The Anatomy of a Power Trio

They say that three is the magic number and when it comes to rock music, this couldn’t be more true.

One look at rock’s back pages only serves to prove this further. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Motorhead, Rush, Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers (post-Richie), Green Day, they all have one thing in common: three band members.

More recently you have Muse, Biffy Clyro, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Cribs, Band of Skulls and small yet powerful acts such as The Joy Formidable, Future of the Left and The Xcerts. The list is endless!

But what is it that gives these three-piece bands their power?

The basic structure of a power trio is one guitarist, one bassist and one drummer, with the guitarist taking on lead vocals whilst the other two contribute backing vox (although this can differ from band to band).

Matt Bellamy of Muse once said that he preferred the three-piece structure because, as a guitarist, it gave him the space to be more expressive and creative, with no second guitarist to hold him back or keep him in check. Chris Wolstenholme and Dom Howard keep things loosely steady on drums and bass, allowing Bellamy more freedom to experiment. Since the early days when it was just the three of them on an empty stage, things have changed pretty dramatically for the Devonshire trio. For Muse, less is definitely more, and more is always better.

Like a lot of three-piece bands, Muse now have an extra pair of hands on deck in the form of Morgan Nicholls. Onstage, he basically holds the whole thing together, playing a multitude of instruments to add to the ever-growing production of the band’s live sets. Synths, percussion, rhythm guitar, keys, backing vox – you name it, he probably plays it. But as a session musician, the focus is diverted from Nicholls and concentrated on Bellamy and co and even more so on the bombastically over the top stage production.

On a much smaller scale but with, arguably, just as impressive a sound, The Joy Formidable from Wales are another fine example of a younger, fresh-faced power trio who are set for great things with their heavy, atmospheric, roaring riffs and quirky pop gems. Again, they take the same power trio structure, frontwomen Ritzy Bryan is on guitar and lead vocals with Rhydian Dafydd on bass and Matt Thomas on drums.

One of the best and most interesting things about The Joy Formidable is their ability to make so much noise onstage and play intros and outros which are often longer than the actual songs themselves. They create an impenetrable wall of sound and feed off each other and the audience in ways that larger bands often find difficult.

However, the three-piece structure doesn’t work for everyone, especially for four-piece bands who have lost a member and struggled to cover the extra parts. One such band who suffered this is Manchester’s Nine Black Alps. When bassist Martin Cohen left in late 2010 to start his own music project Milk Maid, things were quiet in Nine Black Alps land but when Sam Forrest and co decided to start working on a new album, they found it to be more difficult than they expected.

I spoke to Forrest last year about this and he said, “At the moment it’s weirdly normal but we haven’t played any live shows yet. We’ll probably have to draft somebody in to help us out as 95% of our songs need two guitarists.” Later on, they got The Witches’ Karl Astbury on board to play bass just in time to start touring their latest album ‘Sirens’ and it seems normality is restored for the Mancunian grunge rockers.

On the other hand, there are bands who have gained or lost members in order to maintain the solid three-piece structure. We Are Scientists lost drummer Michael Tapper in 2007 and terrible twosome Keith Murray and Chris Cane took on session musicians Max Hart and Adam Aaronson, becoming a four-piece for a while before finding the missing jigsaw piece in ex-Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows.

In an interview I had with Cane in 2010, he said, “The four piece vibe had started to wear on us. We came to feel that the shows were too locked in and too much on a track. There was very little push and pull, very little sense of spontaneity, we never had that tension that comes from really being able to hear and feel that the song is being played live onstage. So we wanted to get back to the three piece vibe because we thought that would let us loosen up and it has worked! We are incredibly loose.”

Irish rockers Ash found themselves in a similar situation when, in 2006, guitarist Charlotte Hatherley was encouraged to pursue her solo career so that Tim Wheeler and co could return to their original three-piece formation. With this, Hatherley was left wondering, “Did I quit or was I fired?”. In 2010, the band invited Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack on tour to play rhythm guitar. Perhaps they realised they relied on a forth member more than they thought but there was no way of Hatherley returning as she was gaining more success with her solo ventures and touring with Bat For Lashes and KT Tunstall.

But I digress…

Instead, I’ll leave you with a track from one of my favourite local “power trios” – Carnivores. These three lads from Paisley are just insane but create incredibly great music whilst they’re at it. No samples, no backing tracks, just hardcore riffs and lots of jumping and shouting. Sound good? Good.

Feel free to leave comments on who your favourite three-piece bands are and what you think makes a great power trio.

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