sensibilities. Beyond its roots in American folk, it often includes elements of Celtic folk, cowboy songs and other traditional music from European immigrant communities. This is due to its place as the music of the working-class white man in the early and mid-1900s.

Country and western music is the single biggest radio listenership in the US and among the most famous exponents of country are Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and more recently Taylor Swift, whose background in the genre heavily influences her popular style.

Improvising in the style

When thinking about how to improvise in a country style, it’s important to consider some typical musical features and aspects. In general, country songs are usually written to tell some sort of story. For this reason, many of the musical features are kept simple and delivered with clarity. Therefore, it’s important to try to stick to this mindset when improvising an accompaniment or melody in the style.

When thinking about melodies, most country songs (particularly in the chorus) have highly memorable, catchy tunes. Try to create something similar when improvising, or perhaps find a catchy phrase which you can repeat, develop and paraphrase throughout the performance.

On the clarity front, it is useful to think about the sound you are creating through your voice or instrument. Country songs tend use clean, clear tones on the guitar, vocals or whichever instrument is playing.

As a vocalist, if you choose to improvise lyrics you may wish to mention journeys, animals or cowboys, if you want to stick to basic generalisations of the genre. Meanwhile, a drummer’s role in this style is usually a background one, with the aim of keeping a simple, clear and concise beat with a laid-back feel. Try not to push the beat or create too much tension.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

Arguably the most legendary name of country music is Johnny Cash. Known for his deep baritone vocals and lazy-sounding, dark tone with themes of sorrow and moral torment, Cash had a more bluesy element to his style. With studio album releases from the 1950s, all the way through to the 1990s, his biggest hits include ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Ring of Fire’.

Dolly Parton is widely recognised as a huge part of the country music lineage. Born in 1946, she is still active today with a career now spanning into seven decades. In the late 1950s she began as a child performer (aged just 13) with radio singles, but it was later in 1967 that she rose to fame as a featured performer on Porter Wagoner’s weekly TV programme. She went on to perform in several partnerships with various other country artists, before becoming a well-known act as a solo performer. Her more classic country style of voice with heavy Southern accent is easily recognisable in hits such as ‘I Will Always Love You’ (covered later by Whitney Houston) and ‘Jolene’.

More recently, Taylor Swift has found great success in the UK, US and worldwide charts with her country-pop crossover hits such as ‘Love Story’, ‘You Belong With Me’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’. Having moved to Nashville, Tennessee aged just 14 to pursue a career in country music, she later added pop elements to her style which has seen her rise to fame in the late 2000s. Yet much of her music retains elements of her country music roots, including instrumentation, song forms and simple, catchy melodies.

Examples of country songs in the syllabus include:

I Walk The Line’ by Johnny Cash (guitar), ‘Stand By Your Man’ by Tammy Wynette (vocals), ‘Can’t Fight The Moonlight’ by LeAnn Rimes (vocals), ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ by Michael Buble (vocals) and ‘Love Story’ by Taylor Swift (vocals).

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a reggae style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a reggae style

Reggae originated in the Caribbean island of Jamaica in the late 1960s. There were many musical genres that influenced it including rhythm and blues, jazz, calypso and mento. However it evolved mainly from ska and rocksteady; popular dance styles in Jamaica in the early 60s.

In ska, the bass underpins the pulse with a walking line, accompanied with an offbeat comping pattern on piano or guitar. The horns have a fairly prominent role, with repeating figures (similar to rhythm and blues). Rocksteady shares the offbeat comping with ska, but is a significantly slower tempo, and has more stress on beats 2 and 4 (and less on 1 and 3). This more relaxed tempo led to more interaction between the players, different stresses in the comping and more rhythmically involved bass lines create a subtler groove.

With reggae, we can see the same stress on beats 2 and 4 and the same offbeat comping pattern. The tempo is similar to rocksteady, but the interaction between the different roles is more involved. The grooves are constructed of repeating cycles (often with variations), which may change in different sections of the song. Like many other groove based genres, when we look at the whole picture of what everyone is playing, we find rhythmic cycles of different lengths in the groove.

