The driving power of a string section

 In Cello Rock, Review, Rhythm

Radiohead’s 2016 tune Burn the Witch is based on a driving, propulsive, edgy riff played by what sounds like a string section, i.e., not produced electronically, something Radiohead would be more than able to do.

And if the interesting musical analysis of Burn the Witch on  is correct, it is in fact a real (human) string section playing col legno, a little-used technique where you strike the string with the wood of the bow. This produces a clicky sound where the pitch of the note competes with the sound produced by the impact of wood on string. The reviewer at provides a useful video of the col legno technique, and also a video of an orchestra playing Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War, from The Planets, which uses a killer riff in 5, played at times using col legno. The Mars riff is 

col legno riff for Mars, by Holst
col legno riff for Mars, by Holst

I made a mental note to steal – I mean “be inspired by” – this 5/4 riff. Its groove is so ominous. It’s really recognizable, so drop it in on something you’re working on.

Speaking of ominous, back to Radiohead. Listening to how the string section drives their new song I was reminded of 2 things. The first is among the most famous songs in all of rock. The other is a moderately well-known group whose sound I loved from the first moment I heard it.

The famous song is, of course, Eleanor Rigby (1966). The Beatles’ producer George Martin, in his wonderful memoir from 1979 All You Need Is Ears, talks a bit about how Paul McCartney had this new tune and somehow Martin suggested using only strings instead of their normal instrumentation. His arrangement for string octet was quite unusual, certainly unique for rock music at the time. He alternates between a quarter note pulse with eighth note pulses and judicious use of syncopation. The several instances of the ascending line on the cello is a bit of inspired genius, IMHO. The song would sound soooo different without it.

Martin’s score for Eleanor Rigby was apparently inspired by the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, especially the shower scene for Psycho!! You want ominous strings, Psycho’s got ’em.

One more word about Eleanor Rigby: I recently did a show with my now-former band Friction Pitch. Our set has one or two tunes where I’m playing repeated quarter notes on the same pitch, or alternately breaking the quarters into eighths, repeating the same note for several measures at a time. Our bass player’s father was at the show, and he told Aaron he heard some Eleanor Rigby in my playing. I took it as a cue I’m doing something right.

The band whose sound came to mind when listening to Burn the Witch was the 2008 album by Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line, in which the parts played by their cellist (Alexandra Lawn) and violinist (Rebecca Zeller) are mixed right up front in the overall sound, equal if not superior to the guitar and bass. Occasionally they pulse,  but as often will weave their lines in and out of each other, creating a beautiful pop/rock texture for the vocals. I was hooked the first time I heard their album, and saw them several times with my family and friends in Seattle and Vancouver.  The cellist Lawn left the group a few years back, and Ra Ra Riot has gone in a musical direction I don’t care much for.

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