What is even harder work than performing as a Singing Bassist? Performing as the vocalist and instrumentalist in a rock duo! These singers have to do a lot more than does a Singing Bassist. They have to fill the entire musical end of the sound, sing, and be the only front man.
Challenging the conventional rock band structure requires reduction and elimination. No configuration is more reduced than that of a drummer plus singer-instrumentalist. This article describes performing rock bands consisting of two members. Four recently successful rock-duos are examined: White Stripes, Two Gallants, Local H and Royal Blood. In addition to that, we include an intermezzo describing Chuck Berry’s preference for having no fixed performing band.
Written by Will Anderson. Thanks to Dennis Alstrand for his review of this article.
White Stripes is the duo which everyone loves to pour hatred on, most likely due to the vast difference in quality between their recordings and performances, and probably in part due to the ambiguous nature of the intra-band relationship. A fact which can not be denied is that the White Stripes did legitimize the duo as a mainstream act. Jack White was originally a drummer, but he played guitar and sang in the band which made his name known to millions. Being in a duo means that the singer-instrumentalist cannot lean on an additional instrumentalist while generating vocals. Alternating between instrument and vocals would be quite boring, so the leader of a rock-duo must be better prepared than a simple singer. The fewer the band-members, the smaller is the acceptable margin for error. The upside is that the need for group rehearsal for a duo must be very low. Each member individually learns their parts and then probably meets once to confirm that they have the same references. For a duo, just as for the singing bassist, the practice and preparation are integral parts of the artform.
Two Gallants is an exciting duo from San Francisco consisting of two friends who have performed together since the age of twelve. They describe the experience of being in a duo as a “wall that they continually bump up against and every time it repels them in a new direction“. The most exciting aspect of their configuration in my perspective is the fact that one member plays drums mostly, but also guitar occasionally. And of course, both sing, which is a great resource to have in any band, but even more essential when the number of members is two.
While the Two Gallants are pushing the boundaries of the possibilities with drums, guitars and voices, the meteoric rise of Royal Blood provides strong evidence that reduction and simplification to the essentials leads to stronger songwriting and more rivetting performances. Mike Kerr of Royal Blood is a singing bassist, but he treats his bass sound like a guitar using an octave pedal. In fact, he uses two duplicate signals, treated individually through individual amps. One signal leads to a bass amp, occasionally interrupted by a tuning pedal in order to enhance dynamics, and one signal leads through an octave pedal and to a more guitar-oriented amplification.
Royal Blood demonstrate that there are really only abstract, artificial differences between bass-guitar and guitar-guitar. This was however previously demonstrated in the mainstream by a grunge-duo, debuting in the late nineties under the name of Local H. Scott Lucas originally fronted a four-piece band, but with the erosion of daily life this band became two and they decided that comradery cannot be manufactured by relentless recruitment. Their performances are enhanced with the inclusion of one stage-hand who steps in to provide percussion and background vocals. The guitars in Local H are all upgraded with bass pick-ups and additional parallel amplifiers. Enjoy the collision between small town innocence and rock and roll front man in the following clip.
One remaining maverick deserving mention in this stream is Chuck Berry. No, he did not work in a duo. He was even more audacious, touring 70-100 nights a year in the 1970’s and 1980’s carrying nothing but his guitar with him on the road. He hired local musicians to be his band at each of these tour dates. This is incredibly exciting because each performance was totally unique, uncomparable with any recordings or even any other tour dates. While some observers claim that these performances were erratic and damaging to his reputation, I contend that this experimental approach cements Chuck Berry as a true rock and roll singer-songwriter.
The biggest lesson to be learned from these brave performers is that a rock singer-songwriter sole-proprietorship is quite attainable. Taking the examples of Royal Blood, a singing bassist with no guitarist, and of Chuck Berry, singing lead-guitarist with no long-term band, combining the advantages of singing and playing bass for songwriting with the flexibility of touring with local bands, the performing singer songwriter is empowered to quickly implement his or her vision of music, but without the drama and expense of a permanent band.