We can see this when looking at the song ‘Natural Mystic’ by Bob Marley & The Wailers.

Music image

This is the groove at the start of the song. The swing is really clear on the percussion and the hi-hat. The keys are comping offbeats, following a 1 beat rhythmic cycle, and the bass, drums and percussion are following a 2 beat cycle. This drum pattern with the kick and cross stick snare only on beats 2 and 4, and the closed hi-hat on beat 1 is called the ‘one drop’.

The swing in reggae is very important and unique to the style. The smallest divisions of the groove (semiquavers in the example above) are not evenly placed through the beat. The best way to get to grips with this is to tap semiquavers along with recordings, whilst keeping the pulse with your feet, and try to hook up with the groove that they are playing.

Instrumental solos are rare in reggae, but it’s worth noting that the guitar in this song plays some solo lines that answer the melody (from about 0.45). Call and response is a very important aspect of reggae.

Improvising in the style

When we improvise in the style, we need to ask ourselves some questions for each song we play. What is your role in the groove? How does it fit together with the other elements? Are you hooking up with the swing? If you’re not sure to the answer of any of these questions, then check out some more recordings.

The role of the bass is fundamental to reggae. The high frequencies are removed with equalization, giving it the characteristically fat sound. The bass often plays a riff that repeats the same rhythm through a given section of the song, but may be altered to fit the changing harmony. The above example is a 2 beat cycle, but 4 beat cycles are also common. The riff will often emphasize beats 2 and 4.

There are different drum styles within the genre, but the cross-stick technique is normally employed on the snare through most of the groove, saving the open snare for the fills to mark the form. The snare is tuned very high and fills rarely end with cymbal crashes.

One of the most striking characteristics of reggae is the offbeat comping pattern, which could be played either by the guitar or keys. The non-comping player will often have a riff, which supports the bass line or answers other parts of the groove.

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential artists

The success of Bob Marley & The Wailers in the late 60s and 70s brought wider international interest to reggae and Jamaican music. Socio-political and spiritual themes were often raised in reggae in the 70s, but songs about more personal experiences of love and socializing were also common. Peter Tosh was one of the original members of The Wailers and he went on to have a successful solo career in the late 70s and 80s.

In the 70s dub developed from reggae and became popular in Jamaica. Dub artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry were record producers and they remixed earlier recordings, usually with the vocals removed and with more emphasis on the bass and heavy use of special effects. Reggae and ska had a huge influence on British punk in the 70s and there was a resurgence of ska in the UK, with bands like Madness. This ’second wave’ of ska tended to have faster tempos than the Jamaican ska of the 60s and a more aggressive sound, showing the influence of punk. Ska had a ’third wave’ of popularity in the late 80s and 90s in America. Dancehall emerged in the late 70s in Jamaica. The early songs were like a less busy style of reggae, but the vocals were often spoken or chanted to a monotone as well as sung (by the ’deejay’). Dancehall lyrics were often about dancing, violence and sexuality; rather than the political and spiritual themes common in reggae in the 70s. Like dub, dancehall has more emphasis on the lead vocalist than in reggae, where the singer is always with a band. Eek-a-Mouse was one of the most popular deejays of early dancehall.

In the 80s the use of electronic instruments increased in dancehall, reflective of their wider use in popular music. Ragga also emerged (with artists such as Chaka Demus & Pliers), using programmed drums and increasingly faster rhythms. These developments represent a significant stylistic shift from the reggae of the 60s.

In the 90s international hits from artists including Dawn Penn brought dancehall to a much wider audience. Early 00s saw success from emerging artists like Sean Paul, whose numerous accolades include the Grammy for the Best Reggae Album 2004 with ‘Dutty Rock‘. In many ways this is quite far removed from the reggae of the 60s, demonstrating how the term is sometimes used in a wider context today.

