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Author Topic: Musicianship of each of the Beach Boys?  (Read 2101 times)
thr33
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« on: November 18, 2020, 10:53:50 AM »

From some of the discussion in the thread on the live band from 76 and the years following, I am curious about this topic.

I'm wondering how skilled an instrumentalist each Beach Boy is?

Brian on piano/keyboard and bass?

Carl on piano/keyboard, guitar and bass?

Al on guitar and bass?

Dennis on piano/keyboard and drums?

Bruce on piano/keyboard and bass?

Did they play anything else? I guess Brian and Carl did play drum on some tracks. Al played some standing bass. Mike didn't really play anything other than bit parts on the tambourine, theremin and saxophone so I guess he's not important here. Can also chime in about Blondie, Rickie and Dennis if you want.

Were any of these guys as good at any point as session musicians/backing band members? Maybe Carl on guitar since he would play with the wrecking crew on some tracks?
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UEF
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« Reply #1 on: November 18, 2020, 11:39:53 AM »

For bass or guitar as appropriate:

Carl: 5/10
Al: 4/10
Bruce: 6/10
Brian:5/10
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juggler
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« Reply #2 on: November 18, 2020, 12:24:34 PM »

Brian: harpsichord (6/10).

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aeijtzsche
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« Reply #3 on: November 18, 2020, 01:48:13 PM »

I think that in their world, the musicianship of the Beach Boys (or any pop/rock musician) is so specialized that it's not really fair to rate them against the wrong scale.

You get really good at playing your repertoire, but unless you are actively pursuing technique and growth, it's not really a scalable skill.  I think Brian was probably the worst at playing instruments -- he's a natural but I don't think he ever really worked at it.  He can play the things he wants to play but I'm not sure he could handle playing an unknown piece of music from a chart.

Carl and Al are great at playing Beach Boys music.  Dennis was a bit like Brian in that he had natural ability that was enough to do what he needed and nothing more.

Bruce was probably good enough to hack it as a pro, at least in the 60s.  Not sure if he kept up his skills.
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NateRuvin
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« Reply #4 on: November 18, 2020, 03:50:34 PM »

I think Carl is a guitar legend, hands down. Those leads are so iconic. Surfin USA, Fun Fun Fun, I Get Around, Surfin Safari, Barbara Ann, Shut Down, etc all have great surf guitar work from Carl.

Al is impressive in that he can play such a variety of string instruments. Electric/Acoustic Guitar, Fender Bass, String Bass, Banjo, Uke, etc... In my opinion Al is a very good guitarist too. His recent Postcards storytelling tour, as well as general solo touring before C50, showed that he can play all those leads just like Carl, and with more accuracy to the original parts than David, who's great but doesn't "stick to the script" that much. Al plays those solos note for note like the recordings. Just different takes on what the solo should be.

I think in a context of rock and roll, where it's more about feel and less about technique, Brian and Bruce are criminally underrated bassists. There are some tricky lines that each guy pulled off onstage and in the studio respectively.

I love Dennis' drumming. He had incredible energy. The Rock And Roll Music 45, In The Still of The Night, Knebworth album , and first live album show off Dennis' great powerful drumming.

Bruce is an insanely good pianist. Classically trained type of thing. He's almost as good a pianist as he is a hand-clappeer/mic adjuster



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c-man
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« Reply #5 on: November 18, 2020, 07:01:45 PM »

Not to mention Bruce's talent on the organ. Hal Blaine raved about that in his book.
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Kid Presentable
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« Reply #6 on: November 18, 2020, 07:04:05 PM »

David is an elite guitar player.  Carl was WELL above average at the guitar, but he considered himself a vocalist rather than a guitarist. 
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adamghost
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« Reply #7 on: November 18, 2020, 09:50:12 PM »

For technical ability, Bruce and Dave would have to top the list. Dave's a brilliant guitarist; Bruce's skills are more focused, but the Wrecking Crew guys sung the praises of his keyboard playing.

Ed Roach once told me that the Wilson brothers all had the ability to pick up any instrument and get it to make the sound they wanted (Dennis somewhat less so than Brian or Carl).

