A Case Study on How to Play Bass and Sing the Song Dune Buggy By the Presidents of the United States of America.
This is the first in a series of posts in which I disassemble a song and reassemble it for singing while playing the bass-guitar. Songwriters who write their songs on the guitar or on the piano must go through the same process with their own songs in order to sing and play them on the bass-guitar.
A conversation with Chris Ballew subsequent to our interview revealed the notion of Woodshedding a piece of Music. Chris also answered in a follow-up question that one of the most challenging songs of his to woodshed was “Dune Buggy” from the first album of the Presidents of the United States of America.
As a sign of gratitude for sharing his Insight with SingingBassist, I have decided to demonstrate how I woodshedded Dune-Buggy, with its intricate verse vocals and tight bass groove. I put the result of my woodshedding in a video at the end of this post.
Chris Ballew’s performance of Dune Buggy is also a fabulous example of the Singing-Songwriting-Bassist owning his song, because, simultaneously mastering these vocal and bass rhythms dictates a major portion of the character of this song.
Dune Buggy, the song
Firstly, to characterize this song. As with the rest of the songs on their debut album, The Presidents manage to capture a very live-, band-in-the-room feeling to their recordings, which makes the melodies even more exciting. One particularly striking example of this “Live” feeling is where Chris exclaims at the beginning of verse 2, “Okay, I’ve got a….”. It resembles a conversation between him and an audience in whichever room the song was recorded. This easy-going parlay on top of a bass-groove is no slight feat to perform, it takes practice! It takes Woodshedding.
The band’s fondness for honest, live recordings and performances is also seen in the official video for Dune Buggy, which is a live recording with a studio audience! Which other band post-1973 would dare to record an official music video complete with audio from a live performance? Awesome.
|I opened my digital audio of the song in Audacity and isolated a complete musical loop containing the first line of the first verse, including all of the audio of the first two-measures. (“Little Blind Spider, Took the Wheel.“) I nudged left and right markers until looping the segment (keyboard shortcut “shift-space”) sounded rhythmically seamless, which indicated to me that eight quarter-notes or two entire measures were isolated.
Later on I use the same technique to isolate, deccelerate and loop portions of the recording which baffled me while trying to sing and play them.
Nudging left and right boundaries of the selection until the loop contained nearly exactly two entire measures.
|I then spied in the lower left-hand corner of the audacity window that the precise timing information was indicated – the time elapsed for eight quarter-notes.||
The duration of the selected audio segment – 5.184561s.
|Having the time-span and the number of quarter-notes, we are now able to obtain the bpm of the recording, using a simple algorithm which I derive to the right. This tempo becomes our reference for woodshedding.||
Chris plays on two strings for sonic reasons of his own, and the two-string is really a practical instrument for leading a band. I experimented transferring all of the notes from Chris’ two-string basitar rendition of the bass-line to a fretwise-compact version on the four-string bass. This permits me to play the entire song without moving my fretboard hand, which in turn, makes it easier for me to play without looking at the guitar.
Navigating the Landmarks
Once I memorized the lyrics of the song, I tried playing it in time and at the tempo of the recording.
Five locations in the song were challenging (nigh on impossible) to play and sing simultaneously.
I denote these locations by the lyrics where they occur:
Tongue-Twisters from within Dune-Buggy
- “….spider took the wheel.”
- “All four small bald fat tires, rockin’ through the sand and burning up”
- “Okay, I got a….”
- “Quit spinnin’ that web and come out and play, in the sun”
- “…floor with his fuzzy little toe-oe-oe-oe-oe, Little…”
Finding certain bass-notes while singing those tongue-twisters felt like summoning meteorites to appear on command! But, being able to master these landmarks was pure excitement. Remember the first time you recorded and then played back a multi-track recording of yourself? That is the level of wonderment and marvel that singing while playing bass can provide.
Using the software Audacity again, I isolated complete measures containing those tongue-twisters above, copied them to their own files (5 individual files), slowed them down by 20% (Audacity->Effect->ChangeTempo->-20%) and repeated the loop ~50 times. I then started playing along and singing along with these slowed down loops until they were firmly part of my tongue-twisted psychology. Hours became Days became Weeks became Months….my Girlfriend banished me to playing loops only while she was at work.
|For Loop number 5 above, I found I had to reduce the tempo down by 40% (from 93 down to 56 bpm) in order to learn it.|
|And then, I gradually sped up the loop, here it is at the tempo of the album recording (93 bpm)|
|until I could comfortably (albeit sloppily) play the loop at 120% of the recording’s tempo (112 bpm)|
I analyzed those loops with varying levels of intensity until I felt I could play the entire song without much thought of the bass-playing. I didn’t spend any more time on the loops than was needed, only enough to ensure seamless playing of the song, just me, my voice and my bass, and a click-track.
That’s pretty much all there is to the woodshedding phase. Now for the endorphin hit of playing music with a drummer. Maybe letting a guitarist into the room as well….we’ll see. In any case, the timing is perfected during the woodshedding phase. The feeling, the singing, should be perfected at rehearsal.