An example of reggae in the syllabus is: ‘You Don’t Love Me‘ by Dawn Penn (bass)

Blog post written by: Paul Trippett

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a funk style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a funk style

The funk style was born around the 1960’s and utilises features and sounds common to soul, jazz and R’n’B music. Funk typically reverses the trends featuring melody and harmony seen in earlier styles of music, instead placing greater emphasis on rhythmic drive and groove. Many early funk songs featured one-chord and repetitive patterns (vamps), over which there would be embellishments or vocal lines. The focus is often on the placement of notes in a rhythmically appropriate and ‘groovy’ way, rather than flourishes of notes or technically accomplished melodic lines.

As with most styles, we’ve seen development and cross-pollination with other genres to create even more types of music, such as disco or sub-genres, such as funk-rock, acid jazz and neo-soul. Even some of the styles not directly associated with funk often bear many of the features and stylistic traits pioneered by the funk movement. Pop songs often feature simple, instantly recognisable vamps or ostinatos and dance music relies heavily on a continuous drum pattern. Many of today’s hip hop and rap artists pay homage to the funk movement, regularly sampling sections from old funk records, most famously the ‘Amen Drum Break’, which is prevalent in hundreds of pop, hip hop, rap and dance tracks. This was originally performed by G. C. Coleman on The Winstones’ funk song ‘Amen, Brother’ and can be found from 1:27 to 1:34 of the YouTube video.

Improvising in the style

Funk is less about navigating chord progressions or creating winding melodies and more about the rhythmic content. This applies to any instrument or singer performing within the style. First and foremost, it’s worth getting to know some of the key artists and songs within the history to get a feel for the music and the features.

When performing and improvising in the funk style, the first thing to think about is beat placement. What is the feel of the music? Do we want to create a forward drive (potentially quite aggressive in sound), is it all incredibly precise or is the music more laid-back? If the feel is laid-back, we want to make the music sound as relaxed and ‘groovy’ as possible. Therefore, whatever you choose to play, try to sit on the ‘back’ of the beat (i.e. ‘behind’ or just after the beat, rather than ahead of it).

Simplicity is often key. If you can present an idea and make it sit ‘in the pocket’, this will sound a million times better than rushing into a complex run of notes, which bear little resemblance to the style. Funk is about groove, feeling and making people want to move, not showing off your licks! Try taking a short phrase or idea and repeating it several times. You can develop this idea by starting on different beats of the bar, or adding/subtracting parts of the phrases, or even embellishing the phrase with melismas (for vocalists), grace notes (keyboardists), hammer-ons and bends (for guitarists) or ghost notes and drags (drummers).

Watch video with session musician and Rock & Pop examiner Tom Fleming:

Influential Artists

James Brown is probably the most famous of the founding fathers of funk. By the mid-1960’s hits such as ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ and ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ were storming the U.S. charts, with later iconic hits such as ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ also achieving world-wide recognition to this day. Alongside James Brown artists such as Sly & The Family Stone and The Meters grew to fame. ‘Cissy Strut’ by The Meters has grown in funk cult status, despite only reaching no. 4 in the R’n’B charts and no. 23 in the Billboard 100 upon its release in 1969. Chaka Khan is one of leading lights for ladies in funk, with ‘Ain’t Nobody’ and ‘I’m Every Woman’ now considered funk classics.

More recent artists include Bruno Mars, producer Mark Ronson, Tower of Power and British Hammond-led band The James Taylor Quartet, whose career grew out of the heavily funk influenced acid-jazz movement in the late 1980’s/early-90’s. Many other huge acts such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers also cite funk as an important part of their style.

Examples of funk songs in the syllabus are:

Rock Steady‘ by Aretha Franklin, (drums), ‘I Say A Little Prayer‘ by Aretha Franklin (vocals), ‘Chain Of Fools‘ by Aretha Franklin (drums), ‘I Get High On You‘ by Sly And The Family Stone (bass), ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)‘ by James Brown (bass), ‘Funky Drummer‘ by James Brown (drums), ‘1 Thing‘ by Amerie (drums) and ‘Crazy In Love‘ by Beyoncé (drums and vocals).

