Today’s weird musical theory

He has learned how to play most of the major musical instruments, typically well.

His vocal range once spanned over four octaves, he is sometimes considered the greatest bass player in the history of rock and roll,

Obviously, Macca.

About people who play multiple instruments. Lots of guitar/mandolin/banjo etc peeps. Drummers and pianists. People who cover that whole gamut as well – Macca.

But – string instruments (guitars etc not what is meant, violin/cello, upright bass etc), woodwind and brass. Very few indeed who cover across those three. And also, very few who cover those “major” ones and also one or more of these.

OK, Van the Man and saxophone, Bowie tried for a bit but not very well. Chris Rea is actually a good brass player – got the range and tone. But Rea is the exception.

So, why? One argument is that the minor instruments are just that, minor. So, why bother to learn one as a secondary or tertiary instrument?

Another – and this is rather groping for an argument – is the technical barrier to being good at any of them. You can make a fun noise out of certain instruments with very little technique. Punk bands showed that. But it is actually true. I’ve not played a guitar – never was any good – in 30 years but I could be giving you a perfectly servicable (shite, but servicable) blues bass line within a day of picking one up. Could gig within a month, maybe a week even. Sure, take me forever to be John McVie and the universe doesn’t have enough time left for me to practice up to James Jameson – but that last is true of everyone of course.

Fretless string instruments and brass – I assume reed wind as well but don’t know – take weeks of fiddling to get a sound out of them, or to be in tune. It takes months and months to be able to do anything you’d let out of the basement.

So, back to the beginning. Yes, of course musical talent exists. But so do barriers to using specific instruments. One barrier is that talent. But with certain instruments there’s a high technical barrier to get over before you can even think about actually applying musical ability. Given that incentives matter those with that proven musical ability don’t bother to pick up those instruments that have the technical barrier, not as second, fourth and tenth instruments they don’t.

49 thoughts on “Today’s weird musical theory”

  1. Ronnie Lane will always be my favourite bass player, but then he played in a couple of great bands, not an over-rated skiffle group.

  2. I family friend’s a professional violinist/ multi instrumentalist. I spent a summer hol with him while he was learning a new instrument. – the blues harmonica …which was his project for the 2 weeks. And he told me there is another barrier – the wife.

  3. Bloke in North Dorset

    Having no music or singing ability I can’t really judge, but wasn’t Roy Wood reported as being able to play over 40 instruments? As I say, how well I couldn’t tell.

  4. “… he is sometimes considered the greatest bass player in the history of rock and roll,”

    By who? Macca can certainly write a decent pop tune but he’s an average musician i.e you wouldn’t employ him as your bass player on ability, you’d employ him because he’s Macca.

  5. The Beatles were over-rated, and Wings were just shite.
    As for a four octave range, can I have some of what you’re smoking?

  6. “… he is sometimes considered the greatest bass player in the history of rock and roll,”

    Which could be right… I you leave “rock and roll” firmly in the 50’s and early 60’s… After that? Naaaaaaaahhh…..

    As for multi-instrumentalists.. In the folk scene there’s a fair number of people who can play a bewildering amount of (often localised/obsolete/forgotten) instruments ticking all the major groups. And some that defy any common sense.
    With the added advantage that most, if not all of them do it live, on stage…

  7. There is a big barrier for multi-instrumentalists; learn to play guitar well and you can partly transfer those skills to violin/ cello / mandolin etc, same with piano/ drums/ percussion. Wind instruments, on the other hand, are in their own little world and again there’s trumpet/ cornet/ tuba in one ‘family’ and sax/ clarinet/ oboe in a different ‘family’.
    In my experience, it’s very rare indeed for someone to be really good at guitar and piano/ keyboards, they’re usually very good at one and average at the other.

  8. I defy anyone who hasn’t played a double reed to pick up an oboe or bassoon and get a recognisable tune out of it within a week.

