Whatever your genre, your solos and musical arrangements can come to life when you incorporate call and response between instruments, vocalists, and any combination you can think of.
During the recent interview i did with Disc Makers, we talked about techniques to improve your improvisation and soloing. One very powerful concept that came up during the discussion was call and response, and it’s a topic that deserves attention, and a blog entry, of its own.
Call and response is a simple concept: At some point in a song or composition, one instrument or voice “calls” with a musical idea of some sort and a different voice or instrument then “responds” with the same idea, a variation thereof, or something completely different; then the process repeats. It’s like a musical conversation that progresses, back and forth, in the context of a performance.
Even though the concept is simple, its applications are endless, and you can hear call and response come to life in jazz and gospel, rock and pop, rap and reggae, and just about any genre you can name. Here are just a few video example to help you start using call and response in your own musical arrangements, solos, and songwriting in any genre or style.
“Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
This track has a lot going for it: Charismatic vocals by Bruno Mars, a great arrangement and overall vibe by Mark Ronson, and tight horn parts throughout. There’s also a ton of call and response in this song.
Check out 3:45 to hear how the vocals and horns bounce the listeners’ attention back and forth between each other in classic call-and-response fashion. As you’re listening, also note how, while Mars’ vocal line evolves and morphs with each repetition of “Don’t believe me? Just watch!” the horn lines and hits stay the same — and those static horn parts make the variations in the vocal lines that much more noticeable and exciting.
To bring that sort of funk to your own songs and improvisations, try creating a section where you build a similar dynamic: Set up some call-and-response interplay between two instruments or voices where one repeats the exact same musical idea, over and over — while, with each repetition, the other uses that repeated motif as a springboard for cool and exciting variations.
“Swimming Pools,” Kendrick Lamar
Call and response is everywhere in rap and hip-hop, with different vocalists often throwing phrases back and forth between each other in punchy and powerful interplay. “Swimming Pools” by Kendrick Lamar is no exception — in fact, it stands out due to the simplicity of its use of call and response. The track opens with one voice says a few words, then another simply responds with the lone word “drank,” laying it down as the period at the end of each sentence. It’s stark, propulsive, and memorable.
Whether you’re a rapper or not, you can use similar strategies in your own music. Try having a significant phrase that’s played, sung, or rapped by one voice punctuated at the end by a single word, note, or hit by another voice or instrument. Repeat a few times and see what sort of momentum you can create in the process.
“Crazy Mary,” Pearl Jam
Even though Pearl Jam is a guitar-centric band, they take some time at the end of this song to let Boom Gaspar’s Hammond Organ work shine. The format? A call-and-response battle with guitarist Mike McCready where the instrumentalists trade four-bar solos. Check out 4:35 to hear Gaspar and McCready bounce around dirty licks on their respective instruments, riding each other’s energy, as the song builds to its finale.
In your own music-making, choose a bandmate or guest musician who you think you can inspire and be inspired by and add a call-and-response solo section to one of your songs. It can be an extended, epic outro, like in “Crazy Mary,” or a shorter interlude between verses, for example. Whatever the context, make sure to listen to what your fellow call-and-responder is playing and use that as inspiration for what you play next. Work together and see what kind of momentum and excitement you can whip up in the course of your musical discourse.
When it comes to call and response, these examples are just the beginning. What’s your favorite instance of recorded call-and-response goodness? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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