Author Archives: Michael Caroff

The challenge of creating a Latin-rock Salsa song

Undeniably one of my favorite kinds of both dance and music in the Latin genre, is salsa. Fast and energetic, its unrelenting rhythmic pulse is irresistible. However, trying to translate this style into a rock band format turned out to be quite a feat.

The process of writing and arranging Angelina

As is often the case, writing and arranging were bound together in this song. The easiest part to come up with, ironically, was the chorus. I had that from the very beginning, as far as the chords, lyrics, and vocal melody.

And, the arrangement for the piano and bass parts flowed fairly smoothly, as well. The guitar part, however, proved to be elusive for quite some time.

In addition, I struggled with the verse. Experimenting with various chordal patterns as well as rewriting the melody multiple times, it took months and months of work to arrive at the final version.

For the guitar, simplicity was the key

After attempting a number of different melodic lines with a guitar, I finally achieved success by paring everything back and focusing on the rhythm.

In the verse, the guitar (with only a bit of distortion) plays a syncopated pattern built on a single note: E. However, I do switch between octaves, to accentuate the rhythm. In between the vocal lines of the verse, the guitar incorporates two different simple motifs, alternating back and forth. This gives the verse some structure, without breaking up the rhythmic drive.

For the chorus, the guitar part is even simpler: playing a comped rhythmic pattern on a single note (A, in octaves), it stays there the entire time.

Pedal tones and contrast

What makes the guitar parts work in the song is the fact that although that instrument focuses on a single note (E in the verse and A in the chorus), the bass and piano play moving chord progressions set against the pedal tones provided by the guitar. This not only creates an interesting harmonic dynamic, but also allows the guitar to carry the rhythm, unencumbered by the need to maintain the movement of the chord progression.

Key changes add interest

While the verse and chorus stay in a single key (A natural minor), the guitar solo initially modulates to D minor, before going back to the original key.

The other key change is one of my favorite parts of the song: At the end of the second verse, the piano ends on an A major (rather than the A minor used throughout the rest of the song). It’s the only time that chord comes into play, and it delivers a harmonic tension that resolves nicely into the second chorus. To make it even richer, vocal harmonies outline an E minor chord, which expands the full cord to an A Dominant 7+9.

Not surprisingly, because it is so subtle, this song is the hardest one on the album to re-create live. And for the same reason, it is my personal favorite on the album, Moviendote.

Writing Sambita: A Latin-Rock Samba Instrumental

Actually written before Savor was even on the drawing boards, Sambita began life as a jazz-influenced Latin song written for a 3-piece instrumental band: guitar, bass, and drums.

Screenshot of Timbale player
Sambita, a Latin-rock instrumental song based on a Samba beat.

Building the original arrangement

Structured in a fairly conventional pop song format, Sambita consisted of a verse, a bridge to connect it to the chorus, and a chorus. The parts then occurred a second time, but that iteration included a guitar solo played over the chorus.

In fact, this was one of my first forays into writing Latin music. And aside from my love of the genre itself, the audience reaction to this song — universally positive — really got me to thinking about expanding on that theme.

Adding new parts and reworking the melody

The original version was played on a very clean guitar (no distortion) which allowed for some complex chordal accompaniment in addition to the melodies. Once Savor was formed, the song had to be adapted to the new instrumentation — including a guitar sound in the rock vein, which meant a thick, rich distortion tone.

Probably the largest change was coming up with a melody to be played on the guitar during the choruses. (In the previous version, the guitar had played a chordal melody; that part was moved to the piano.) So I created a melodic line to go on top of the chord pattern.

Next, I dropped the original verse, and expanded a single phrase from the bridge to become the entire verse. For some reason, in the initial version of the song that phrase — which I came to realize was a powerful hook — occurred only once.

Song crafting versus songwriting

As I have generally found throughout my years as a songwriter, reworking a song in such a way inevitably made it stronger.

This composition is an excellent example of how songs are actually built — as opposed to simply being pulled out of the air wholesale. Many of the great songwriters whom I have long admired and whose memorable works taught me much, also classify themselves as song “crafters” rather than song “writers.”

What this means, essentially, is that you are constantly evaluating and improving your creative product. In the end, you wind up with a much better song than if you had just stuck with what you conceived of in the beginning.

