If I Only Had…

Huss and Dalton

I had an English professor in college who was fond of telling us that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who believed there were two kinds of people in the world and those who didn’t. How could you argue with that? Especially when describing guitarists (and musicians in general).

Most musicians are either incredibly self-promoting or unbelievably self-depreciating. They will either take all of the spotlight, sucking it in like a black hole, or they will go so far out of their way to avoid it that you might think they think their talent is a curse from the cruelest of gods. Rare indeed are those musicians who are fortunate to be well adjusted, taking their lives, music and abilities in stride.

Whichever category you may happen to fall into rarely has anything to do with your musical abilities. Your personality, developed after years of being you, really tends to determine these things. I can’t (and won’t) make a judgment on that. I believe that every guitarist, musician, whatever has strengths as well as “things that need a little work.” For any guitarist, the important thing is to be able to objectively analyze your musicianship (and yourself) in order to figure out which things you want to improve upon.

Remember a few columns ago when I told you how it was important to develop both your strumming hand as well as the hand that does all the work on the neck? Having this sense of balance and applying it to all facets of one’s art should be every musician’s goal. Whether it is complex theory or simply knowing the tastes of your audience, the more aspects of playing music you are able to absorb and to understand, the more balanced you can become. And the more balanced you become, the more you are able to sit in with anyone, anytime, anywhere. And isn’t that why we play?

It’s somewhat simplistic, but I break down musicianship into three basic parts: what you were born with, what you can learn, and what you can dream. Don’t laugh, but I also link these concepts with characters from The Wizard of Oz. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion all wished for things that they never realized they had all along. At different points in my musical life, I have found myself wandering around lost in a magical land, desperately hoping to find some wizard who could give me a clue. Was it more important to have lightning-quick chops or to know how to play along with a new song in Eb?

The argument is older than (insert the oldest thing you can think of here) (Mick Jagger doesn’t count). Logic or emotion? Science or faith? Substance or style? Talent and technique or passion? The head or the heart? Well guess what? I don’t care which way you tend; it is vital for your growth to be able to work both sides of the fence. You can know more riffs than anyone else but if you don’t know where to play them (not how) what difference will it make? A true musician (hell, any human being) should not divide and subdivide things into categories. He or she should delight in taking the myriad musical elements and styles and using them to create new unions.

So let’s be off to see the Wizard then, and see what we shall see. Sing along with me: “If I only had…”

…A Brain

In this era of instant answers it’s easy to forget that, with a little knowledge and a good sense of logic, there’s a lot about music that you can figure out yourself. But why, when you can push a button and get chord charts, tab for songs, or alternate tuning suggestions. Believe it or not, you can get guitars that will tune themselves! It’s true! I got an email from a gentleman who wondered why I didn’t mention this wondrous invention in my last series of articles. Simple answer – I had no idea that such a thing existed (oh, and if you’re interested, you can find out more about them at AxCent Tuning Systems).

To me, transposing the key of a song, figuring out basic chord fingerings, re-tuning one’s guitar and keeping in time are but a few of the things that are simply extensions of what one learns in your first weeks of playing. It’s just a matter of applying what one knows in a logical manner.

But the sad fact is that most guitarists truly believe that the art of playing well is strictly a matter for the hands. Give them a guitar to play and their minds switch over to automatic pilot.

As a teacher, I can tell you that one feels a lot more joy dealing with a student who comes in for a lesson saying, “Okay, this is what I figured out this week- let’s go over it and see if I’m on the right track.” Any pupil that supplements his or her learning challenges the teacher to stay a few steps ahead of the student. Both benefit tremendously from their relationship.

I’ve told you this before but it bears repeating: it is much more important to know how and why something works than it is to “just do it.” Say I show you a D augmented chord:

D augmented chord

Of course you could play it. But suppose instead that I simply tell you that in order to form an augmented chord you simply take a major chord and raise the V a half-step. Armed with this knowledge, you could now find any augmented chord yourself. Check it out! G augmented? Well G is G, B and D (I, III, V). Therefore G augmented is G, B and D#. D# is the first fret on the D string so here’s how to play a G augmented:

G augmented chord

This is one of the simplest examples of how to use your head. As you acquire more and more musical knowledge (no matter where it comes from), the puzzles get more and more interesting as well. This is how you come up with song arrangements. This is how you figure out how to go seamlessly from one song into another during a performance. The inspiration may come from another source (heart or nerve), but it’s your brain that comes up with the logistics of how to put it all together.

And the absolute best thing is that anybody can learn. Sure, people learn at different speeds, but you are the one who controls that. If you take the time, you will be rewarded for your efforts. It may not happen as fast as you’d like. You may not ever play or write the music that you hear it in your head, but you can always make strides to get closer to your ideals.

Your brain is also good for letting you know when things aren’t working. I know a few people who play until they drop and while it’s fun for a while, their last memory tends to be about how awful the last few numbers were and this depresses them. They don’t know when to stop. All it takes is a bit of common sense and the ability to listen critically as an observer, not as a participant.