If you're talking the main five I think Carl wins it hands down. He's the best guitarist, bassist, and he can hold his own on keyboards and even drummed on quite a few tracks.
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Lonely Summer
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« Reply #8 on: November 19, 2020, 12:19:07 AM »

David is an elite guitar player.  Carl was WELL above average at the guitar, but he considered himself a vocalist rather than a guitarist. 
I think that's the key to understanding Carl after the 60's. He worked hard at improving as a singer - even to the point of seeing a voice specialist in the late 80's/early 90's. But he sure knew his way around on guitar - after Dennis died, Carl seemed to be the only one of the core group contributing much instrumentally onstage.
Brian's greatest talent was to play a song, and give each musician an idea of what they should be doing - even to the point of demonstrating it on their instrument; and then sitting back and letting the masters do their thing.
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Tom
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« Reply #9 on: November 19, 2020, 03:35:30 AM »

Bruce was a more talented pianist than given credit for here imo. More technically skilled than contemporaries like McCartney and Elton I'd be willing to bet (and def better than Billy Joel, not that that counts for much).

Brian was ultimately a songwriter, so his structural and theoretical knowledge of music far outweighed his physical facility on instruments - but that's pretty normal for writers. Clearly, when you look at his chord progressions, he was a very talented musician, and an innately musical guy - but his craft was much more important to him than the instrumental side was.

Al seems like a lovely man but golly he's not a great guitar player - I guess he just doesn't have the interest to become one. His playing is legitimately shoddy at times, even when playing simple chords - I think of the recent vid where he plays a bit of 'Postcard from California' - proof that a Martin D45 can sound average in the right (wrong?) hands. Sorry Al! He makes up for it by probably being the most consistent and professional sounding vocalist over time, apart from Carl.


« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 03:36:54 AM by Tom » Logged
SaltyMarshmallow
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« Reply #10 on: November 19, 2020, 06:28:08 AM »

Remember Carl taught both Brian and Bruce to play bass, so that's gotta count for something. He was definitely the most technically accomplished on the instrument.

I think Brian had the best 'feel' on bass of them all during his prime, but quickly went out of practice off the road and was all over the place doing Sloop John B in 1967. I'm not too familiar with how he was in the 70s. Bruce doesn't impress me on bass during the Michigan concerts - he hits the right notes (improvement from Brian on Sloop I guess) but doesn't propel the band along or fall into a solid groove with Dennis. By his own admission it just wasn't really his area, not that matters considering his excellent keyboard ability (I'll disagree that he was a 'songwriter' first, the guy hardly writes!).

Al was solid and dependable on bass. Great tone, great feel, played what he was told without mistakes, defacto studio guy for it in the early years. It's a shame he didn't commit to the role further. Al just never seemed too interested in being an instrumentalist. He can play decent piano too, which hardly ever makes a public appearance.

As far as Brian on drums goes, all of the recorded examples we have are very simple and functional, but it's said that he was capable of expressing more technical ideas off the record. His Wanderer is a spot-on Dennis mimic. I imagine Carl was probably similar. That said... there's a Lonely Days outtake where Carl is struggling on the drums and the studio Lei'd Sloop John B (either Brian or Carl recorded in Dennis' absence) is flat-out terrible.

Mike can - shock, horror - play guitar and keyboard in his own time competently enough to write songs, probably nothing more.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 06:31:44 AM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
c-man
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« Reply #11 on: November 19, 2020, 06:31:12 AM »

Let's not forget Dennis' ability on piano - gosh, listen to "Piano Variations on Thoughts Of You"...or his piano and synth work on "Holy Man". Sure, these are pieces that he wrote, so it's easy to assume he just composed within his own ability to play, and it's a bit different from him sitting down and playing a similar piece composed by someone else - but reports from the time are that he sat at the piano and practiced, practiced, practiced. Hal Blaine praised his piano ability multiple times over the years!

As for Al - one impressive piece of guitar work from him, if you can find it, is when he sang and played an acoustic version of "Sloop John B." on a WNEW radio interview in 1983. Nice!
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SaltyMarshmallow
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« Reply #12 on: November 19, 2020, 07:20:12 AM »

Yeah, Dennis played some beautiful piano. He was at another level by then. And it's cool to track his ability because he's mostly just doing a Brian on the 60s material, you can really hear him working over the years to get there.

