Going Back To Our Roots

If we think about it, there’s really two original instruments – the drum and the voice.

We close our eyes and picture the caveman dancing around the fire, beating a drum, and howling. If we’re really imaginative, we can then picture cavemen wearing berets and howling off key really really fast, and we have the precursor of bebop.

But the point is – at least for this article – is we take the idea of two original instruments. (And by the way, I’m a huge jazz fan, so don’t think I’m bopping bebop)

Fast forward to the present day, and electric guitars.

There’s a curious deviation from the two original instruments that the electric guitar takes.

It doesn’t have to come up for air, as the voice does.

We can shred at 302 beats per minute – all day! We guitarists literally never have to stop playing. Compared to, say, a saxophone, guitarists can play runs on their instrument that others can only imagine. This is because, again, the only thing limiting our expression is carpal tunnel syndrome, not lung capacity.

At first, we think “Cool! I can jam all day, and that ol’ saxophone will never keep up.” However, don’t we usually strive to make our guitars sing? And howl? And scream? What sings, howls, and screams, and clutters up the airwaves on American Idol? Singers!

Yes, yes, I hear you muttering something about the honor, of not howling like a monkey, and actually bringing an instrument to the gig, but read on…You’ll surely play better after applying these principles. And if you’ve always liked the breathtaking tone of a saxophone or vocalist, you’ll find some ideas to use.

Singer Stats

Singers, generally speaking, do not:

  • Try to play things as fast as possible
  • Try to play things extra complicated (unless we’re talking about Mary Poppins singing Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious, the vocal version of sweep picking.) But do you want to be like Julie Andrews?
  • Try to cram in as many words as possible.
  • Try to use the biggest word possible. (“A fuchsia nebulousness appears to be in my cranium…no! It’s “Purple haze, all in my brain!” )

Singers, generally speaking, DO:

  • emphasize melody
  • emphasize tone
  • use dynamics (sing loud and soft.)

Keep in mind, I am not suggesting that you throw your chops out the window. Heck no! I’m saying that you try to sing with your guitar. Literally. In order to apply the principles outlined above, the best way I’ve found is to actually sing along with your guitar lines. Do your best to match the pitch, but you don’t have to be spot on. Since you’ll run out of air (unless you’re my grandmother,) stop playing when you do, breathe in, and play again. And if you hyperventilate, use some more space in your music, dude!

Fear not, non-singers! Even if you’re totally botching the notes, you’ll notice a dramatic difference in the melody and spacing of your lines. And, if you want to get really creative, try singing a line first, and then play it. Since your voice doesn’t know the patterns that trap your hand into the same stale licks, you’ll have access to an incredible array of new sounds. And best of all, they’ll be melodic!

Of course, you can play fast, you can play complicated voicings, and you can play a lot. But now, with a bit o’ luck, it will sound good! It will have purpose. And it won’t sound like random doodling!

A musician that stands out in my mind for taking this idea to an art form is the guitarist and singer, George Benson. (Now, now, metal heads, sit down and quit whining. You can use his ideas in your camp, too. Turn crooning into shrieking.)

Original Instrument #2 – The Drum

Since guitars can span the gap between melody and rhythm, we can incorporate both of the original instruments into our playing to great effect.

Playing in a funk/dance band really made me appreciate the rhythmic role of the guitar in certain settings. Muted strings, wah wah pedals, and picking dynamics can all contribute to the percussive aspect of our instrument.

Practicing with a drum machine, or at the very least, a metronome, is vital. However, thinking like a drummer is even better. For a crazy project, get a book with drum exercises or rudiments, and try to apply them to your guitar. Building a riff by assigning certain notes to the kick drum, others to the snare, and the final ones to the hi hat is another valuable technique for riff building.

The main point to remember is that guitarists can often have sub-standard senses of good timing. So from this moment on, refuse to accept that in your playing. Make a point of getting your time right. It will get you better gigs, and other musicians, namely bassists and drummers, will appreciate a good sense of rhythm. (And if they’re the ones hiring you for the gig, it’s good to impress them.)

Specific Exercises:

  1. Vocals: Sing a line, and then play it. As simple as it sounds, it will dramatically help refresh your lines. Try it in the privacy of your practice room, and be silly! Sing crazy stuff, and then play it. Chances are, you’ll find something cool.
  2. Drums: Play “air guitar” to a song that you find difficult rhythmically. Mute out the strings with your left hand, and strum with your right. Try this with a funk, Latin, or ethnic beat. Not only will you be thinking like a drummer, but you’ll improve right hand chops as well. It seems silly, but it has been one of the biggest helps to me. And for some of the musical situations I’ve been in, a muted, percussive sound was THE guitar part for the song. Believe it or not. This is especially helpful if you’re having a tough time getting the feel of a beat that swings, or is outside of your playing experience.

Have fun singing and grooving!

Special thanks to my colleague and teacher, Mr. Mike Stacey for the conversation leading to this article.

For further craziness, be sure to check out my blog.