Over the holidays, I was talking to one of the music teachers at the school where my kids take their lessons. He teaches clarinet, saxophone, flute and bass clarinet and he plays all of those instruments in the bands he’s been in. One of the questions people always ask him is, “What’s your favorite song?” His standard response is ” I don’t have one”. This is usually met with some incredulous stare and the disbelief that a musician doesn’t have a favorite song. We chuckled over his story, and had a wonderful discussion about why he doesn’t have a particular favorite.
One of the beautiful things about playing an instrument is that it can voice different moods. Different instruments also bring a certain flavor to the song you are playing. Hearing something on a sax is different than a flute. Certainly you get a different sound depending on the type of guitar you are playing (classical, acoustic, electric, bass). Even the maker of your guitar determines the sound you produce. The way an acoustic is crafted, from the woods used, to the way the box is built, how the neck is set, these all determine the sound of that guitar. For the electric, the guitar’s pickups, neck and strings all affect the sounds. Then there are the many toys out there beloved by guitar players trying to achieve a different sound. You’ve got the Pod, which can give you a different amplifier sound depending on how you set it up. And all those gizmos that allow you to sound like a clarinet, sax or piano, if you like. And don’t forget that all these devices can be used in various, seemingly endless, combinations. Playing the guitar is endlessly challenging and stimulating; once you figure out what your own “sound” is like, you can then choose to modify it with different instruments or accoutrements.
Just as the guitar can voice different moods, so can your mood affect what you want to play. When I’ve had a tough or sad day at work, I reach for the acoustic, and start playing ‘comfort’ tunes. These are usually songs that I know so well that I play and sing without looking at the music, or songs that match the mood I’m in. There’s nothing like straight 12 bar blues to really emote with. I can play or play with the blues riffs for hours. Other tunes I love include James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. Even on my worst days, I can hit all the chords and rhythms in order to express my emotion through that song. Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide is another such classic for me, and hit’s the spot almost every time. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Almost Home and Stones in the Road are both songs that I’m working on now to get the rhythm, syncopation and vocals gelled. One of my standard comfort tunes, Winter, is something I’ve been playing for the last 22 years. I learned it on the piano first, and it’s mutated into an acoustic guitar piece for me. The beauty of the song is that it’s a David Hodge original, so no one else (except Hodge) knows how it’s “supposed” to sound. And Hodge lets me play it any way I like, which again reflects the mood my brain and fingers are in.
Some days I just want to rock out, and then I pick up the Strat to play good old rock n’roll. Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, Smash Mouth’s All Star, Melissa Etheridge’s Bring Me Some Water, Beatles, The Who, or Rolling Stones tunes come to mind. While I’ve been working on Stairway to Heaven (who hasn’t?) almost exclusively on the acoustic, I note that it sounds much closer to true on the electric. I actually prefer rocking out to Melissa Etheridge on my acoustic, not my electric. Mellow or jumping tunes can be played on either instrument, depending on the sound you want to achieve, and, of course, the mood that you’re in. Of course, my argument is that I really need an acoustic electric to achieve the Ovation type sound of Ms. Etheridge. My family thinks I just want to own another guitar.
All instruments can be played solo or as a blend with other instruments (same or different). A song you love playing in a group may lose some of its punch or groove when playing solo. Or conversely, playing solo may bring a different rhythm or approach to the same piece of music. The popularity of MTV’s “Unplugged” demonstrates that the same song can sound quite different yet be equally appealing. Songs can have a completely different feel when played with others, or can be enhanced with the various layers of other instruments. For instance, if you’ve listened to Landslide by Fleetwood Mac, you can hear that the live version is recorded with a solo guitar. The song is quite beautiful that way, but I’ve heard transformed into a richer song with a second guitar. (In a gesture of shameless self-promotion, see upcoming article by Lasley & Hodge on that very topic.) There is something incredibly satisfying about playing with other musicians in a jam situation (see our section on Jams). It’s marvelous, because you don’t have to carry the entire rhythm and groove of the song on your own shoulders. Somebody to Love is great solo, but is really great with everyone in sync. Van Morrison’s Moondance is transformed with bass, saxophone and drums.
Which brings me back to choosing a favorite song. I’m rather inclined to agree with my music teacher buddy; I don’t have a favorite song. There are so many great songs out there that it’s hard to choose. Plus, as the music teacher and I discussed, it depends on what instrument you’re playing at the time, and what mood you are in. My favorite song is usually the one I’m currently working on. When you’ve sweated to figure out how to twist your fingers into the chords required, then built on that to play the song with the right speed and rhythm, then worked it to allow vocals in the right places, and finally labored to fill the silences with some interesting riff or rhythm, you have entered a love/hate relationship with the song. I become obsessed with playing it over and over, and even then I can’t always replicate the sound I want each time. The struggle and the resultant triumph when the music becomes what you want to express is the joy of playing guitar.
I hope each of you finds lots of your own favorite songs with all of your favorite instruments and continue to enjoy the pleasure of playing!
n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. If you would like suggestions on how to play your favorite song, please email me at [email protected] or David Hodge at [email protected]