Have you ever been in a situation in which you had to arrange horn parts for a song that already worked just fine without horns?
I've played in a horn band for years, so I've done this to songs by Bon Jovi, Little Big Town, Journey, Sara Bareilles, and Rascal Flatts, to name a few. And, last year I wrote horn parts for the recording project of Blues musician John "JT" Thompson.
In this post you can check out the before track (rhythm section & scratch vocals) and the after track (final mix with horn section, back-up vocals, etc). I'll also tell you a little bit about my process.
So, as mentioned above, I got an assignment to write horn charts for the studio album of Blues musician John "JT" Thompson. In so many words, my job was to write some kick-butt horn parts that sounded like they were written by JT himself as part of the original tune.
• Here's the "Before" track:
("rhythm roughs" with a "scratch" vocal: piano/bass/drums, unmixed... and a utilitarian lead vocal track that serves as a placeholder for the sidemen.
• Here's the "After" track:
(the same rhythm tracks, final lead vocal track, back-up vocals, and the four-piece horn section.)
The not-yet-patented Hirschian-Get-er-Done protocol
I'm not a very systematic guy. But, like good ol' Hamlet, there's a method to my madness. For an arranging gig like this, it usually resembles dis' here:
1. I played along (on piano/singing) with the rough recording JT sent me. This is how I began to internalize the song and get a feel for its vibe.
2. I scratched out a rough lead sheet with an outline of the tune. On this sheet I also notated any rhythm section/piano figures that sounded important.
3. On the lyric sheet (just an MS Word doc) I made some notes as to where I wanted some fill-in riffs, where some pads would be nice, etc.
4. I took out my tenor and played along with the recording. I wrote down the first couple of riffs that popped out. They seemed decent, so I kept them and moved on. I had a deadline and wanted to get paid, after all.
5. I looked at the notes on my lyric sheet and figured out where to use these riffs.
6. I laid out the score in Finale. You'll see that I used a vocal staff, too. This keeps me tuned into the flow and pitches of the melody to make sure the horn parts match up well. (Note that I used no repeats or DSes, even though there were several repeated sections.)
7. Then I started plugging and chugging, futzing with voicings as needed.
8. Laid out the parts, and Voila!
9. Done and done. Onto the next three charts!
Some important nuts-and-bolts considerations
This was not a blank-piece-of-manuscript-paper type of commission. I couldn't just write whatever the heck I felt like writing at the time and be all artsy-fartsy about it. This was a no-nonsense Blues band, so I had to make it right. Here are some of the things that I viewed as important to bear in mind:
1. This tune was something JT has performed hundreds of times with his 4-piece (read: no horn section) blues band. This means that the tune goes off just fine with no horns, so I was not going to write some brilliant horn score that would transform a dud of tune into something totally rocking. It already was rocking. I just had to add a little sugar and spice to the mix.
2. When a working band performs a tune regularly, the arrangement tends to evolve during gigs, eventually becoming fixed into "how we play this tune."
3. Per #1 &# 2 above, the form and flow of the arrangement were pre-determined. Thus, the rhythm tracks JT sent me were final, and were not going to be rerecorded or changed. Even if the horn arranger had some super-hip idea that would require the drummer-bassist-pianist to do something different.
4. I didn't know if JT would want to leave some verses "empty" while others used background figures. So, I wrote figures in every verse, knowing that he could throw out anything he didn't want. (A benefit of multi-track recording).
5. I wanted to make roadmaps as clear as possible for the horn players to minimize room for error in the studio. I think I used very few repeats (if any) and no DSes.
Oops -- I haven't even gotten there, yet! I guess that will leave me something to write about in the next posts...
By the way, you can check out the whole enchilada right here:
FWIW, I wrote the horn charts for tracks 4, 7, 9, and 12.