Monday, 22 March 2010


 I remember when I was but an excitable young guitarist in my early twenties, talking to what seemed (back then) a dinosaurianly old geezer in his early thirties.  He opined that he was no longer particularly impressed if someone played him a very good song on the guitar, as loads of people had done that, including a friend of his.

Putting to one side for the moment the possibility of bias re his friend, I was back then somewhat shocked.  My whole raison d'etre had been to try and craft finely-honed songwriting gems, learning the Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles songbooks, etc.

Now, however, I'm starting to see what he meant.  Go to pretty much any open mic in Edinburgh of a weekday, and you will probably hear some very good, possibly even great, songs.  But, they're still just songs on an acoustic, nice though they are.  If you were to listen to a whole album of that, you would possibly get a bit tired before the end, due to the arrangement being all the same, i.e. one guitar, one voice, and the ear/brain combo naturally rebels against uniformity of sound.

But, you may cry, surely with a bit of judicious arranging, these songs could be filled out even more, like a songwriting Cutty Sark under a fair westerly?  Ah, but therein lies a problem.  It would appear that the same skills that enabled the young troubadour to fashion their heartfelt piece, do not spring from the same source that enable good arrangements.  In fact, what can happen is that the song can be diminished, not enhanced, by a dull bass/drums arrangement, or a distracting melodic second instrument of some sort. Or the vocals are too quiet.  Or the guitar sounds crap as it's been DI'd. Or . . .

In actual fact, it's very hard to arrange and record a song so that it does justice to the song itself, and doesn't get in the way of what the song's about.  Choice of instrumentation, how everything sits in the mix, how effects are applied and to what, the room it's recorded in, the attitude of the sound engineer . . . the list could go on for a long time.  It all somehow plays a part in the final recording.  Speaking as someone who has oft-times been disappointed with their band's results from a recording session, I cannot claim knowledge of any of these secrets.

That's probably why, in the harsh light of reality, very few local artist's CD's are on repeat listening in my house.  The songs may be there, but the arrangments aren't.  There's some honourable exceptions to this, but in general, on getting the CD home, a vague sense of disappointment fills one on hearing the first few tracks.

Next issue:  Those (IMHO) worthy CD's!!


  1. In an ideal world, of course, your young troubador would be matched up with an arranger who could do justice to the song, and a producer and engineer who could bring that vision to reality. But that's the old world of music, and in the new world everyone has the means to do what they or their mates are capable of and not more. And that's the situation we're in. Add to that the precarious financial situation of young troubadors, who can't even stretch to a pound in a raffle at TLR; on occasion in my career (sic) I've paid someone who knows more than me to arrange, produce or master a song, and the results have been a step up from what I could have done. If you can afford it, it's worth it. I sometimes believe it's better to let someone else arrange your song - I feel far more creative arranging someone else's song than working on my own - but I know how hard it is to let go of the internal jukebox version.

    I know what you mean about friends' CDs that don't capture what you like most about their live performance. I learned that lesson early, while still at school, when I was knocked out by the energy and power of an outfit called the Natural Acoustic Band who had just landed - wow! - a record deal. When I finally got the album it sounded remote, flat and ordinary, nothing at all like their live performance. It's so rare to get it right. I think Jill Hepburn got it right, though.

  2. I agree totally with what you're saying, and that's why i have tried to hone my arranging skills as well as songwriting and musicianship skills, and so should everybody else, really.

    Without wishing to blow my own trumpet too much, i would like to think that you could put my CD on and not get bored, not many songs on it sound like the song before it or after it, i think (a few examples at if you're interested!)

  3. Hello nelson. Here are some rambling thoughts in no particular order (as I'll have to start working again soon!):

    I agree generally. Not wanting to blow my own trumpet, but I think usually pretty good at coming up with interesting ideas for arrangements (bearing in mind that one person's interesting is another persons nightmare). On the other hand, I am rubbish at writing songs or lyrics.

    I like to think that this is reflected in the old AlKandAlC set. I can't take any credit for any of the lyrics, but I'd like to think my contribution went above and beyond simply "playing bass"

    I also find that most songwriters tend to feel like they should be aiming for a typical 3 verse song, which is pretty restrictive in a musical context. It works fine if you have something to say lyrically (ie. Richard Thompson, probably my favourite songwriter).

    But for all those "average" songs, well, its another matter. About 2 minutes seems to be the right length to articulate your idea: around about the same length as a movement in a sonata.

    Or alternatively, develop your idea and write a longer piece of music around it. There are countless ways of developing a humble melody and very few ever get used in the singer/songwriter context.


    "In fact, what can happen is that the song can be diminished, not enhanced, by a dull bass/drums arrangement,"

    You're right about this too. Although I'd lay the blame at the bassist and drummers involved. If they've been brought in, it's their job to add something which lifts the whole song to another level (or, equally important, realise that the song doesn't suit their style and "actively play nothing (as space is often as important as sound)).

    Or in other cases, the fault lies with the overly ambitious songwriter who attempts to be a multi-instrumentalist and forgets that their lack of skill on bass/drums can drag the whole recording down.

    A final comment:
    Maybe the fault lies not with the arrangements after all. Maybe the friend/singer-songwriter you enjoy watching perform just isn't that good, and when you take away the excitement a live performance generates, you're left with a mediocre collection of songs performed by an amateur musician. I would put the majority of the "good" local musicians in this box. I can't think of many people in Edinburgh who warrant national exposure. Myself included. So of course their cds will sound flat and dull when you take them home.

    That's not saying that they aren't good grassroots performers. And in many ways, as with sport, healthy local scenes are more important than the highflying top level stuff.

  4. by the way, you might want to check out the huge amount of discussion going on in this thread, sparked by your initial post above:


  5. Blimey! Thanks for posting that Calum, and for your previous link. I had a listen on the ol' 'space, and I agreed with you so much that I bought the CD on paypal. Looking forward to hearing it!

    Some interesting thoughts from The Norm and The WeirdSalad too. Thanks for posting!