Cage Match: Playing It Just Like the CD or…Not

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger


Simply, do you like bands that play everything exactly like the CD or do you like when bands (and their guitarists) take chances and deviate from the recorded version? With songs you might right and record, is there a conscious effort to replicate everything note-for-note live? Or is the recorded (or written) version simply a springboard for flexing your creative muscle ‘in the moment’ on a live stage? This is an interesting Cage Match for me, as I can easily find an argument for both sides. While I touched on some of these ideas in this article, will explore this interesting dilemma further here.

Live! In Concert!

Great galloping ghosts! The Steve Harris Signature P-Bass features his signature pickups. From SD.

Great galloping ghosts! The Steve Harris Signature P-Bass features his signature pickups from Seymour Duncan.

When I go see a live band (especially a super famous I-grew-up-listening-to-this-stuff band), I find my expectations, and the expectations of the audience, are pretty strong. I want to hear the songs the way they are supposed to sound, dude! Take a band like Iron Maiden for instance. I couldn’t think of how they could rearrange Run to the Hills, or how Steve Harris could possibly play a different bass interlude in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. By the same token, the solos of Hotel California and Comfortably Numb are written in our guitar playing DNA, and we might like the idea of the Eagles or Pink Floyd being full of living creative musicians, the expectations of the audience keep them glued to those solos year after year. Imagine if, after 30 years, you finally could go see Pink Floyd, and right when David Gilmour gets to his iconic 1st solo in Comfortably Numb, he goes crazy playing some dissonant psychedelic freak-out more at home on A Saucerful of Secrets than The Wall*. In a way, these types of tunes (and many types of bands) are our modern classical music. Classical musicians don’t dare change one note of Bach, and our idols shouldn’t dare change one note of what they are famous for playing, right? In many cases, especially with classic bands, they are recreating a moment in time for us (and maybe for them, too), and every single note better be right or we won’t bother buying a ticket next time.

*Personally, I think that would be so cool. 

The Other Side of the Coin

The musician in me knows that the bands I see are also creative people, and if I wanted them to recreate the songs exactly, I could always put a picture of them on the wall and just play the CD. No, this is not the same thing, but to me, I go to see musicians do what they do best- play. I have to think that for many older bands, they are tired of rolling out the hits, and any little thing that they change makes it bearable to play. So if it is a different solo, or a different vocal melody, I accept that I saw something special, and rejoice that the ‘perfect’ version is on the CD at home.

Here is a song of hope. The Seymour Duncan Whole Lotta Humbucker.

Here is a song of hope. The Seymour Duncan Whole Lotta Humbucker.

Some bands, like Led Zeppelin, sounded entirely different live due to the multiple overdubs in the studio. They could have added extra musicians, but decided not to. Their live shows were always unpredictable, and certainly a treat to those who were used to hearing the walls of guitars on the studio album. Jimmy Page didn’t care that it didn’t sound like the album, and he looked damn cool whatever he was doing.

Other classic bands, like Deep Purple, were based on live improvisation. Guitarist and part-time honey badger Ritchie Blackmore never played a solo the same way twice, which makes any live recording of his trade-offs with organist Jon Lord very exciting. His lack of regard for the studio recordings made Deep Purple a great live band, and you could see the musicians trying to out-perform each other every night.

Jazz and fusion players are known for their explosive live playing. Improvisation is expected here, and players are (hopefully) always searching for something new or different than the night before. Fusion maestro Allan Holdsworth‘s tunes are springboards for his improvisations, and if his solos sound like they are from another planet, try learning some of his chords!

In Your Own Music

It is popular today (especially in progressive metal) to write music that fits together like puzzle pieces. While bands are getting more comfortable with playing in complex time signatures and extended-range guitars, this doesn’t always mean they are comfortable improvising within those structures, so most bands I know write a piece, practice like crazy, and then recreate it onstage. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and certainly I am guilty of writing music, and expecting the musicians to play it perfectly every single time. Exactly as I wrote it.

Expectation. There is that word again.

J.S. Bach is known for his writing. But he was an amazing improviser. Just like Yngwie.

J.S. Bach is known for his writing. But he was an amazing improviser. Just like Yngwie.