Blog post written by: JJ Wheeler, Trinity Rock & Pop Examiner

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a heavy rock style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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Improvising in a heavy rock style

Heavy rock, or hard rock as it is also known, is typically louder, faster, and more complex than rock or pop music, and came from a generation of great experimental musicians including Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. In the same way that classical music evolved in the late 19th century due to the development of better quality instruments, resulting in more virtuosic and exciting musical performance, a new age of instruments and voices began to push the boundaries of rock a hundred or so years later. The genre originated as a subgenre of rock music and was derived from mid-1960s garage rock, blues-rock and psychedelic rock. Heavy rock is defined by its use of aggressive sound, which is achieved by developing more complex rhythmic and melodic patterns, using louder and thicker textures. It usually contains strong vocals, the distorted sound of electric guitars, intermittent riffs from the bass guitar, driving drum rhythms and a piano or keyboard.

During the mid-1960s a number of American and British rock bands started to change some of the characteristics of the rock ‘n’ roll genre. However, heavy rock only began to become more mainstream in the 1970s and the 1980s. During this time, a new style of heavy rock music called stadium or arena rock started to become popular, and bands began to incorporate louder sounds, special effects and more of a visual performance than was previously seen at shows. More recently, a number of post-grunge, garage and punk bands such as Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Creed and Nickelback revisited the genre and incorporated aspects of the heavy rock style into their music, including the traditional distorted guitar sounds and the aggressive nature of the music.

Improvising in the style

When you think about improvising in this style, you should be doing so from a good knowledge of what typifies the style. So, do listen to some of the artists mentioned here, and try to pick out your instrument, listening to how the player manipulates the sound, making it heavier; with more notes and repetition, louder, faster and with a grittier sound.  You might come across heavy rock songs at Grade 1 onwards.

Influential Artists

Several classic heavy rock bands have influenced the genre such as AC/DC and Guns ‘n’ Roses.  The band AC/DC is known as one of the best selling bands of all time. ‘Highway to Hell’, their first commercially successful album, established them as one of the top hard rock bands worldwide and included a lot of traditional heavy rock themes. Guns ‘n’ Roses also played a key part in bringing the heavy rock genre into the mainstream and are also considered one of the best heavy rock bands of all time. Over the years, they have also added a number of more classical instruments into their line-up including strings, horns and wind instruments.

A number of more contemporary heavy rock bands have influenced the genre, such as Radiohead, Kings of Leon and Biffy Clyro. Radiohead was largely influenced by artists such as Queen and Pink Floyd as well as the classic rock bands of the 60s. Their 1997 album ‘OK Computer’ consisted primarily of heavy rock songs and was regarded by many critics as one of the best albums in existence. Rolling Stone called the album a ‘stunning art-rock tour de force’. Kings of Leon were influenced by a number of artists, including The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Thin Lizzy and the Pixies. Their early music contained a mix of both Southern rock and blues, however as they progressed within the industry, their songs began to feature more of a heavy rock sound. Biffy Clyro are another more contemporary influential band within the heavy rock genre. Their early music displayed a more unique sound, with complex rhythms and styles. However, their fourth album ‘Puzzle’ brought them further into the mainstream style of heavy rock music.

Examples of heavy rock songs in the syllabus are:

My Generation by The Who (drums and bass), You Really Got Me by The Kinks (bass and drums), My Iron Lung by Radiohead (bass), Airbag by Radiohead (drums), Just by Radiohead (guitar), White Room by Cream (bass and drums), The Crying Machine by Steve Vai (bass and guitar), The Captain by Biffy Clyro (bass), That Golden Rule by Biffy Clyro (drums and guitar), Use Somebody by Kings of Leon (drums and guitar) and Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf (keyboard and vocals).

Find out more about the Session Skill Improvising in our Rock & Pop exams

Check out our Improvising in a ballad style blog post

Check out our Improvising in a rock style blog post

Check out our Trinity Rock & Pop Czar Tyler Smith’s blog post on Improvisation

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