  9. @Grikath

    ““rock and roll” firmly in the 50’s and early 60’s”

    If you stretch to mid sixties that’s probably a serviceable definition of the genre isn’t it? Provided you treat “rock and roll” as just one, indeed the original, form of “rock music” generally?

  10. I can play guitar and piano passably well. Recently I’ve been trying the diatonic melodeon (button accordion), where one button produces different notes on the push or pull of the bellows (so like a mouth organ). Brain is unable to cope.

  11. That’s Jamerson, and Macca would surely agree he was one of the best. There’s bassists and bassist’s bassists. The former judged on how they contributed to the band, and I’d go for Entwistle and Jack Bruce. And a lesser-known personal favourite Norman Watt-Roy. The latter being people who could push the instrument beyond that, and I think that is akin to perversion. Jaco Pastorius is the most frequently cited.

  12. @GC

    First thing that shows up under a Google search for “Macca” here in the UK is their miniprofile for Paul McCartney – okay second thing, there’s a row if adverts for maca root extract supplements first. But perhaps the same thing isn’t true if you search in America?

    I would say “Google is your friend” but that’s obviously a lie. And DuckDuckGo doesn’t seem to have a clue – its results are about maca root extract, the city of Mecca, and the bingo company bizarrely (given Islamic strictures on gambling) named after Mecca. So it seems the price of privacy may be never to work out what Brits are on about.

    And if you would rather sell your soul to Microsoft… Bing doesn’t have the foggiest either.

  13. @ Rhoda:

    ” And a lesser-known personal favourite Norman Watt-Roy. The latter being people who could push the instrument beyond that, and I think that is akin to perversion. Jaco Pastorius is the most frequently cited”

    Definitely two great players, especially Jaco, but more jazz/funk than R&R.

  14. ‘“Google is your friend” but that’s obviously a lie.’

    Excellent! I’m going to use that.

    I did do internet search. Based on Tim’s content, I was able to piece together that it was McCartney. But it took longer than reasonable amount of time, so I griped.

    ‘greatest bass player in the history of rock and roll’

    Reggie Young. Unquestionably.

  15. John Paul Jones would like a word.

    Anyway, Paul died in 1966 as any fule kno; his replacement is average at best.

  16. In the early days of jazz there were bass players who played both brass bass (tuba, sousaphone, or whatever) and string bass.

  17. I agree with that. I used to play larger brass instruments. My girlfriend had a clarinet and just getting a sound out of it was hard, but anyone can play God Save the Queen on the piano.

    And most of these people who also play piano aren’t doing anything as hard as Hungarian Rhapsody. Hey Jude is not a technically complicated piano part. The skill of Hey Jude is the songwriting.

    Prince was the same. His early albums were all him, and he really knew guitar. The keyboards and drum parts aren’t challenging. But he doesn’t have brass, sax or strings credits.

  18. I’m a fan of Flea of Red Hot Chilli Pepper fame. No idea if he’s a ‘bassist’s bassist’ but he’s got a great energy for that band.

  19. There are a lot of relatively unknown multi-instrumentalists in rock. There is plenty of footage on youtube of Dave Gilmoir playing drums. Paul Rodgers made an entire album recording every instrument, and he is basically a singer..

  20. I like Les Claypool from Primus, but he may be a little bit odd for most.

    A small curiosity is that Primus is the only band to have its own ID3 tag.

  21. When I was ten-ish I asked an aunt to teach me piano. She wanted me to start with guitar. I vigourously protested, I wanted to specifically leanr specically a keyboard instrument, where there is a one-to-one mapping between control used and sound generated, not some nonsense mishmash where one control can generate a completely random assortment of outputs.

    Decades later I am still a decently competent keyboardist and completely useless with any sort of one-control-multiple-output instrument.

  22. The chap of today is Bill Bailey, due to being the oldest winner of Strictly Come Dancing.
    He is also an accomplished musician on keyboards, guitars and some other weird stuff.

