This is part two of a two part series. Catch up with Part One: Classic.
Guitar players get all the glory. Aside from lead singers, they typically are the focal point in any band, and at their most prolific, guitarists can overshadow singers or even render frontmen interchangeable. The dynamic is understandable; The mythic power of rock is perhaps most fully alive in a great riff or solo. If we’re going to play “air” anything, we usually go for the guitar first.
That doesn’t lessen the significance of a band’s other members, though. Strong players on other instruments sharpen a band’s sound, make it more versatile, and make their running mates look even better. The best of these players don’t just keep the beat or meet minimum expectations, they find spaces of their own to express something intangible, to contribute moments of lyric beauty and sheer power. Here is a small sample size of those who’ve shouldered these roles, a team of most valuable players who don’t primarily play guitar. They might not be the flashiest players, but they make their bands better in important, sometimes nearly imperceptible ways.
First, we looked at legacy artists. Now indie icons — players whose bands have earned respect and a faithful following, but started from the outside looking in.
Role: Drums, Spoon
Strengths: A great drummer knows the quirks of his or her fellow bandmates. In Spoon, Eno backs a singer, Britt Daniel, with a particular style and cadence. Eno has developed a remarkable sense of phrasing that suits, and at times pushes and pulls against, Daniel’s. In that way, the pair have a relationship not unlike the one most singers share with a lead guitarist.
Check out: “Rent I Pay”
Role: Bass, Wilco
Strengths: Long Jeff Tweedy’s right-hand man, Stirratt is the only other member to be part of Wilco’s entire arc. Stirratt is always a true servant of the song. But don’t mistake him merely for some low-end bedrock or trusty sidekick. He can take hairpin turns on his instrument; his basslines are deceptively funky and only grow more so as time passes.
Check out: “Handshake Drugs”
Role: Drums, Sleater-Kinney
Strengths: Weiss is no less than one of rock’s great drummers — but she’s something more. Playing in a trio with superlative guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, and no permanent bassist, Weiss has to cover more musical ground and account for more sound than many drummers. Her ability to fill in the gaps, and do so with ferocity and flair, is awesome to behold.
Check out: “Bury Our Friends”
Role: Drums, The Bad Plus
Strengths: The Bad Plus is about as punk rock as a jazz trio can get. Technically, pianist Ethan Iverson is tasked with melody, though bassist Reid Anderson and King pull their fair share of the load as command is passed between each player with ease. It’s hard to call a drummer as zealous as King melodic, but he definitely does more than drive the beat. He digs into his kit, making use of every inch of it and impacting a song in ways traditionally reserved for a more tuneful instrument.
Check out: “Pound for Pound”
Role: Fiddle, Trampled by Turtles
Strengths: This Minnesota new-grass outfit is known for the intensity of its picking. More than just a happy-go-lucky fiddler, Young is able to match his bandmates blow for blow, but also can bring the legato to the party, providing a melodic counterpoint to all that chugging. Young’s ability to mimic other instruments or effects with his bow and strings only adds to his value.
Check out: “Wait So Long”
Role: Keyboards, Lucero
Strengths: An all-around talent on keys, Steff can temper Lucero’s scuffed-up sound with soft, sweet piano, soulful organ or accordion playing that evokes a New Orleans street corner. He also can indulge the band’s basest urges with boogie-down, bandit scampers across the keyboard and mountains of B3 reverb.
Check out: “Baby Don’t You Want Me”
Role: Banjo, Punch Brothers
Strengths: Think the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees. Think the Wu-Tang Clan. Whatever says “supergroup” to you, the Punch Brothers are the string-band equivalent. This staff full of aces can play anything, and Pikelny often does. He can be fast and mean, but often coaxes unconventional sounds out of his banjo, playing painterly, rippling passages that set the band’s mood.
Check out: “New York City”
Role: Keyboards, Drive-By Truckers
Strengths: Gonzalez does wield a guitar on occasion, helping the Southern rockers achieve a three-axe attack. But he does the most damage behind the keyboards. His soulful organ stabs and cascading piano runs add a killer element to the Truckers’ sound and qualifies Gonzalez as a potential heir to rock keyboard royalty such as Benmont Tench and Garth Hudson.
Check out: “Pauline Hawkins”
Role: Bass, Dawes
Strengths: Less can indeed be more. And when a band boasts one of its generation’s great lyricists, as Dawes does with Taylor Goldsmith, it feels unnecessary to dress those words in unnecessarily technical playing. With the exception of last year’s We’re All Gonna Die, the band has kept its cool, focusing more on nuance. As Dawes’ bassist, Gelber has played a major role in keeping it simple, but never simplistic. His sense of control — and ability to find the pocket right away, then stay there — is an example to young bassists who think they have to run their fingers all over the frets.
Check out: “Just My Luck”
Role: Keyboards, Calexico
Strengths: Mendoza leads the vibrant “indie mambo” collective Y La Orkesta, but is best known in the rock world for his association with the Tucson rockers. His experience growing up on both sides of the Mexican-American border, and his instinct to listen attentively to the soundwaves floating across it, brings richness to the Calexico sound. Mendoza can do a traditional Cuban dance across the piano or replicate the bargain-bin synths heard in popular cumbias.
Check out: “Cumbia de Donde”