ARCHIVE | Pop Zeus: The Compositional Conventions of Robert Pollard

This is another article that appeared on the long deceased Grace & Fury website. Robert Pollard, of course, is the driving force behind the iconic Guided By Voices, a band that rose from lo-fi indie rock obscurity to bonafide rock stardom – sort of. Though they had some decent exposure, they were always a little too weird and contrary to become widespread darlings of airplay or promotion.

Around the release of the album Isolation Drills some friends and I had a band called The Official Ironmen. We played all GbV and Pollard songs at a time when “tribute bands” and “tribute albums” weren’t quite as overwrought as they have become. Basically it was just a blast to play this great music, hang out, and drink beer. Though the songs were not difficult or outwardly complex, the guitar teacher in me, absorbing a body of work, observed recurring musical themes. What follows is a discussion of my observations.

Interesting (?) footnote: Once upon a time this article was linked to from the band’s official website, perhaps imbuing it with some sort of historic legitimacy.


Songwriters, like artists working in any field for an extended period of time and producing a large volume of work, walk a fine line between self repetition and assertion of personal style via recurring motifs or compositional elements. A great artist is one who is prolific yet constantly inventive. Guided By Voices’ captain and chief songwriter Robert Pollard is one such person. If Paul McCartney or Andy Partridge hasn’t already written a certain great melody, chances are Pollard has. And prolific? Someday we may need to have a scholarly cataloging of his works, ala Mozart’s Kochel: Pollard himself estimates that he may have written 5000 songs! While all of these may not be fully realized and arranged, you can bet that most of them contain at least one great hook.

While Bob Pollard is excessively productive and owns a gift for mercurial melody, an essay of the material he has written nevertheless points out certain traits which may be seen as cornerstones of his compositional method. The following examples will outline several of the more common conventions that Pollard constantly re-disguises as great new songs.

I. Open String Drones/Arpeggios
This is a staple in the GbV galaxy. Ringing notes within a pattern or riff create a certain continuity of sound and lend an often simple pattern complex tonal and theoretical implications. The main pattern from “Tractor Rape Chain” (Bee Thousand) illustrates this clearly. The superimposition of simple dyads over a droning A yield a sonically dense series of chords.

The progression could be labeled simply E/A – C#/A – D/A – B/A – A. However, technically the inference which can be made is Aadd9 – C#m6 – D – B7 – A, a much more complicated reading which belies the riff’s simplicity.
This arpeggiated pattern from “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) presents more of the same.

Here again, a rather self-explanatory sequence presents a progression which can be interpreted as Cadd9 – Fadd9 – Aadd11 – Dadd11 – G – Eb – F6 – G, the open strings providing added color to simple fifth shapes. A similar example of the open string arpeggio comes from “Wormhole” (Do the Collapse).

“Wormhole” also illustrates the use of dissonance and how in context (vis a vis the imminent resolution of the “unpleasing” notes) it does not sound incorrect. Further examples of this idea can be found in “Catfood on the Earwig” (Plantations of Pale Pink ep), “Cut-Out Witch” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) and numerous other places.

II. The bVI
Another common harmonic maneuver of Robert Pollard is the chord change of a bVI. While not extremely uncommon in popular music, this can be a rather jarring modulation but one which makes complete sense in its surroundings. Again here, the context — the following chord, the vocal melody atop the seemingly “out of key” chord — allows the progression to work logically. Examples of this type of change can be found in the following:

“Surgical Focus” (Do the Collapse): the verse progression of F – C – Bb – F – Db – Bb – F contains said movement (F – Db). The bVI chord is directly followed by the IV which resolves back to the tonic of F.

“Much Better Mr. Buckles” (Do the Collapse): again the verse pattern, G – Bm – G – Bm – C – Eb – G, eventually lands on the bVI (Eb) which in this case directly resolves to the I chord, G.

“Underground Initiations” (Hold on Hope ep): The pre-chorus includes a progression similar to “Surgical Focus” above where the bVI chord is followed by the more theoretically “stable” IV: E – C – A.

As with any type of writing, be it composition of melody, chord progression or even rhythm, often the factor which seems to be angular or flat out incorrect proves to be a great hook. We just can’t wait to hear that odd element one more time.

III. Jagged Rhythms
Of course rhythmic themes can be inescapably catchy components of a piece of music. For all its brilliant harmonic content, when most people think of Ravel’s “Bolero” they think of its famous rhythm (a “bolero” being a Spanish dance form). Or to go in a completely opposite direction, some contemporary dance music may as well be devoid of melody all together, as long as the beat keeps pounding.

Throughout his work, Pollard has presented some rhythmic hooks which are as effective as his melodic ones. The best of these riffs are syncopated — full of holes and hiccups. While not exceedingly difficult to play, they are quite memorable. This theme from the title track of Pollard’s Waved Out is almost heavy metal in its relentlessness.

The great new album Isolation Drills features an addictive rhythmic pattern on “The Brides Have Hit Glass.” This motif which drives the songs verses becomes even more effective when contrasted with the other sections of the song.

The rather sharp rhythmic texture plays interestingly against the characteristically smooth maj7 chords which occupy the beats.

“Do Something Real” (Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department) features another hard rocking riff as its backbone:

This is another case where the pattern isn’t a constant assault, but instead a very effective theme which when returned to between verses moves the song forward aggressively.

Recently Bob Pollard advised audience members to “remember the four P’s: Pop, Psychedelic, Punk and Prog.” Certainly in a recording career which began in 1987 he and GBV have embraced elements of all of the above. In interviews he has cited favorites from the Who to Wire to Genesis. No doubt this broad foundation and fascination with rock music in general has had an impact on the constant freshness of Pollard’s output. At times it seems that if you immersed yourself in the dozens of albums put out under various band configurations and aliases, Robert Pollard himself could teach you all there is to know about rock and roll. The above examples are the briefest of introductions to the work of a singular figure in pop music today. Enjoy these observations, and then go to the Library of Pollard and discover your own. And spread the word.

Coming soon: a Taoist reading of Robert Pollard’s lyrics.
(Just kidding)

All music examples above written by Robert Pollard.


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