NOTE: It is not in songwriting alone that I find this approach to be valuable. Having written hundreds of articles, essays, and other text pieces over my career, I have always found editing to be the most valuable part of that process as well.

Getting to the final arrangement

Since the song had been fairly well worked out in the previous band, the arrangement came pretty quickly — which is not always the case! Mainly, we added an intro that built a percussion section one instrument at a time. And we also ended the song with percussion as well, and a few light riffs alternating between the guitar and piano.

Even with those two additions, the song still clocks in at just a few seconds over 3 minutes. A fun little ditty with which to open the album, Moviendote.

Southern California Latin-Rock Band Savor Produces Videos to Help Keep Music Alive During the Pandemic

SAN DIEGO, CA — Known throughout the Southwest United States for their stunning recreations of Santana’s music, Savor recently produced videos for several of their original songs. The goals: to help keep the band engaged with their listeners, and to provide a new avenue for people to discover their own music.

Released several years ago, Savor’s album Moviendote has received rave reviews, and sold several thousand copies at their shows. Now three of the songs have videos to accompany the music.

“We had two obstacles to overcome in filming these videos,” explains guitarist and songwriter Michael Caroff. “The first is that the band members’ residences are separated by as much as 300 miles. But more importantly, we had to ensure that the entire process take place under the stringent safety precautions necessitated by the pandemic.”

To make sure that the conditions were safe for everyone involved, each band member performed to the songs individually, against a “green screen” background. Other than when they were performing, the band members wore face masks. At all times, the prescribed social distancing was observed.

Although people in Southern California are more familiar with the group in their role as a Santana Tribute band, the decision to make videos for the original music was a logical one.

“We already have a very well-produced live-performance video for the Santana music,” recounts Caroff. “So there was no need to repeat that in a studio. And I had wanted for quite long time to produce videos for the songs on our album.”

The first of the videos to be released is for the title track: Moviendote. Besides band member performances, the video includes clips of people dancing, from kids to seniors. The concept reflects the song title, which means “move yourself” in English, and serves as an encouragement to keep people active even while sheltering in place.

As a bonus, later this year the band will release an additional video titled “Behind the Camera: Making the Videos.” This includes a look at the process involved in creating the pieces, as well as some commentary from the band members about what the shutdown has been like for musicians.

Media Contact
Michael Caroff
(818) 784-0922

Writing and arranging a Latin-rock song for guitar

When I set out to start writing songs in the Latin rock vein, I was inspired by three different sources:

Spanish-flavored jazz rock
Epitomized by six string phenomenon Al DiMeola, this style of music was something I have been playing since high school. Incorporating some Latin rhythms but featuring especially lightning fast guitar playing, it perfectly fit my style as a young man.

Latin jazz
From saxophonist Stan Getz in the ’60s, trumpeters from Herb Alpert to Arturo Sandoval, and percussionists like Tito Puente and Bobby Matos, I have long been fascinated by this style. With a lighter sound in general and a rhythm section much closer to traditional Latin music, it expanded my horizons.

Traditional Latin music
Finally, I delved into the standard formats of cha-cha, salsa, merengue, and the like. It was this phase that finally sparked me to begin writing this kind of music.

The challenges of forming Savor and arranging songs

To me, crafting a complete song is broken down into three somewhat overlapping parts.

This includes chord progression, lyrics, and melody.

Arranging — Song Format
Encompasses what part goes where. In other words, after the first verse and chorus, is there a bridge? Or does it come later? Would there be a guitar solo? Etc.

Arranging — Instrumentation
Now we come to what for me ends up being the most complicated and time-consuming part of the entire process. What will each instrument play, specifically? Does the guitar play chords? Melody?

As far as the keyboards, is there piano? Synthesizer? Horns? The possibilities are virtually endless.

Mimicking the style of Latin music

A large part of the challenge of the final arranging process came from the differences between our band and a traditional Latin group. Standard instrumentation in Latin music is fairly well set: the piano plays “Montuno,” an arpeggiated, syncopated chord pattern; melodies are almost always played by a horn section, led by a trumpet.

