5 Ways to Pare Down a Song

5 Ways to Pare Down a Song

September 14, 2020

COVID-19 has forced us all to adjust. Luckily, musicians are already good at that. If you’ve found yourself having to make do with smaller gigs, having to stay away from your bandmates, or if you just want to expand your options, then you may want to explore alternative ways to play your songs. Rearrangement can give you an opportunity to play quieter venues, utilize different personnel, and even record various versions.

It can be tough when you’ve gotten attached to the full band arrangement, to think up how to pare down your songs, but it can be done, and not only can it work, the result may even be more powerful than the full band version. The key is to go back to the song itself.

Here are a few tried and true ways to get back to basics.

1 – Singer/Songwriter Style

The old standby. Pull out an acoustic guitar and strum through the chords, sing the song, voila. The key to a great acoustic version is to let it be what it is. Don’t try to rock it like you would with the band, or it will sound like you’re missing drums, bass, etc. This may mean a totally different arrangement, without the rockin’ guitar solo or fancy intro. It may mean a different strumming style and even a new rhythm or a different tempo. Rethink the song entirely, as if it were never intended for a band.

2 – Piano Man

Even if a song is usually done as a guitar-driven rock jam, there’s no reason you can’t reimagine it as a solo piano ditty. Just remember to use the piano for what it’s good at. Piano arrangements can be lush and full of arpeggios, or loud and chunky, or even simple and quiet. Don’t be afraid to experiment and think of the song in a new light.

3 – Unplugged

If your band is usually a monster group with huge amps, horn sections, and backup singers, you can pare down a long way and still achieve a full sound. A small drum kit with brush sticks, an acoustic bass, and one acoustic guitar is enough. Rethink how you sing when you do this. Maybe there’s an opportunity to find a completely different voice. Think of it like a quirky cover of your own song.

4 – Cajon and Acoustic

There are plenty of Latin style groups that play with this arrangement. Even if that’s not you, why not try it? You can even use a kick pedal with the cajon to create rock-like rhythms. If you’re a singer with decent hands, it’s actually fairly easy to learn to play this hand drum and sing simultaneously, adding a unique look to a song your fans may have seen a hundred times done differently.

5 – A Cappella

Your song may work as a fully a cappella solo piece. Some songs which you’d never think would work this way become hauntingly beautiful when naked. You may even find a moment you can use in a fully equipped concert. If you’ve got multiple skilled vocalists, you can also workup a group a cappella version, à la Pentatonix. You can rebuild a full arrangement with beatboxing and bass lines or do a simple four-part harmony.

A Million Ways

There really are a million ways to tell the same story, and depending on how differently you tell it, you may even find a new story in the same set of lyrics. The biggest part of paring down a song for a simpler situation or a quieter venue is to go back to the essential elements that define a song: words and melody (or just melody). Pick a few very limited options and see what creative way you can tell the story, without all the help from the band accoutrement.

It’s a worthwhile exercise for flexibility – and you may just find a new angle for the full version, too.



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