People rarely give much thought to why popular bands tend to feature the same combinations of instruments. A rock band usually has a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and a vocalist, who may or may not be one of the guitarists. Sometimes there is a keyboard player thrown into the mix, but the standard band setup is largely set in stone. For all of the creativity that musicians possess, it is downright odd that so few of them are interested in taking advantage of all of the possibilities available to them. A musician who aspires to be innovative should think outside the box and incorporate different instruments into his basic sound.
Groups like Dave Matthews Band have always taken an inclusive approach, inviting violinist Boyd Tinsley to be a permanent member of the band. Tinsley has contributed a great deal to the band’s success, so there is no reason he should be relegated to the sidelines as an anonymous session player. Bruce Springsteen had a similar mindset when inviting Clarence Clemens to join the E Street Band. The loose feel of the music was greatly amplified by the constant presence of Clemens’ jazzy saxophone.
Alternative music’s regard for instrumentalists has always been inconsistent at best. Many punk bands dabble in ska, but very few of them add horn players to their main lineups. An indie band would sooner create fanfare over featuring guest musicians or vocalists on singular tracks than consider adjusting its overall sound to include those elements on a regular basis. Stepping outside of the typical band format is thought of as experimentation, not a normal progression for musicians who are invested in their craft.
The new crop of vintage-inspired folk bands are an exception. They embrace string players as a nod to country and bluegrass history. The Lumineers’ cellist takes center stage on nearly every one of the group’s songs. Devil Makes Three’s violinist is a permanent fixture on recordings and on tour. Mumford & Sons use an upright bass instead of an electric one.
The recent embracing of string instruments is due in part to the trappings of this particular genre, which emphasizes live acoustic performances, eliminating instruments that need electricity and amplifiers. Another aspect of this trend is the desire to create a lush sound that can be recreated at every performance. As the music industry continues to be in a state of flux, up-and-coming bands would be wise to avoid thinking of string and horn players as session musicians and instead view them as the keys to achieving consistent recordings and live performances, no matter the venue size.