Because of the tonal qualities of trumpets, these lines can be quite simple, and include what I call “stabs”: Single note punches that are both melodic and percussive at the same time.

However, the tonal qualities of the guitar are completely different — especially rock guitar, which tends to include distortion as part of the sound. Closer to a saxophone in quality, the guitar is able to hold notes, and play single note melodies, but the fat, rhythmic quality of a trumpet is missing.

The methods I used as an arranger to address these challenges is detailed in following articles, where I dive into the specifics of the arrangement of each song.

Arranging “live” as opposed to doing so in the studio

During the tenure of the band, I have been extremely fortunate to have the time and talent of some very creative musicians in rehearsals. And this was vital to arranging the songs. Why?

The core of any good song — and I mean ANY song — is melody. Without a powerful, compelling melody as the foundation for a song, it is destined to fail. However, it can be easy to use a number of techniques to “gloss over” a poorly written melody. While it may be somewhat satisfying in the short run, it can never save a bad song.

In the studio, if the song sounds weak, there are number of temporizing shortcuts available. Double or triple-track the melody. Add rich keyboard sounds. Pump up the effects like echo and reverb. And any number of other crutches.

When playing a song live, however, you have the people currently in the band, and that is it. Does the chorus sound weak? Write a better one. Is the guitar solo boring? Rework it. Are you losing steam in the verse? Change it.

The point is that rather than being able to cover up mediocrity, you are faced with accepting it (poor choice!) or making it better. In my case, I constantly worked to improve everything until I felt the songs were strong as they could be.

And that is the secret sauce!

Writing Moviendote, the title track for the album

This is one of those occasions in which the initial song came to me very quickly. Within a couple of hours, I’d written the verses and choruses. Like most effective melodies, it’s simple. But there is a feature in the chord-melody combination that sets it apart.

Screenshot of Michael with Gibson SG Guitar
Moviendote: an original song by Latin-rock band Savor

A twist in the chord progression

One of the things that made it different was altering where the chords changed in the pattern. Normally, you might have the first chord play for a couple of bars, then have the second chord play for a couple of bars. Afterwards you can keep repeating. So the pattern would look like:

Chord 1 / Chord 1 / Chord 2 / Chord 2 /

What I did was simply to alter where the chords changed. So:

Chord 1 / Chord 2 / Chord 2 / Chord 1 /

In fact, both the verse and the chorus work this way. The only difference is that in the verse, the process happens twice as quickly. Same chord progression; different feel. Once I had established that, the melody and lyrics flowed pretty quickly.

Slogging through the arrangement process

Where the song got bogged down was in the arrangement of instrumentation. For the challenges I faced, see a previous article, “Writing and arranging a Latin-rock song for guitar.”

It took a while to figure out, as this was one of my first forays into adapting the Latin flavor to a rock band. For this song, the keyword player and I switched roles between the verses and choruses.

In the verses, the keyboard player used a trumpet patch to cover the “horn stabs” in between the vocal lines. The guitar plays a simple “Montuno” pattern; incorporated into that pattern the guitar also adds complementary notes to the horn stabs played by the keyboardist, helping to thicken up the “horn section.”

For the chorus, the keyboard player switches to a sprightly piano Montuno, while the guitar offers a syncopated, 2-note chordal pattern with a clave-based rhythm.

Finally, in the post chorus riff section, the guitar plays a simple horn-like line. I utilized doubled bent notes for a fatter sound. And, the vocalist sings the line to make it sound even more like a horn part.

Bridge, solo, and breakdown

Up to this point, only two chords have appeared in the song. After the second chorus, the song introduces the third chord for the first time: the sub-dominant (minor iv chord) of the key. Vocal harmonies carry the simple melody.

This segues into the guitar solo, which occurs over the same progression.

Finally, the song ends on an extended breakdown, which begins with the piano on its own playing the Montuno, gradually adds in the other instruments, and ends in a crescendo on the chorus.

Final comment

As he was recording the percussion parts, the eminently talented Jimmy Branly alerted me to the fact that we “switched the clave” between the verses and choruses. What this means is that we go from a 2-3 clave to a 3-2 clave between parts — something not normally done.

In our naivete, we weren’t even aware we were doing it. Just another example of serendipity in song arranging!