The ability to listen and think becomes more and more important as you expand your musical horizons. I don’t know about you, but as much as I love getting together and playing with other people, I have a hard time doing a song where five different guitars all play the same thing. Why have all those guitars then? This is where your knowledge of different chord voicings and strumming patterns, as well as your use of fills can brighten up a song immensely. In music, it’s often the little touches, the hammer-on here, the bit of descending scale there, that bring the biggest satisfactions, to the player as well as to the listener.

…A Heart

But let me tell you something, given the choice between going to see someone who is technically proficient or someone who is “okay,” I will automatically default to a different criteria. Who puts out more passion? And please don’t confuse “passion” with “stage presence.” I always find myself enjoying the music more when it is obvious that the performer is giving every emotion that he or she brought to the show. It doesn’t necessarily have to be joy, although joy tends to be much more contagious. A solo guitarist can be very quiet and thoughtful and you can still feel it flowing into you. Anger can become like electricity. Sadness can pour out from the speakers.

And again, this isn’t just big name acts. Quite often you can find the most remarkable musicians right in your own back yard. You just have to take the time and make the effort to seek them out.

It is passion that will let you listen in rapt attention to someone whose voice is, for a singer, merely passable. It is passion that enables you to welcome a relatively ordinary song into your life. It is passion that will make you record the forty-second take of a song that you just can’t seem to get right.

For the musician, guitarist or writer, passion cannot be faked. And you recognize it immediately in others. Each of us is born with passion. It may have led us to taking up the guitar in the first place. It may have flowered while we were learning to love music. But it is there.

The trick is in harnessing it. Harnessing it and expressing it. Since we are all individuals, we tend to convey passion in ways that are in harmony with our personalities. One guitarist I’ve had the privilege of playing with is a fairly shy person. But I cannot begin to describe how his eyes lit up when he was really into a song. He wouldn’t smile or jump about or anything like that but he would just get so intense – it was like he drew in energy from the world through his eyes.

You don’t have to be incredibly extroverted to be a musician. I know quite a few people who really dislike playing in front of people. It’s not that they’re not good; they simply feel very vulnerable putting their emotions out on display. Playing can be an intensely private thing. There are “stars” that don’t play live. Andy Partridge of XTC quit touring because of stage fright. But if you listen to any of his songs, you can still feel his emotions. He has a great knack of putting all of himself into even the silliest of songs. When he’s whimsical, the songs are charms. When he’s hurt or angry, the songs are daggers.

Because everyone channels his or her passions differently, you really can’t be coached or taught how to use yours. This is where the brain can help. If you’re able to objectively look at yourself (which is no mean feat) you can focus on the best use of your heart. It’s cruel to say, but some musicians are so into being other musicians, down to the point of mimicking every grimace and vocal inflection, that they don’t realize how much they are shortchanging their own abilities. Yes it’s corny, but there will only ever be one you, so don’t deprive us of the chance to get to know who you are and what you feel. Let us share in your music.

…The Nerve

To some, making music is all about taking chances. I don’t know about you, but just picking up a guitar the first time seemed like quite a daring thing to do. The first challenges – getting in tune, playing my first chord, switching between two chords, playing a complete song without (obviously noticeable) mistakes – seemed quite daunting at the time.

But as you get better through practice and repetition, it’s important to keep setting up new challenges for yourself. They don’t have to be earth shattering, awe-inspiring Herculean feats. One week, use your passion and come up with a new riff. Next week use your brain and figure out how to play your riff in every possible key. Finally, you can use your nerve (imagination, whatever) to place that riff into a new place.

Sometimes the dares can be very small. You can try out a C sus instead of a C at a certain point in a song. It might work, it might not. But then you should look at it and try to find out why it did or didn’t work. Inspiration or daring without critical follow-up is foolish. If you don’t learn from what you’re doing, then you’ll constantly be starting at square one each time you try something out.

One day while playing Another Brick In The Wall (Part II) I started thinking, for no real reason whatsoever, about the chord structure. D minor to G is quite unusual, but thinking about it, I know quite a few songs in E minor that switch between E minor and A (which is the same thing – it’s just up a step). So I picked one of those songs, Somebody To Love and started playing with the same strumming pattern as the Pink Floyd song. And it was great! I don’t play it this way all the time; it usually depends on how receptive I think the crowd might be. But I now have a viable second arrangement for a song that sometimes runs the danger of being played to death.

Your Own Back Yard

Please don’t misunderstand – you can never, ever have enough tools and sources to help you become a better player or writer (or person, for that matter). A good teacher is worth more than anyone can possibly spend. There is no way to measure that kind of value. Likewise all the information that you can get here at Guitar Noise or other online sites or books or simply talking to your friends.

But don’t forget that you have a lot of the answers in you as well. You have brains and hearts and nerve that can guide you if you give them the chance. When you know you have such support, you can dare to take chances and try things you might not otherwise.

Next time out, we’re going to look at the basics of soloing, so it’s important that you don’t just crawl into a shell and say, “Forget that. I can’t solo.” Find some nerve, okay? I know it’s there and so, hopefully, do you.

As always, please feel free to email me any questions, comments, concerns, topics to cover, weather up-dates from your part of the world and whatever. You can either reach me directly at [email protected] or drop a line on the Guitar Forums. And to all of you who asked for more alternate tuning – of course we can go over some more. I love that stuff. Hang in there and we’ll appease our appetites when you least expect it. Deal?