    Groundbreaking? Probably not. But certainly competent

  23. One thing multi-instrumentalists have is time. Lots of dead time waiting.

    Most people’s lives are far too busy to learn multiple things well. My mate is professional level on trombone. Good on piano. Average on other brass. Naff on guitar. Sings well without power. But he has that around a full time job, a working wife and small children.

    If he spent hours waiting at gigs or for PR etc, he’d be amazing at most of them. A few thousand hours practicing while he waited for the sort of job that takes a couple of hours a day and his guitar would really pick up.

  24. I have returned to playing the piano now that I have retired. I have reasonable musicality and manual dexterity but I didn’t start playing until I was in my forties so I have a lot of catching up to do. I had my mind truly boggled by a you tube video of JS Bach’s Toccata Adagio and Fugue in C major being played on a pipe organ with the score scrolling past a vertical line on the centre of the screen. There were three staves for the right hand, the left hand and the keyboard for the feet. It is a piece of music that I really love, but I don’t think that I could learn to play it if you gave me a thousand years.

  25. Muso friends tell me Macca won’t allow the sidemen or even the road crew to have a bacon sarnie or any other meat. Pay’s not much good either, for the sidemen. Allegedly, of course. Who are of course picked for their ability to play. Which shows that musicianship alone is not an earner.

  26. My boy is a pro Clarinettist. Technically very adept on Piano as he was a childhood ‘double-specialist’.

    Can sing baritone really well and like Bill Bailey has perfect pitch.

    Won’t go near double reed or brass as it would ruin his embouchure so I suspect the ‘technical barrier’ thing is the key with pro wind players. Other than that its about time, inclination and musicality IMHO.

    Paul McCartney? Massively overrated as were the Beatles. Not fit, as a bassist, to lick Mark King’s boots. And why did nobody mention Dave Grohl or Chris Cornell? Drummers who made a second career in front of the the kit.

  27. Hindemith composed 26 sonatas across wind, strings, piano, organ and harp, and apparently he could play every one except for the harp sonata. Ok, probably not all to concert standard, but even to be able to play the basic notes of each composition is pretty extraordinary.

  28. The best bass players are Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and Kirk Joseph, who played and play respectively sousaphone. End transmission.

  29. Not really. The marketplace loves Dan Brown. But he is a poor writer, technically, with silly plots. In 100 years no-one will read him.

    Already modern kids have no idea who McCartney is.

  30. Wikipedia (yes, I know) lists 58 singers with a 4 octave range

    I would have thought most opera singers and loads in musical theatre are similar

    So, not rare

  31. is it a problem? There are plenty of professionals out there available for hire. And not all that expensive. Go and see pretty much any of the big name music brands on tour and you will see a stageful of short term contracting musicians, and probably some technical types trying to do something with the voice!

  32. The market place loved the Bay City Rollers.

    Linda Lewis is said to have 5 octave range. As a 13 year old, I thought she was the most gorgeous female on the planet.

  33. @Gamecock
    “Paul McCartney? Massively overrated as were the Beatles.”

    The marketplace laughs at your silliness.

    The Beatles seem to be a band journos spend hours writing about but people hardly listen to. How often do you hear a Beatles track played on a radio station covers music of that period? Compared with contemporary Stones material? Kinks? Cream? Try using the “Radio” function in Spotify for one of the other bands were around in the Beatles era & see how many Beatles tracks turn up in the playlist. The playlists are generated are generated by the popularity of the individual tracks. Apparently, they’re not.

  34. Best selling music act of all time.

    “Try using the “Radio” function in Spotify for one of the other bands were around in the Beatles era & see how many Beatles tracks turn up in the playlist.”

    Oh, that’s real important.

  35. bloke in spain,

    “The Beatles seem to be a band journos spend hours writing about but people hardly listen to. How often do you hear a Beatles track played on a radio station covers music of that period? Compared with contemporary Stones material? Kinks? Cream? Try using the “Radio” function in Spotify for one of the other bands were around in the Beatles era & see how many Beatles tracks turn up in the playlist. The playlists are generated are generated by the popularity of the individual tracks. Apparently, they’re not.”

