Friday, March 8, 2013

Digging Deeper With David

The WannaBeatles started by playing Beatles songs we already knew, but it didn't take long for us to start rehearsing, and learning more - about Beatles songs we thought we knew, and others we didn't know.

It was WannaBeatle David who first suggested it, and he's the natural man for the job.

He's got a master's degree in music, and directs a choir, and teaches students on a daily basis, on drums, guitar, and bass. 

But what really sets him apart is a ferocious appetite for details. As we gather in rehearsal to listen to a Beatles song,  David will apply his Sherlock Holmes detection methods, transferring the audio to a software program that allows him to slow down the playback, separate the stereo channels, replay sections endlessly, and analyze to his heart's obsessive content. He will hear tiny overtones that sound like an extra background vocal part, or a higher guitar part, or a flute, or something no one had suspected was there.

What makes the research so challenging, and rewarding, is the fact that the Beatles themselves used the studio in a very creative way. So there's plenty of research to do. Diving into their tracks makes us feel like archeologists uncovering the equivalent of New York, London, Paris, Rome, Rio de Janiero, Tokyo, Moscow and New Delhi all at once.

The Beatles started as a performing band, and their early songs were written to sound great in that format - guitars, bass and drums. The instrumental parts fit into the vocal parts to make an irresistible whole. That's part of their genius - combining their songwriting ideas with their own musical abilities. That's also what made their impact so great: they made being a "band" such an amazing reality. 

Nowadays we toss around the term as if it's been a reality forever, but before the Beatles, being a "band" was not such a cool or appealing thing. But as their popularity became a burden, as screaming fans made it impossible for them to hear themselves,  they finally stopped playing live performances.

Especially after Sgt. Pepper, they put their energy into writing and recording in the studio, using the emerging multi-track technology to experiment with additional instruments. They produced records that were never intended to be performed live. Each song was unique. Many of them benefitted from George Martin's arranging skill, like the driving strings he added to "Eleanor Rigby."  

The WannaBeatles, in looking at the musical challenge, had considered the advantage of adding a bass player, but decided that remaining a four piece group was worth whatever sacrifices we would have to make. And so we look for ways to reproduce the elaborate orchestral sounds from the more complex Beatles songs with whatever resources we have as a four piece band.

David is also a fearless explorer of technology. He has guided Dennis and me through upgrades in our guitar effects. Dennis uses a MIDI guitar, which allows him to play a variety of sounds in addition to his electric guitar. He uses it to play sitar on "Norweigian Wood" and "Lucy In The Sky," and French horn on "Sgt. Pepper." I've expanded by playing horns in addition to guitar, and using a pedal that reproduces hundreds of different amps and effects.

On a song like "Got To Get You Into My Life," we needed to simulate a horn section, so I brushed up my old cornet chops from elementary school to bring a real instrument into our mix of sampled sounds. We use Nathan's keyboard for trumpets, Dennis's MIDI guitar for more trumpets and some saxophones, and then my cornet as the touch of a real horn blending into that section. Then there's the guitar solo at the end of the song - which I play, a few seconds after putting down the cornet, leaving the other two "horn players" to cover the parts while I'm busy picking up another instrument. This is typical WannaBeatles business - turning ourselves into pretzels to make the music happen.

Nathan is another case unto himself, programming his keyboard for special sounds to fit each song. Sometimes he'll program four or five different sounds on different parts of his keyboard, or switching from one bank of sounds to another, just to accommodate a necessary sound. Sometimes he'll even program a special sound, like a bass note bending, and put it onto one key, to be used only once. It's a very dedicated and complicated process, but the technology is available to bring a huge variety of sounds into the performance, and we give it all we've got.

One song that has been a big challenge is "All You Need Is Love." Nathan is especially burdened, since he's playing all the bass parts with his left hand, then playing harpsichord and piano with is right hand, and still has to find space on his keyboard, and the fingers on his right hand to play elaborate string parts that conclude the solo section and fill the ending. 

Dennis fills in with extra string parts, including harmonies, on his MIDI guitar, but this must be executed while he's singing lead. I'm switching between guitar and cornet, but also adding tenor sax to the mix, which, unlike cornet, means I must take off the guitar to play it. For me, "All You Need Is Love" means starting on cornet, switching to guitar, picking up the cornet, putting it down in time to play the guitar solo, then taking off the guitar to pick up the sax, then picking up the cornet again for the Bach quotation at the end, and then sax again for "In The Mood." In other words, for me there are about thirty seconds of no sounds but just switching instruments  during that song.
But it's a sacrifice we're willing to make!