Certainly most modern music is based on a fixed piece, and improvisation, if any, is limited to fills and solos. Sure, jazz and blues are still around, but unless a young guitarist is exposed to improvisational music, they won’t even know to listen to it, much less try it themselves. Fact is, playing things as they are recorded (or as they are written) is a complex issue. Agonizing hours were spent writing, arranging, and practicing. This requires a skill that musicians have worked on for hundreds of years. But to be a well-rounded guitarist, it is all important.

Great. Something Else I Have to Learn.

You never know where your musical journey will take you. Do you want to be in a band that plays the same song, the same way, all the time? Do you write your solos so that every hammer-on, every tap and every slide is there for a reason? Or do you want your audience to expect the unexpected? Do you like not knowing what is going to happen, and have the ability to (musically) react to whatever is thrown at you?

To be a great guitarist these days, both skills are important. Like I said above, I have played highly arranged music from originals to 20 minute classic prog epics, and I have also gone onstage with no setlist, with musicians that have never met, calling out key changes and tempo shifts as I went. It was all fun, and it all made me a better musician than I was.

Do you like to see live bands play their songs just like the record? How do you approach this with your own projects?


Written on August 15, 2014, by Dave Eichenberger

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  • Trenton

    Paragraph 1, Line 3: The word is spelled “write”. That is all.

    • Russell

      Hello, Grammar Nazi.

    • Sion

      It bugged me too. Nothing wrong with pointing it out.

  • George Gigi Meller

    It’s definitely an important question that someone has to ask, Mr. Eichenberger–playing a song exactly as it was written, or improvising with it?

    If anyone asks me (which they usually don’t, thank god), I’ll tell them this: Improvise while writing your song. Pick out what had that special “magic” in it, and learn what made it work. Recreate THAT.
    Improvisation makes songwriting more fun, but when you’ve found what actually sounds great, why risk it? Not to say that there can’t be stuff for live shows that is MEANT for improvising.. but it shouldn’t dominate your shows (these days). 15-minute guitar solos, anyone? lol

    • Thanks for reading! I don’t think improvisation means 15 minute guitar solos, or at least I hope not. This debate is really about expectations of the audience vs creativity of the band. If it is an improvising band (let’s say, like King Crimson or Bob Dylan) I certainly don’t want to hear re-created studio albums. I want to hear players *play*, and composers *compose*, because the act of music creation shouldn’t be confined to a practice space. If we are talking stadium rock, classic rock or even metal, I don’t really care, as I wouldn’t be at those shows anyway. 🙂

  • Henri Vaenerberg

    I think bands should always improvise live. The key here is to improvise at the right time. Usually slow and melodic solos (like comfortably numb, that you mentioned) are written to be that way, and they are a major part of the song. That’s not what you change.

    What you do is, you add fills in the verses and improvise the faster “less produced” solos, that are just solos made for showoff, not solos to “make the song better”. Of course they should also fit the song, and not just be your opportunity to shred a little.

    So for me, the important parts of the song are supposed to be the way they are, including song structure, riffs and melodies. Other stuff can, and should be played around with.

  • Tommy Mack ✖

    If you have a band like Iron Maiden/Ramones who play in the box …better play the same every time or get lost. Or if you have a blues based act like Purple/Zeppelin driven by people at the top of the game you get Made In Japan. I firmly believe the band never owes anyone anything. Hard to validate these days with soaring tix prices but, mostly they get away from the reason we are there in the first place…rebellion.

  • Great article! It depends on the band for me. I saw Between the Buried and Me a year or two ago and I wouldn’t have wanted them to play their music any other way than exactly like the album because it is so impressively difficult to imagine anyone playing it at all. Whereas I think bands that lean closer to the straight-ahead rock sound have a bit more of a responsibility to play off of expectations, surprise the crowd and keep making the biggest deal they can out of their music.

  • Jon Moody

    I’m in the camp that when I go to see a band live, I want to be blown away to the point where the CD sounds elementary in comparison. Especially with songs from a band that are early in their careers (and thus, have a lot of road time on them), it’s natural to have the song evolve a bit from the original, recorded version.

    Regardless of what a band does, if it looks like they’re calling it in onstage, it doesn’t matter if it’s true to the original or a newer version; it’ll fall flat either way.