Listomania – 10 Muso Tricks Everyone Uses

Every Friday we’ll be taking a look at the world of music in the forms of top tens, starting with a contentious subject for many new bands…

There’s a great quote from David Johansen in this month’s Uncut, about the early days of New York Dolls. “The cliché is we were trashy, we were flashy, we were junkies,” he says. “But when you sit down and listen to the entire oeuvre, it’s really musical.”

New York Dolls


It must piss you off being a punk pioneer: you slave away making an album as good as ‘New York Dolls’ (or ‘Nevermind The Bollocks’ or ‘The Clash’ or whatever) and your entire legacy gets reduced to: “They couldn’t play, but it didn’t matter, it was all about the attitude!” Chancers have been given a free pass for years off the back of this misconception. The fact is, anyone with a brain who listens to any of those albums – or the other decent punk rock records – knows there is serious musicianship going on. The attitude is all-important, yes; but if you think they weren’t sat about discussing guitar sounds in the middle eight, you’re a fool.

It’s so funny when you interview some modern bunch of posers and they plead ignorance of musical terminology they obviously use every day – like them people who pretend they don’t watch X Factor – worried mentioning it will make people think that they’re Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The middle eight in ‘God Save The Queen’ is a massive part of what makes it a great punk single. And as for this boring “it’s over in 90 seconds, just like all good punk songs” bullshit, proceed to song three on The Stooges debut album, which is over 10 minutes long. Short song length, pretending not to know what a paradiddle is – this doesn’t make you a punk. The whole point is that there are no rules.

And so today I thought I would compile a list of the bestest muso terms that everyone knows but won’t mention, in the hope that when I next interview a bunch of idiots and say, “I really like that bit in the coda” or something, they won’t just go, “Sorry mate, I don’t get what you mean? I’m a punk, you see?”

1 – Middle Eights
A middle eight is the bit where… oh, come ON, we all know, don’t we? For those who are stll pretending, it’s the bit after the second chorus where we get taken higher. Best one in recent memory is in ‘Empire State Of Mind’, when Alicia Keys starts singing, “One hand in the air for the big city…” Magical. My personal fave ever at the minute is from Tom Petty’s ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’: the most natural-sounding, slinky-as-hell shift ever. Makes you think of pretty people dancing, not old men in capes. Keep your ears out at one minute and 20 seconds.

2 – Stereo Panning
Somewhat deadened by the arrival of iPods and the ubiquity of headphones, this trick is utilised to startling, unsettling effect on ‘The Murder Mystery’ by heroes of every punk ever The Velvet Underground. Which also lasts nine minutes, so wouldn’t make it onto the “short, just as rock music should be” Vaccines album.

3 – The Key Change
Westlife bludgeoned this oldest trick in the book into total submission with their stool routine, but it’s rife for reclaiming. One of the best things about Suede’s arrival in 1992 was their utter intolerance for indie’s cooler-than-thou conservatism. “These fucking bands with their guitar lines you can’t hear and their lyrics about fucking nothing,” rages Bernard Butler in his first NME cover interview. “Who wants to be Birds Of A Feather when you could be Faulty Towers?” This mentality led Suede to climax their second single with a glorious, audacious key change.

4 – EQ’ing
You know them weird little bars on your stereo display what go up and down? These are EQs, and manipulation of them is the making of some of the strangest-but-best music ever made. King of punk John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd were obsessive about this, but the most effective tinkering that springs to my mind is that on Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’.

5 – Open Tuning
I’ll leave this one to my man Keith Richards, via his recent ‘Life’ biog: “The big discovery late in 1968 was when I started playing the open five-string tuning,” he says. “It transformed my life. It’s the way of playing that I use for the riffs and songs the Stones are best known for – ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Happy’, ‘Start Me Up’ and ‘Satisfaction’. ‘Jumpin Jack Flash,’ too.” Now if you think Keith is a muso bore, or can imagine the world without these muso borefests then… well, enjoy The Paddingtons.

6 – The Coda
Jeff Lynne may be top of the muso-dartboard pops, but anyone who doesn’t like ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’, with its quite fabulous bit-after-it-seems-to have-ended, needs their head seeing to. This is a coda, and it is beautiful.

7 – Multi-Layering
A favourite of another punk puritan by the name of Kevin Shields. “I would go to gigs, and it seemed like all the guitar players onstage just seemed to move their hand up and down the neck in one shape,” he says. “So I somehow figured out how to do that, and that was the only thing Johnny Ramone did anyway, so that’s all I wanted to do… none of those messy, complicated chords.” Kevin, though, expanded the punk mantra from “Three Chords & The Truth” to “Three Chords, The Truth and A Lot OF Different, Treated Versions Of The Same Chord To Make An Even Bigger Truth.” Which was a HELL of a good idea.

8 – Slap Bass
‘Ashes To Ashes’, innit?

9 – Complex Chord Stuctures
I emailed round for examples about this one, and received the following word from none other than editor Luke Lewis, who in his guitar hero days, “once tried to work out Poison by Alice Cooper and that song has fucking hundreds of weird chords, it changes every line.” Doesn’t sound it though, does it? It sound like a simple-as-shit, dumb-ass, fizzy hair metal classic, and that’s the point. The deception.

10 – Weird Time Signatures
As well as being the raunchiest white rock’n’roll band in history, Led Zeppelin are also muso icons. They combine both of these supposedly opposing traits on the opening song of ‘IV’, which is in some freaky time signature that drummers argue about a lot. ‘Black Dog’ originates from John Paul Jones who wanted something that people couldn’t “groove” to. Robert Plant had other ideas: “HEY HEY MAMA SAID THE WAY YOU MOVE, GONNA MAKE YOU SWEAT, GONNA MAKE YOU GROOVE!”

See what I’m saying? Muso stuff can be a good thing, just as long as you ain’t wearing a cape. Have I missed out any tricks? And what are the ones that make your heart soar? ADMIT IT!

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