In the Studio: Avengers Assemble!, “The Ballad of Johnny Eldorado”

My last group, Avengers Assemble!, recorded a 5-song EP containing original compositions by the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, Pat Peterson. The opening track is a ballad — not the slow-dancing type, but the “El Paso” type — which told the story of a renegade that met a Spanish honey while running for the border, only to die with her in a firefight. Here’s an excerpt of the track (available on iTunes), followed by an outline of my creative process:

Ballad of Johnny Eldorado — bridge and solo

This excerpt fades in during the end of the second chorus, in a song that utilizes the standard contrasting verse-chorus form. You should hear enough to get the flavor: The vocals and chord progression inspire a latin style, which I exploit during the bridge. Listen for the latin rock riff; I don’t know what it’s called (bolero? flamenco?), I only know how it’s played. I usually tried to play the single-note portions of the riff behind the beat, but this proved difficult live, while singing backup vocals.

After the drum/fx break, we modulate from Gm to Am. The whole-step modulation is a common technique in Pat’s music from this period, but usually reserved for a final chorus. Here, we modulate early and stay in the new key throughout the remainder of the song.

The solo is way out of character for the tune. Shredding when I probably should have done something more rootsy may have been my worst decision during these sessions, but I recall thinking that this was my least favorite track, so I might as well indulge myself. This is a case of showing off, and perhaps even borderline sabotage; but in hindsight I suppose we could justify the decision by calling this a modern update of the flashy Spanish guitar tradition.

I wrote most of the solo at home before entering the studio. At first, I committed the common error of writing material that was too difficult to perform at tempo. Usually when that happens, I simplify until I can bring the licks up to speed. My solution this time was to treat the solo as a two guitar call-and-response. I figured that by allowing myself to record the solo one lick at a time, there would be less pressure to get things right in one pass.

I alternated guitars between licks. One is an early 90’s Ibanez RG570 with pretty hot pickups, and the other is a late 80’s Ibanez RG560. Both are playing through the exact same rig — a Hughes & Kettner preamp using the built-in distortion, going into an Alesis EQ and a Peavey Classic 60/60 power amp, driving a Rivera Q212 speaker cabinet. I can’t remember if I used the lead channel, or the crunch channel plus a Boss CS3 compressor. The use of two guitars with the same amplification rig creates just enough tonal differentiation to help the listener discern between two “dueling” parts, without the guitars sounding so different as to disrupt the overall texture. We also panned the two leads left and right — something you usually do more with rhythm parts than leads.

Even after the careful planning and rehearsal, I struggle to remain on top of the beat during the first two licks. The entire tapped portion of the second lick is played on the first string, which enables me to play an ascending line more easily than I would across multiple strings. I miss a couple of notes, and I have wondered since whether listeners mentally fill in the gaps. For the third lick I’m playing a rather simple minor pentatonic sequence, but the hemiola (5 against 4) and my sliding from one position to the next with each iteration of the pattern creates a Vai-esque sound. The fourth lick was improvised in the studio. I can’t remember if this was specifically because I had a canned lick that didn’t work out, or — more likely — because I knew that it would be more appropriate to end with something that just flows spontaneously, so I didn’t even bother writing a final lick.

Most of my solos are improvised, or at least written through multiple improvised takes. This one is a rare example of something that I prepared before going in to the studio. If you plan to use showy, technically challenging licks, you’ll save your bandmates’ and producer’s time by going into the studio as well-rehearsed as possible.

Purchase the full song at Amazon.com.

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