To think is to undermine: Thinking makes the most natural act unnatural. Think too much, and you can’t urinate in a public restroom or sleep when you are exhausted at 2 a.m. Next time you’re in a crowded room full of strangers, really focus on walking naturally from one end to the other. You will inevitably feel awkward. That’s why booze remains so popular at parties—it turns off your brain so you can feel natural.
When it comes to getting a natural feel while recording, I hearken back to the words of my mentor, Homer Simpson, who said, in a nutshell: There’s a time to think and there’s a time to do stuff, and this is definitely not a time to think. Because I spend a good deal of my not-thinking time watching music on YouTube, I began this project by typing “FUNK 1972” into YouTube’s search box and then mindlessly engaging in “research” (I’m using this somewhat academic term in its broadest sense). I was lulled into a semi-catatonic state as I watched Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Preston, and P-Funk for about 20 minutes, then I came to in a panic thinking, “Get it together, man. You’ve got a deadline— do your work!”
Research temporarily concluded, I created a new Pro Tools session file, opened a Toontrack instrument channel, and played the first “funk” drum loop I could find. It sounded sufficiently funky, so I copied it onto instrument track #1 and repeated the two-bar phrase 100 times. Then I imported the QuickTime video version of the ESPN documentary and saw the drums lock with the vid. This took roughly seven minutes. Next stop: bass.
Generally, I see bass as a white canvas and guitar as the paint. These minimalist leanings work fine in country and dumb rock but they do not apply to funk, where the bass is right out front, loud and proud. I went back to YouTube, typed in “funk bass” and found a video entitled “Bootsy’s Basic Funk Formula.”
Search YouTube for “Bootsy’s Basic Funk Formula,” and you’ll be rewarded
with a groovin’ bass lesson from the “space bass”-wielding man himself.
Armed with one funk bass lesson, I tuned up my bass, plugged it into a DI box, and played along with the drum track, trying to shift phrases with the scene changes on the video screen. It took a few attempts, but I came up with a pattern that seemed to flow with the screen images. After laying down the bass, I listened to the track and wrote down a quick numbers chart, knowing I would inevitably forget the chord changes.
Having completed the hard work for the project, it was time for the fun part. I plugged my 20-year-old Cry Baby (which after years of use and abuse is really getting funky—in a bad way) into my little Kustom amp. I chose the Kustom because its blue-sparkle tuck-and-roll covering looked like something you’d see in a ’70s-era Commodores show. To complete my ’70s vibe, I used my ’75 Tele Deluxe (thanks Michael McFarland, who traded me this sweet brownie). I read the chart down and played high triads with a liberal dose of wah.
I opened up another track and added a dirty lead part, sans wah. It wasn’t a great part, but I knew that if I played it 20 more times, it would be a little different, but not really any better. Miles Davis once said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” I hate to contradict Miles, but there were some honest-to-God wrong notes on my track. I listened and removed the few ugly parts and left the space open rather than redoing them. As Bootsy said in his video, “Space is good.”
In honor of Earth Wind & Fire, I added a few keyboard-generated horn stabs. Now the music was sounding pretty close to what the client had described. I added some delay to the lead track, compressed the overall mix, and emailed it to the client. The entire project, including lots of YouTube visits, took under two hours.
The next morning I was informed that the producers didn’t like the track, but they got an extension and wanted another version by the end of the day—which gave me lots of time. Rather than fix the old track, I started a new track from scratch and did the entire process over again. Version two took a little longer, because I put more time into finding a cooler drum loop, added drum fills at transition points, and recorded an organ pad over the entire thing. Overall, it felt better. As of now, I haven’t heard back from the client, so I’m going with that old chestnut: No news is good news.
Deadlines are your friend! Look at Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy: $14 million, 17 obsessive years, one crap record. I’ve watched people rework a track ad nauseam and manage to crush any soul the music might have had. Granted, there are exceptions where over-thinking makes amazing art. Rumours, Let It Be, and Night at the Opera are notorious for their obsessive excess, and they are perfect albums. But for those of us in the real world with tiny budgets and limited time, we just need to put our heads down and crank it out with as little thinking as possible.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville-based guitarist who works primarily in TV and has recorded and toured with over 30 major-label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, on major-label releases, and in literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger.