The trick to being a better guitarist is you have to be able to work both inside and outside of the box. Imagination plays an important part.
Topics: guitar columns, soloing and improvisation
“…D minor, the saddest of all keys…” – Nigel Tufnel, This Is Spinal Tap
It’s the hardest fact for any teacher to accept. You can teach a person how to hold a guitar, how to play a chord, how to strum a rhythm. You can show them tricks and have them memorize scales and riffs and leads and fills. You can demonstrate why it’s important to be able to hear an interval or whether a song is in a major or minor key. In short, you can “make” a student the best guitarist you can…
But ultimately what will separate the guitarist from the artist can never be taught. Oh you can coach and coax and go over things with your student over and over and over and over and over again. But you cannot give him or her an intimate connection to music. You cannot give your pupils, for lack of a better word, soul.
I think that it’s talking about leads and lead guitarists that brings this out in me. Maybe it was seeing the Patti Smith Group here in town last night. Maybe it was playing Wish You Were Here for the God-knows-how-many-eth time last weekend with a group of musicians and marveling at how it never gets old.
Way, way too often a guitarist is much more concerned about being the loudest, fastest, hippest new thing to come along since (insert the name of your favorite guitarist here). The philosophy is often, “Hey, I can play, therefore I’m (insert your greatest adjective here).”
But the truth, for those of us who are able to admit it to ourselves and others, is that while we may be in utter awe of a player’s technical prowess, it’s the music that moves us to laughter or tears that really makes us jealous. A simple riff that takes me out of my office or car or room and plants me smack dab in the middle of a long forgotten summer romance’s kiss. A turn of phrase that has me talking to my dad again. A chord or two that reunites me with bandmates now scattered across the globe. A long sustained note that lets me gaze into eyes that I know I will never look into again in this lifetime.
The satisfaction that I get when someone says, “Wow, you can really play!” is an unbelievably small fraction of the sheer joy I experience when someone tells me, “That song made me feel…” and then goes into some deeply personal memory or dream. If I could ever figure out how to always connect with music like that, I would never work a day in my life ever again.
Now the really ironic thing is this: while the art of developing this kind of connection between music and emotion cannot be taught, it can be learned. But this learning process is very involving (evolving would be a better term) and the guitarist has to be willing to change many of his or her conceptions of musicianship.
Any of my friends will tell you that paradoxes positively enchant me (they bring out the best and worst in me – ha ha). And this topic is rife with them, the first being that the most vital component to become a “connected” or “feeling” guitarist is knowledge. You have to be emotional enough to recognize and identify the strongest feelings you (or someone else) can have and remain detached enough to try to figure what triggers that particular emotion. Certain sounds have the ability to create emotional responses, occasionally intense ones. If you don’t believe me, a demonstration may be in order. The next time you’re with a friend who doesn’t play an instrument, ask him or her to help you with a little experiment. Play two chords, one a major and one a minor (try to pick two different keys) (and don’t say what the names of the chords are) and ask your friend which of the two chords should be described as “happy” and which one as “sad.” Nine times out of ten they will pick the minor chord as the “sad” one. It’s astonishing how ingrained this is.
And this is just a simple major vs. minor comparison with chords. You can also create moods with the voicing and phrasing of a chord or even with a riff. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. has talked about how the Peter Buck’s guitar riff in Shiny Happy People inspired him to write a bouncy happy lyric to match it. And David Gilmour’s simple yet incredibly melancholy four- note guitar motif (heard in Shine On You Crazy Diamond (part III)) set the stage for the entire Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here. To illustrate the powerful difference phrasing can make, try this out: first play the straight chord from which the motif is derived and then play the actual motif itself, as illustrated here:
Quite a striking contrast, huh? Now, while the Gm13 is in and of itself an interesting chord, Gilmour’s motif truly evokes an emotional response, whether it is one of sadness or of what I call “unresolved-ness.”
So how does one come up with music like this? It’s another paradox – knowledge combined with experimentation and the occasional blessing of good fortune. If you’re a frequent reader of these pages you know how I’m always harping on people to “write things down.” In addition to my “practice” time, I also make it a point to spend so much time a week in “experimentation”(not to be confused with “goofiness”). I may work on coming up with a new tuning or a new chord voicing or a way to work out a new arrangement, but there’s always a purpose to it, which is what separates “experimenting” from “fun.” It’s a “controlled goofiness,” if you will.
And sometimes I can come up with a voicing, or a phrase or a chord progression, which sets off all my internal alarms. Then I have to make absolutely certain that I don’t forget it at a later point (and this does happen, more often than I’d ever care to admit).
I’m going to use of my songs, When You Come Home, to further demonstrate the use of chord voicing to evoke an emotion. When I was writing this in 1983, I initially had a simple chord structure for the verses, which looked like this (this is the first half of the first verse):
But I really wanted something more spooky and ominous (it’s about a plane crash ) (no, don’t ask…) so I spent a lot of time trying to come up with ways of making it sound darker. By playing with different chord voicings and by using my low E string as sort of rhythmic drone, I managed to come up with this:
Yes, you can tell that I listen to a lot of Pink Floyd, but this version definitely creates a more uneasy feeling than the original chord arrangement did.
And, thinking about it, this may be another reason why it takes me longer to come up with the lyrics of a song than it does to finish the music. It’s important to me that the music and the lyrics are in sync with each other. Even when being “in sync” means being in complete contrast with each other – another paradox, I know, and one we’ll examine at a later date.
Again, you can’t just come up with things like this if you play guitar strictly by the book. I guess this is why I don’t encourage people to learn anything – whether it’s leads or strumming or songwriting – simply by copying. Using your imagination, even when you’re not really certain of what you’re doing, can lead down much more interesting roads. Musically, it’s pretty easy to go back and find out why things work the way they do. And, really, you may very likely come up with something that someone else has already done (there are only so many things you can do with a guitar) (not that they’ve all been done yet). But the thing is that you came up with it, too.
You can see that the “connected” guitarist is ultimately more concerned with sound than he or she is with technique. And “sound” covers a lot of ground. Not only just the actual notes that your guitar produces but the countless ways of bringing them out of your guitar. This is where there is no end to one’s imagination. We tend to be pretty spoiled in this day and age. Effects are cheap and easy to come by. Push a button, get distortion. If you don’t like it, push another button and edit your distortion. But just like coming up with leads and fills, any effect should be there to enhance the song, not to draw attention to itself.
And a lot of times you don’t even need the effects. The very first time I went into a recording studio was 1977 to record a song called Sapphire. My friend Greg played the lead part, which basically consisted of him playing a note on his electric guitar with the volume knob turned to its lowest setting. By wrapping his pinky around the volume control, he would gradually turn it up after striking a note. This created an eerie synthetic tone that ideally suited that particular version of the song. This is done all the time these days.
If you listen to some older music, especially from the late sixties, you can’t help but marvel at the various sounds they were able to create with four track recording equipment that most of us would be embarrassed to own these days. It’s all a matter of trying things out just to hear what they might sound like.
And it’s not just “ancient” stuff. On the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This, listen very closely to the bridge. Things get very hushed while Annie Lennox sings “Hold your head up…” but you can hear a very distinct chiming in the background. Know what that is? Glass milk bottles filled to various levels with water! Isn’t that great? How incredibly low-tech!
This is what I mean about seeing things as if it’s the first time. More often than not, creating an atmosphere or evoking an emotion is a relatively simple thing. And that makes perfect sense since we’re concerning ourselves with connecting with our listeners on such a basic level. Sometimes the more overproduced or technical the music, the easier it is to lose your audience.
Take classical music (and I happen to love classical music). No musician should ever look down on a classical musician. It’s harder to make a living in that field than it is as a professional athlete. Even the “average” classical musician has more technique and training than the vast majority of us.
But the “average” listener is not really concerned with all that, anymore than he or she can really appreciate how fast your fingers can fly on the fretboard. When it comes to classical music, most people only remember bits and pieces and those bits and pieces, more often than not, are simple melodies or motifs (like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). You may not believe it, but there are numerous rock riffs lifted from classical pieces (and yes, the heavy metal Mozart solo in the movie This Is Spinal Tap is one of my favorites!). A big reason for this is because they do carry a great deal of emotional weight. Listening to classical music can be a great source of inspiration for any guitarist trying to find new and interesting lead lines.
Speaking of which, another great way to study “emotional” music is through films and television programs. Scores for movies are often written around small themes that pop up whenever the music director wants to underscore a point. Just think of the theme from Jaws if you’re hard pressed for an example. Even people who’ve never seen the movie get noticeably tense when they hear it. And let’s not even talk about the music from Psycho…
People are much more likely to connect with your music when you make the connection with something in their lives. Last September, I was at a former bandmate’s wedding and we played Sapphire again. It’s a song about someone I knew an incredibly long time ago. Afterwards one of the guests came up to me and said, “You know, I went out with her, too.” Of course, he couldn’t have. His “Sapphire” and my “Sapphire” were two totally different people but he and I were both able to share common feelings evoked by remembering different women.
What this should illustrate is that you don’t have to cater to popular cliches in order to connect with people. Even when you write something that you think is incredibly personal, the emotions that you convey by people who do not share in the same experience. Of course, the level of emotion will be different from person to person but the connection will be there. Often the more personal your writing the more universal the connection can be.
This is the crux of being a better guitarist (musician, songwriter, student, person, whatever): You have to be able to work both inside and outside of the box. You have to know your fundamentals – scales, chords, rhythms, theory, fingerboard and everything else. But you’ve also got to be able to start from scratch, to look at everything as if it were the first time you’d ever seen it before. I know that this sounds crazy, let alone perplexing as all hell, but it’s true.
Being out of the box lets you connect with your creativity, being in connects you with the rest of the world, whether it’s your friends or other guitarists/musicians or whatever. And regardless of what you think, you do have to connect with both.