    I think one thing with the Beatles is the story. They were newsworthy. “Bigger than Jesus”, shifting from bubblegum pop to more complex work. Getting into Indian spiritual woo, the fashion, counterculture, being the biggest band of the era as TV grew, the break up, and Lennon’s life after and assassination helped the mythology, too. It made them common currency.

    I also think it’s music that no-one hates, but no-one cares much for. If you ran a food pub, no-one is going to complain about The Beatles as background music, like they might ABBA or Rammstein.

  36. @Gamecock
    If I understand the Spotify algorithms correctly*, what turns up in a playlist will reflect the frequency that track receives play requests. So a fair guide to what’s popular from then today.

    “Best selling music act of all time. ”
    Reflects more than anything else the recording buying habits of the time Beatles records were selling. They were selling a lot of vinyl singles in an era when there wasn’t much option to buying vinyl singles. During their earlier years there wasn’t even much radio play – at least in the UK. You heard what Auntie BBC wanted you to hear. If you wanted to listen to music you had to own it. Even before streaming, the recording buying public had completely changed. The average age of buyers of the “Top 20” was something like 14.

    *I actually tried that on a virgin Spotify account so there wasn’t any influence from the account holder’s prior music choices. (I run multiple Spotify accounts because, with Spanish speakers in the house, the sort of appalling crap they’ll put on buggers up the playlist biases. You wouldn’t believe how foul reggaeton** is) “Beatles Radio” produced playlists with a lot of contemporary artists. Requesting “artist Radio” produces very few Beatles tracks

    **Reggaeton is derived from one particular strand of dancehall. I like Jamaican music. I even like dancehall. But listening to endless streams of exactly the same rhythm patterns repeated endlessly is mighty tedious. Especially when all the vocals seem to be recorded with the singer’s head in a tin bucket. Innovation is not something the the Spanish speaking world comes to grips with easily

  37. Adrian Rollini. The master of the bass sax in early jazz. Later had a second success on the vibes. I don’t suppose “Macca” plays any instruments to the standard Rollini played his two, but I’m open to correction.

    P.S. The Beatles were tremendous.

  38. Similar to Shiney’s point, flautists can’t touch brass for the same reason. Double reed is off-limits too, I think, although you do get flute/sax players.

    There may be other combos that are mutually exclusive outside of wind, although I can’t immediately think of them.

  39. Roy Castle famously played the same tune on 43 instruments in 4 minutes, although that included a kettle and a kitchen sink, so make that 41.

  40. Bloke on A720 – although you do get flute/sax players

    If anyone’s interested in investigating a great flute/sax jazz player, try Eric Dolphy. He played the bass clarinet as well, which (in his hands) produced the most extraordinary sound. Try his version of Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, with Richard Davis on bowed double bass.

  41. BiS is right about Reggaeton. My sons played some for me just to upset the old man as it were…

    To say I can live without it, is definitely my understatement of the year!

  42. Started off with piano lessons at age 5, violin lessons at 8 (but mercifully short-lived), flute lessons added at 11, then organ at 12. Took up electric guitar at 14 (to immense disappointment of parents) which is probably the only one I’m actually any good at. Flute means single reeds are doable, echoing earlier comments, but double reeds probably not. Horns are out and so are orchestral strings. Can play drums/latin percussion, but no Sheila E.

    Starting with the piano was the biggest help – I learnt to read music mere months after learning to read, and being ok with music theory has made it feasible to score for instruments I can’t play. I also, to reinforce Chester Draws’ point above, spent a lot of my late teens/20s hanging round rehearsal studios trying to play whatever, and have met a fair number of people who can do a decent job on two or more instruments from different “families”.

    McCartney’s definitely a very good bass player, but he’s no virtuoso; if he were, he wouldn’t be the musician he is.

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