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How to Play New Wave Music: Arrangements and Instruments

Updated on December 4, 2015

Are you a fan of the music of the 1980s? Have you ever wanted to play music that captures the spirit of this magical era of Reaganonmics and jazzercise? Learn how to create a new wave sound, an essential part of 80s music. In this section, learn about arrangements and instruments needed to play new wave songs.

In new wave, pretty much anything goes in terms of instrumentation. Some groups, such as Talking Heads and Blondie, had a more typical set up. Some, such as Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, used only synthesizers and drum machines. Some, such as OMD and Gary Numan, had a typical rhythm section of bass guitar and drums, combined with synthesizers. Others, such as Thompson Twins and Tears for Fears, had more of a balance between electronics and typical rock instruments.

The instrument most associated with new wave music is the synthesizer. Synthesizers sometimes played lead melodies, or were relegated to small roles. These smaller roles included playing chords, arpeggios, an ostinato pattern, or sound effects.

Lead guitar was often run through a series of effect pedals. The most popular were chorus, flanger, delay, and reverb. Solid state amplifiers were the most popular type of amp for the new wave guitar tone. Alternatively, some new wave guitarists went for a sixties style jangle. This is achieved by playing a 12-string guitar, or at least a guitar with a single coil pickup, through a solid state amplifier with the treble turned high and the bass and mids turned low, then adding compression and reverb.

Rhythm guitar was sometimes played in a syncopated funky style; this is the style used by Talking Heads, Devo, and a Certain Ratio.

Some new wave bass players, such as Peter Hook of New Order, played melodic bass lines in a high register. Guitar pedals were often used to color the sound. Other bassisits, such as Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, played funky bass lines. If a synthesizer is used for the bass, an octave bass line sounds very new wave. Still others simply played the root of the chord in eighths.

Drums sometimes played sixties style patters; Warren Cann of Ultravox lifted Ringo Starr's drum pattern for “Tomorrow Never Knows” and used it for the song “When You Walk Through Me.” The sixties back beat pattern (mentioned in part one) was also quite popular. Also mentioned in part one, motorik beats were frequently used in new wave.

Ethnic rhythms were popular with new wave, especially reggae and ska. Some bands, such as the Specials and Madness, based their sound largely on ska. The Police also had a strong reggae influence in their music, as did Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Blondie covered the ska standard “The Tide is High,” and the tracks “Die Young Stay Pretty” and “Once I Had a Love” featured elements of reggae. African rhythms featured prominently on tracks by Talking Heads (“I Zimbra” and much of the Remain in Light album) and Adam and the Ants, whose drumming was influenced by the Burundi drummers. Latin rhythms were also present, usually in the form of a preset pattern on a drum machine (early drum machines, such as the Roland CR 78, featured mostly Latin rhythms). Ultravox used the baion and cha cha rhythms on the Roland TR 77 for “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Blondie's “Heart of Glass” features the Roland CR 78's samba pattern in the intro. Many Thompson Twins tracks featured conga drums. Culture Club was influenced by Caribbean and Latin styles.

There were a few different vocal styles that were popular with new wavers. Some, such as David Byrne, Gary Numan, Stan Ridgeway of a Wall of Voodoo, Fred Schneider of the B-52's, and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo had very unique vocal stlyes. Others, such as Andy McCluskey of OMD, Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, and Neil Arthur of Blancmange sang in a baritone. Others, such as Alison Moyet, had more of a “bluesy” style. However, there aren't really any restrictions here; Klaus Nomi employed operatic vocals in his songs.

One last note, every instrument should be bathed in reverb. It would be very difficult to achieve a new wave sound without this, for it is one of the keys to new wave production.

In general, new wave is a very versatile genre, perhaps the most versatile genre there is. Nothing is really "off limits." Don't stick too rigidly to any rules, as new wave is very much about defying clichés and creating a unique sound.

In the next section, I will explore the concept of “being” new wave...


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