My Approach to Writing Album Guitar Parts

March 21, 2018

So recently, in January 2018, Freedom Church released their latest album, 'Thunder. Reign (Live)'. It is their second release on the Los Angeles based Dream Label Group (Capitol Music Group), a follow up to the 2015 release, 'Uncharted'. 

 

I was in the privileged position to be able to be a Session Guitarist on the Uncharted album and was asked to follow up those duties on the Thunder. Reign. Live album too.

 

'It Begins'...

 

My mind instantly went into crazy mode, thinking about what pedals I needed to invest in and what influences I was drawing from, music-wise.

 

So we started our writing process in the June of 2017.

 

 

The actual Live Recording event was due to be on 8th September 2017. So we were feeling the pressure a little, to say the least. But if I've learned anything since being a part of Freedom Church, and a heavy part of the core worship set-up, it's that we thrive on high pressure, time sensitive situations, and we love it!

 

This first rehearsal was good, stressful, but good. The rehearsal space we were set up in, was about hotter than the plains of Africa, but it was still a really productive environment.

 

We set up our instruments, mic-d up amps, did all our line checks, we all had our own MD microphones set up so we could all input into the songs and how they sounded, and JJ (our drummer) made loads of noise during line check, which is a standard ritual, one which we all enjoy. Sometimes.

 

We then sat down, and got started on what would be an incredible journey of not only spiritual growth, but also musical growth and maturity.

 

George (our musical, creative, jack-of-all-trades GENIUS), had composed and written some tracks and bounced them onto backing tracks, as a base for what we wanted the tracks to sound like.

 

'My Victory' actually started off in a different key, and 'Leave the Boat Behind', was originally titled, 'The Way' and George planned initially for it to be an EDM style track. 'Opportunity' was in F, we thought about changing the key to G, but kept it at F. We had a slow, grooving track that was scrapped. We also considered having a go at a live version of one of the studio tracks off of 'Uncharted', but this ended up being an album of completely new songs, which was awesome.

 

"Because of the Cross', was quite a stubborn track to write. We played around with it, but the chords for the chorus, and the melody didn't quite come straight away. We settled on a 1, 1/3, 4 chord sequence for the song which fit really well and then the melody for the chorus came together. Dave wasn't sure whether he should be the one to sing it, but we all agreed, he was the guy who could pull it off. 

 

We had already written a few of the songs and played them at our annual church conference called The Cave, in May 2017, so the writing process for these was fairly simple.

 

The songs that were already 75% of the way there were Opportunity, Anyone Anywhere, Stronger, and Same God. So we had 4 songs which we had a head start on.

 

For me, with these 4 songs, it was more a case of sifting through all the ideas I had for these tracks with Dave (our producer and leader), throwing out certain ones which either didn't work, or didn't serve the song.

 

*Bit of advice, for anyone starting to write parts for an album. Alternative input is HEALTHY. I've learned over the years that writing songs together isn't about competing, and wanting YOUR part to stand out for the whole song. It's just selfish, and self-elevating.

 

'New Sounds'...

 

I got some new gear, which was great for inspiration when writing my parts. I got a Gig Rig Humdinger, which is essentially a stereo buffer, which also helps prevent out-of-phase amps when running a stereo set-up. A DigiTech Polara Reverb, and a Boss DD500 Digital Delay.

 

The DD500 really gave me new avenues in which I was able to explore in terms of tonal options. On the instrumental intro track 'Thunder. Reign.', I used a 'HOLD' function, that when you play, it stacks it all onto one, and it gets louder and louder. It's mental. I adjusted the cut off, so that when you release the switch, there's no spill over. This was essential, as this track lead straight into 'Love Rain Down'. This succeeded the Eeventide TimeFactor that I used to have on my board. The sounds I achieved with the DD500 were far superior in terms of clarity. It was also time for a new delay pedal, as the TF started to bug out on me a bit during live situations.

 

I purchased a brand new Fender American Standard Stratocaster too (fitted with Custom Shop Fat 50's). I used it on the song 'Stronger' for parts tracked in the studio, for that classic Strat sound.

 

For everything else, I used my trusty Fender Mexican Standard Telecaster. Her name is Catalina. She's great.

 

For all you gear heads out there, below (left) was my pedalboard setup, and I bought a new amp (below right). I pulled the trigger on a Vox AC15C1.

 

It's got that classic British Chimey Vox sound. I was chasing this chimey sound so my cleans could really stand out. The other amp that I was using in the stereo setup was a Fender Blues Deluxe Re-Issue (Tweed Tolex Version). The fatter, more rounded, warm tone of the Fender complimented the Vox really nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Listening, Learning'...

 

So with all the effects sorted, I started to look at inspiration for parts.