On that note, Brian waiting until he was 28 to sit down and learn the 'pretty part' of Rhapsody in Blue is probably a good measure of how well he'd be able to just pick up and play someone else's music. Those mid 70s versions of California Feelin' and In the Back of My Mind have some really nice sensitive playing outside of his usual style though.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 10:38:50 AM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
Sam_BFC
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« Reply #13 on: November 19, 2020, 09:04:51 AM »

Piano Variations on Thoughts of You is great, and beautifully executed, but I am not sure how taxing it is from a technical point of view.
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« Reply #14 on: November 19, 2020, 09:20:12 AM »

Let's not forget Dennis' ability on piano - gosh, listen to "Piano Variations on Thoughts Of You"...or his piano and synth work on "Holy Man". Sure, these are pieces that he wrote, so it's easy to assume he just composed within his own ability to play, and it's a bit different from him sitting down and playing a similar piece composed by someone else - but reports from the time are that he sat at the piano and practiced, practiced, practiced. Hal Blaine praised his piano ability multiple times over the years!

As for Al - one impressive piece of guitar work from him, if you can find it, is when he sang and played an acoustic version of "Sloop John B." on a WNEW radio interview in 1983. Nice!

I recorded that off air at the time & still have it somewhere.  I even digitized it at some point.  But frankly, I didn't really find it all that impressive.  As I recall, he didn't finish the song, or any of the other songs he tried at that interview.
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RubberSoul13
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« Reply #15 on: November 19, 2020, 09:39:01 AM »

Aside from Bruce, NONE of them are versatile...and we haven't seen proof of Bruce's chops in DECADES. If you don't use it, you do indeed lose it. This is NOT like riding a bike...

However, in their "Beach Boys" idiom of music, they were all delightfully competent at what they do. Drop another group's chart in front of them or God-forbid, REAL sheet music? I'm not sure how long that would last. Brian and Carl had to have learned to read to some degree over the years, maybe Alan too.
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BeachBoysCovers
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« Reply #16 on: November 19, 2020, 10:16:06 AM »

I think Brian had the best 'feel' on bass of them all during his prime, but quickly went out of practice off the road and was all over the place doing Sloop John B in 1967. I'm not too familiar with how he was in the 70s. Bruce doesn't impress me on bass during the Michigan concerts - he hits the right notes (improvement from Brian on Sloop I guess) but doesn't propel the band along or fall into a solid groove with Dennis. By his own admission it just wasn't really his area, not that matters considering his excellent keyboard ability (I'll disagree that he was a 'songwriter' first, the guy hardly writes!).

He claims (most recently on Billy Hinsche the other day) that he is always writing, he just doesn't care about getting it released. Make of that what you will.
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SaltyMarshmallow
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« Reply #17 on: November 19, 2020, 10:19:39 AM »

Drop another group's chart in front of them or God-forbid, REAL sheet music? I'm not sure how long that would last. Brian and Carl had to have learned to read to some degree over the years, maybe Alan too.

How many in rock or pop groups can actually read sheet music? McCartney and Stevie Wonder never did, and both are considered master multi-instrumentalists. Not that any of the Beach Boys were that, but being able to formally read music doesn't equate to being a better musician, nor does not being able to make you worse. The context does matter. No genre is more or less 'real'.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 10:22:44 AM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
Rob Dean
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« Reply #18 on: November 19, 2020, 11:39:29 AM »

Drop another group's chart in front of them or God-forbid, REAL sheet music? I'm not sure how long that would last. Brian and Carl had to have learned to read to some degree over the years, maybe Alan too.

How many in rock or pop groups can actually read sheet music? McCartney and Stevie Wonder never did, and both are considered master multi-instrumentalists. Not that any of the Beach Boys were that, but being able to formally read music doesn't equate to being a better musician, nor does not being able to make you worse. The context does matter. No genre is more or less 'real'.


FFS , Just how can Stevie Wonder READ sheet music  LOL
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SaltyMarshmallow
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« Reply #19 on: November 19, 2020, 11:41:32 AM »

Drop another group's chart in front of them or God-forbid, REAL sheet music? I'm not sure how long that would last. Brian and Carl had to have learned to read to some degree over the years, maybe Alan too.

