Writing and Recording "Back and Forth"
by Chris Botta
Some good songs can kick around for a long time with the chorus or bridge missing, only to come together and reach their full potential after months and even years of hard work. Fortunately, that wasn't the case with "Back and Forth" [© 2006 Botta/Tateishi] the last song recorded for my band Cargo Culte's debut EP. By rewriting a progression from a song that we had shelved, and changing the song's feel, the verse of a new song was born. We would eventually complete it during rehearsals for our first gigs together.
Next, we needed a chorus. When Cargo Culte singer Brendan Tateishi and I started writing songs, we decided that we wouldn't immediately reject material that sent echoes of our favorite artists reverberating through our minds. Following this plan, we just went with what felt right for the chorus. A move to the relative major, G, provided a big lift and release of tension, and has a faint resemblance to the chorus of "The Narrow Way, Part III", a song from Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma album. Maybe the resemblance is only in my mind, but the reference and it's relatively obscure source only added fuel to my fire.
"Back and Forth" Chord Progression
I like to use chords built on shapes moved around the neck, with open strings used as drones or pedals. The resulting combinations of notes often form 7th and suspended chords that are full of texture and melody. The verse and ultimately the bridge chords all fall into this category (see chord charts below), and finding new ways to use these types of chords always makes me feel more confident and inspired.
With our verse and chorus in hand, a working bridge was hastily added with the purely functional chords, Am - D. Later, I discovered that I could fashion more droning/suspended chords over this progression, even allowing a tip of the hat to one of our idols and the provider of our band name, Serge Gainsbourg. The sound produced a distant but unmistakable resemblance to the evocative rhythm guitar style employed on his landmark and much covered album, Melody Nelson. The bridge became known as, "the Serge part.
We recorded the tune as the last of four cuts on the EP in New York City's Batcave Recording & Rehearsing, a digital 24-track facility that has a very nice ambience and vibe. The whole band (myself on guitar, Brendan on lead vocals, drummer Tom Costagliola, and bassist Nick James) played together to record the basic tracks. All of the guitar tracks utilized a Rivera 55/12, a highly versatile EL 34 tube-style amp with one 12-inch Celestion speaker.
For the basic tracks, the amp was isolated and miked front and back. All of the original rhythm guitar tracks were used on the final mixes. The guitar used on the basics of "Back and Forth" was a Telecaster copy custom-made by NYC luthier Rick Kelly.
The arrangement of the song required a significant number of overdubs. We were going for a somewhat orchestral approach, hoping to achieve a lush, grand sound, especially in the choruses. The guitar countermelody that runs through the chorus was recorded using an MXR Blue Box, an octave pedal that provides an almost synthesizer-like tone. Happily, this line found a perfect place in the mix due to the fact that the pedal adds an octave below the original note rather than above. A nice bonus in the form of the decay of the last note of the guitar part provides the song's final ending.
A Les Paul was used for all the electric overdubs. The lead guitar breaks were recorded with an excellent fuzz pedal, a Fulltone '70. One thing that I think is worth noting is the distinction between the three basic types of distortion: overdrive, distortion and fuzz. Overdrive is usually associated with blues and more rootsy types of music or pop. Getting into the hard rock area, distortion becomes the pedal of choice. But what about fuzz, which is most often associated with psychedelic music and/or grunge?
As it turns out, a classic style fuzz pedal can be a lot more versatile than expected, and tends to provide the sort of raw, well-defined sounds that really stand out. You may have heard of how difficult true fuzz can be to control and it's true, it takes a little getting used to onstage, especially in finding the right match between volumes of different effects and overdrive textures you may be using.
Surprisingly, when I went to record my first overdub with the '70 pedal, the lead break that comes after the first chorus of the song, it sounded good right out of the box, and the break was recorded in one or two takes. However, the interaction with the amp probably helped a lot. Fuzz can tend to be very noisy and hissy through a Fender amp, but they often quiet down and round out nicely through British or EL34 type amps like the Rivera I used.
When most of the guitar parts were done, including some power chords in the chorus and acoustic guitar in the verses, the lead vocals were re-recorded and backup vocals added.
The lyrics recount the experience of returning to one's home town and confronting the ghosts of the past. With all those instruments and parts, the mix threatened to be daunting. The main choices were between vocal effects and eq, and the biggest challenge overall was to maintain clarity and coherency. A tricky point was how to treat the acoustic guitar. The fact that the part is only heard in the verses and guitar break made it seem a little contrived and artificial at first. But by cutting some of the highs, the acoustic guitar part blended in better.
In the end, we were happy with the overall result, and we learned a lot in the process. It was especially gratifying for me to have captured the "sound in my head," which often can prove to be quite elusive when recording on a budget without an experienced producer. Click to hear Back and Forth.mp3. To hear the rest of the Cargo Culte's EP, please visit us on myspace.
Thank you for joining me on the February issue of Guitar Sessions - I look forward to further exploring rock and blues guitar with you in the future.