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May 18, 2014

No strings attached

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The debate on using strings in rock and roll is as old as the genre itself.  Purest would have no strings at all.  Their claim is that there should never be strings in rock music because it takes away the very heart of the music.  Others argue that strings can be used to create the right mood as long as it is done tastefully.  There are points well taken on both sides. Where do you stand?

Are there times when strings can be used in rock without the song losing its rock status? Sure, it depends on how it is used.  There is nothing wrong with other string instruments besides the guitars in of themselves.  You may take the side that violins and cellos don’t belong in rock music because of the sound that they make. Rock isn’t supposed to be that pretty.  It is supposed to be hard and raw and not sound like pop music.  Strings can take away that edge that makes rock-rock.  As a producer I would be very reluctant to “sweeten” any rock song with strings.

That doesn’t mean it can’t work.  Listen to The Rolling Stones “Angie.”  You hardly notice the strings at first listen. Strings can also be dramatic.  The Electric Light Orchestra incorporated strings in almost all their hits, but again the strings don’t sound like the same kind of full orchestration that you hear in many pop songs. Probably the best at using the full force of strings was Procol Harum in their live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.  One of the reasons it is one of the best live albums of all time is because the strings really merge so well with the original music.  It is very hard to get that kind of blend and very few can pull it off anywhere near as well as Procol Harum.

Where it is really bad is when it takes away any emotional raw edge in either Rock or Jazz? Is there anything worse than hearing a great Jazz piece by someone like Oscar Petersen or George Shearing and then all of a sudden these full orchestra strings come in and completely ruin the entire mood?  These strings not only spoil the mood, but take over the song and often sound like the strings were added without even listening to the song. They just don’t fit and sound like they belong to another song or even recorded in another room. This is not only annoying, but it rarely accomplishes the reason that the string arrangements are added, to become popular and sell records.  Generally, the pop audience doesn’t get it and Rock or Jazz audiences just don’t like it.