 

I'd spent the last three years (since our last album), learning as much as I could about music and how it worked. I felt that due to this, I was able to use my knowledge of what I had learnt, and it made the whole process a lot more easy for me, as I was able to understand fully what I was playing, and why what I was playing, worked. I use a lot of pentatonic scale shapes for a lot of the lead lines. 

 

*If you want to improve, and write music, I'd recommend you learn at least a basic level of Music Theory. I've written a book called, 'Basic Music Theory and the Nashville Number System', which you can buy, and also wrote a blog post on progressing musically.

 

You can find it HERE.

 

Anyway, I was listening a lot, over the months before we started writing, to a band called 'Bears Den'. They are a British band that Dave introduced me to a couple of years ago. They released an album called, 'Red Earth & Pouring Rain'. I LOVE the guitar sounds they achieved on this album. Nice cleans, and heavy reverbs go hand in hand. You can hear their influence on the lead guitar line on 'Love Rain Down', and the bridge parts in 'Streams in the Wasteland'. 

 

I drew influence from The Temper Trap, 'Sweet Disposition' for 'Leave the Boat Behind', with the main riff kind of being a tip-of-the-hat. The dotted eighth delay bridge part was possibly (i should imagine) drawn from a time when I was listening heavily to a band called 'Young Guns'.

 

I'm a fan of tight funky guitar riffs so drew on a lot of that when writing the chorus part for 'My Victory'. I still managed to sneak in a little bit of my early rock/metal influence into the album in some places, like the bridge/breakdown of 'My Victory', where we pull off this heavy, half-time breakdown, showcasing some huge guitars.

 

Being a worship guitarist, we play a lot of songs by Jesus Culture, Hillsong Young & Free, Elevation Worship, and Hillsong United. We rely on backing tracks in our different campuses and location sometimes as musicians aren't available very single week. When sifting through the different layers and mixing backing tracks, I was able to mentally note a lot of ideas in terms of sounds for different parts, and draw on these ideas when trying to hear a part that was forming in my mind.

 

I also owe a lot to online tutorials by worship guys like Jeffrey Kunde (Jesus Culture) for my clean sounds. This was how to make them stand out, and also how to mix reverb and delay in with your sound which just sit really nicely and compliment your sound.

 

'Pre-Production'...

 

So firstly, we had to go into the studio to track our parts, for the pre-production phase of the album. This was essential because if anything happened to the live stems, or we made a mistake, we could use those stems instead.

 

So I made my way from Cardiff to Hereford early in the morning and arrived at the studio.

 

Amps set up and levels coming through nicely. Drums had been sliced up and put together, and Ash had done a fine job earlier before me, in throwing down his bass parts.

 

We got started. When my parts had been put down, Dave (producer) and Luke (producer and sound engineer) gave me some ideas of what they wanted and I tried my best to come up with and translate what they were hearing into a guitar part for the layering process. It went well, and after a day and a half, I had tracked all my parts.

 

This was a useful process, because we could also use these stems as a reference in case we forgot our parts early on. 

 

'Recording Week'...

 

So here it was, the event we had prepared for was now here.

 

Parts nailed down. Guitars set up and restrung, pedalboard re-wired, connections soldered on problem pedals, extra strings in supply, in-ears working. Everything is all good,

 

I won't lie to you, this was probably the most stressful part of the whole process. In some cases you are just standing there playing a G chord for 10 minutes, or playing the same song 5 times in a row so the sound guy can get levels right for the venue. However, when you have been a part of productions like this a fair few times, you learn that this stuff is essential. However boring it maybe. 

 

So with that all done, after two days of getting in ears mixes right (after they were constantly resetting themselves, DARN IT!), after playing all the songs so many times, that they became so familiar that we could all probably play them in our sleep, we were ready to go.

 

The waiting on the last day is the hard part. You are so excited for the main event, to get started, that the whole day drags. At this point, the most complex decision you can make, is what T-Shirt, and which trousers to wear, and what slice of pre-event pizza you want to eat next!

 

The show went great, God was glorified, and everything went smoothly. 

 

The thing I loved about the whole process though, was the fact that God was SO present throughout the whole thing. Which you know, is a great thing, seeing as this has absolutely no meaning without Jesus at the centre of it.

 

'Release Day'...

 

This was the day we were waiting for.

 

The album had been mixed, mastered by Sam Gibson at Cardiff Creative Labs, he did a great job!

 

Thunder. Reign. was released on iTunes on the 23rd January 2018. It peaked at #2 in the U.K. Christian and Gospel iTunes chart, and peaked at #52 in the Mainstream U.K. iTunes chart! 

 

Even though this isn't why we do it (it's all to bring people closer to Jesus through worship and music), it's great to see something that you've put so much effort into, do so well. 

 

Can't wait until the next one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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