Meanwhile, David has added a keyboard (to his left) and an electronic pad of sampled sounds (to his right) to his drum setup. He's also found a way to add a tambourine to his high hat, and a shaker to his drumstick. He's even got a drumstick with a shaker attached that he can put into his shoe, to play the shaker while both his hands are busy  playing the drums.  These innovations are the result of David listening carefully to the Beatles records and discovering that they had overdubbed various percussion parts. He also loves finding solutions to problems, and leads the charge on getting us acquainted with new technology.

One thing I had noticed in "All You Need Is Love" is the sound of a percussive hit, sort of like a drummer using his stick on the rim of the snare drum, hitting some upbeats during the first verse. David listened and heard it but said it didn't sound like a stick on the rim. Finally, this week, David had a breakthrough. He sent us an email message with the video - actually several videos - that solved the mystery.

Here's his message:


Both Bryan and I are wrong.

It isn't a drum or chunking guitar that are making those woodblock type sounds.

They are playing it on the Cellos shell or a string instrument shell.

Dig the straight 8ths on the harpisichord and the 3 aganist 2 further on.

Drumset and bass:  Nice!

Brass Isolated and guitar solo and some strings!

Voices Isolated:

You can also hear all the layered tambourines and snare part in background!

You can hear it clearly in the chorus and guitar solo!

Check how they go into straight 8ths in the tambourine during the 16note string run at the end of guitar solo.




That's David's message, and it's pure David. He loves digging deep, and uncovering the musical details. It's a big part of what gives the WannaBeatles an edge. Sometimes we feel like we're not measuring up to the high standards we set for ourselves, but we keep trying, and getting better.

Next time you see the WannaBeatles play, notice the extra gear set up around David. He's not just a the energetic drummer sitting there singing all those high parts, although that's great. He's also a technician, triggering samples like the bell sounds on "Penny Lane," and playing keyboard with his left hand, to add extra string parts to "Here Comes The Sun." 

On some shows, he comes out from behind the drums to play guitar on "Norweigian Wood." He also comes up with great bass and keyboard parts. The intro to our song "Oh Betty!" contains an organ lick that David came up with and played.

(click to watch: For those in a hurry, the song starts at :40, David's lick is at :44.)

In short, we have a tremendous irreplaceable asset in David Toledo. No other band can claim him. He's ours, and we love him. Even if our lack of perfection makes him feel like we don't.

Bloggin' Bryan 8mar13


  1. Dear Bryan,
    Thank you for the glowing review and believe me, coming from you, it carries a HUGE signficance in my heart but for some strange reason, I'm thinking of what Dennis told me the day he revealed to us we had been nominated for a Grammy, he said "Don't get too excited cause you still have to take out the garbage in the morning". LOL! He, in his special way, was giving me eality check before I got cocky and let it go to my head. It was wonderful advice cause as it turns out, when we got back from LA and I drove in to the garage, my inlaws had left me 3 huge garbage bags to take to the dump. I started to laugh and thanked Dennis in my heart for giving me perspective.

    So what is my perspective on your wonderful comments? Well, all the research and all the digging won't make anything happen if there weren't such great people in the group with the right heart and love for the art to make the effort. The talent is there too but that, in the end, is not the most important thing, love is and without that, we've got nothing. This is why I love playing in the Wannabeatles so much. So before Dennis tells us to stop the Kumbayah moment, to me, the best thing about the Wannabeatles, is all the positive enrgy that comes from the love of the art, love of each other (even with our individual shortcomings) and love of people we share. As Paul (the Apostle) said, ...without love, we have nothing... and as John (the Beatle) said, "All You Need Is Love".

    1. Sigh . . . I love the love you guys have for each other.
      The Good Yoko

  2. Amen Brother!
    Dennis can help us get a realistic perspective by talking about garbage bags, but we also know that love is not just a "Kumbayah moment," but the foundation that cannot be shaken upon which we stand (and rock!)
    It's the enduring resource that allows us to enjoy so much music and so many wonderful people, especially each other.