How many in rock or pop groups can actually read sheet music? McCartney and Stevie Wonder never did, and both are considered master multi-instrumentalists. Not that any of the Beach Boys were that, but being able to formally read music doesn't equate to being a better musician, nor does not being able to make you worse. The context does matter. No genre is more or less 'real'.

FFS , Just how can Stevie Wonder READ sheet music  LOL

I mean... yeah, that's the point I'm making? He didn't need to to be that good with an instrument.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 11:42:46 AM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
juggler
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« Reply #20 on: November 19, 2020, 12:18:47 PM »

I've heard in various places that Audree was a natural on piano, able to play almost anything by ear. 
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Tom
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« Reply #21 on: November 19, 2020, 12:57:34 PM »

(I'll disagree that he was a 'songwriter' first, the guy hardly writes!).

I was talking about Brian in this part of my post (transition could've been clearer though). Overall I think it's a truism that applies to most well-regarded writers in popular music - you only really need to be intermediate on your instrument, with some extra thought given to learning chords and rhythms, in order to compose pop/rock music. Obviously there are big exceptions like those mentioned earlier in the thread - people live Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney are miraculous individuals who defy categorisation.
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SaltyMarshmallow
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« Reply #22 on: November 19, 2020, 01:22:56 PM »

(I'll disagree that he was a 'songwriter' first, the guy hardly writes!).

I was talking about Brian in this part of my post (transition could've been clearer though). Overall I think it's a truism that applies to most well-regarded writers in popular music - you only really need to be intermediate on your instrument, with some extra thought given to learning chords and rhythms, in order to compose pop/rock music. Obviously there are big exceptions like those mentioned earlier in the thread - people live Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney are miraculous individuals who defy categorisation.

Whoops, my bad for misreading! They both start with a B. On all of that, agree completely.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 01:23:24 PM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
HeyJude
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« Reply #23 on: November 19, 2020, 03:15:33 PM »

The Beach Boys collectively and individually have always been more about vocals and songwriting than musicianship. I don't think any of the guys are virtuosos on many instruments. David Marks is a great guitarist, but that never mattered on any BB material after 1963 (and a bit on the reunion album). Carl and Al were/are both solid guitarists, and actually better than most people think. Al can actually do those Carl/Dave lead parts in some cases, I've seen him do it live at solo shows.

Bruce's piano playing skills are almost irrelevant, especially at this stage. I don't buy that he was ever nearly as good as Billy Joel, and if he was or is, it doesn't matter because he's never shown it or used it. McCartney, Elton, Joel, Brian Wilson, all those guys put out a bunch of albums and played prominent parts in live shows. Bruce barely put any material on BB albums back when they were active in the studio. Bruce's musicianship hasn't mattered much in live settings since his 1978 return. And his solo (and other band project) albums are pretty weak overall.

Maybe Bruce is writing dozens of albums and playing classical piano concertos all in his living room. I doubt it, but even if he is, if he's not putting anything out there, it doesn't matter. I don't think we have enough information to even start to guess how good of a musician he is, especially now.

I think everybody in the band saw their musical skills atrophy due to the rote nature of live touring (and eventual scant writing and studio recording).

I think all these guys have music in their bones and blood, it never fully goes away. I think they could all be tapped to add interesting bits to new music. But they've chosen not to. They have time and money to do as many "passion projects" as they want, and they mostly don't.
« Last Edit: November 19, 2020, 03:16:52 PM by HeyJude » Logged

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adamghost
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« Reply #24 on: November 20, 2020, 10:12:07 AM »

Slightly different question, but I have always loved how well the Wilson brothers worked as a band in the studio. All three of them really focused hard on being basic and solid. I love the mid '70s tracks where all three of them were cutting the basic track.  Just thick as a slab of poundcake, and you can pile almost anything on with an overdub and it's gonna work because of how simple but solid the foundation is.

Dennis had his limitations as a drummer but for a 2/4 beat, there's just about no one better. You really notice the difference when Fataar was in the band. Ricky just sounds bored doing the simple stuff - he comes alive on the live album. Dennis made being a metronome sound apocalyptic.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2020, 10:13:12 AM by adamghost » Logged
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