Uncommon Sense

Hi everyone. In this lesson we will try to bring awareness about topics that, as guitar players, we tend to forget, but that are very important as far as making music instead of "guitar acrobatics". Most of them are no-brainers, but you might be surprised of how many of us (myself included) forget about them from time to time, and the result is usually unpleasant. This lesson will require an introspective approach in order to become effective, and before going any further, let me make clear that this is just an opinion based on some of the experiences I have had (including mistakes) as a guitarist:

1. Play WITH your band, Not AT your band

Regardless of the style, it is not rare to find the guitarist who takes long enough solos to make anyone fall a sleep, including his/her band mates (when it comes to guitar oriented music the rules do change, as long as the result is melodic). Even when the vocalist is singing the guitarist tries to plug in as many "licks" as possible. Generally speaking much louder than it is needed. When faced with the fact that the guitar volume needs to come down, or that there needs to be more space in the song, the player takes it personal and throws a fit. Have you seen that happen?

The safe route to take is to be aware that you are part of a band and find the right spots to shine at the right volume. The vibe will always be better if you are suggested to turn up, instead of down, and believe me. It will happen. Your band mates want to sound as good as you do.

2. Find out ways to communicate better with your band mates

As much as learning music theory can seem like a hassle, it is important to know what it is that you are trying to get your band mates to play, and explain it to them, as well as understanding what they want to hear from the guitar. There are a lot of musicians who claim that music theory can take the feeling and creativity away from music, and they are right: if you let that happen. One of my favorite teachers used to say: "music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive". That makes too much sense.

Knowing music theory can help a lot. It is up to you how much you want to use it. As a matter of fact: if you learned a lick by any player (even if the player himself didn't study music formally), or even if you are writing a two chord song, you already are applying music theory. You might not know the terms for what you are doing, but as long as you are playing anything, music theory applies to it. And being able to tell your band mates exactly where you want a rest, or an accent in a song can save you a lot of time and frustration.

Remember to be respectful of your band mates. There is always the possibility that they do not understand what you tell them because you are not explaining what you want in a way that they can understand.

3. Accept your own "voice"

One of the most difficult things for me to do, as a guitarist, has been to be able to accept my own "voice". In other words, the way I sound.

When I hear myself playing in a recording (especially at the beginning), is like hearing my voice talking for the first time. Some people never get comfortable with their own voice. It took a long time of me trying to sound like the players I admire (and failing miserably) before I was able to accept that they are who they are, and I am who I am. And that is a great thing! That is where variety spawns from. Although these players are incredible, there is something satisfying about not sounding just like them. It just takes some getting used to.

It is important to be comfortable with your own sound, and not try to emulate another player's sound. Accept that there is something unique about yourself and your sound, and that you have something to offer. You can grow much more from that point, than if you spend your time trying to sound like someone else. I am sure you have a favorite actor/actress. How much time do you spend trying to look like them before you leave your home? I hope none at all.

4. Music is not a sport

Why is it that in every guitar forum you can find the thread named: "Who is the best guitarist"?

Music consists of sounds, and sounds are perceived by the listener. Not any different than colors. If we all had the same perception, then we would all have the same favorite colors, fragrances, flavors... Why are the forum participants not trying to convince the other readers that "red is better than green"? That sounds ridiculous! Music is no different. Yes, there are faster guitarists than others, but that doesn't make them better. It just makes them faster. There is also the misconception that slow and "sloppy" is soulful. I disagree again. Although they can work together they don't necessarily make each other.

Music has the unique incredible power of creating images in the listener's mind. No other art form can do that. A soundtrack can literally make or break a scene in a movie. Can you imagine if you were watching a sad scene in a movie with a circus-type song playing in the background? How can we, as guitarists, call ourselves musicians and artists if we are only concerned about impressing our listeners, instead of touching them with our music?

Why do we sometimes play the game of "my dad can beat up your dad / my favorite guitarist is better than your favorite guitarist"? Isn't that a little childish?

That train of though brings me to the next concept, which is very similar to the one above.

5. Listen to WHAT is being played, not HOW it is being played

In my opinion, paying more attention to how things are played is a huge mistake. And I used to do that a lot myself.

There is another thread that is very common in guitar forums, "Hendrix is overrated", same thing with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and an endless list of players.

First of all, the next time I inspire millions of people worldwide to pick up the guitar and learn to play it, I might be able to say that, but in the meantime...

The reason why some guitarists have that frame of mind is that they are listening to how things are being played, instead of what is being played. It is the same frame of mind where the concept of speed and technique replacing emotion gets started. Of course there is room for speed and technique in emotional playing! They don't cancel each other at all. Actually they can go hand in hand if done properly, but we must not loose focus of the fact that music is an expression of emotion. Not of skill. I'd rather paint an image in my listener's head instead of impressing them.

And that brings us to the last concept of this lesson. There are many more. Actually entire books can be written about the uncommon sense that we can have as guitarists, but this is a magazine. Not a library.

6. Write "licks" for songs. Not songs for "licks"

If you are building a house, would you start with a window, first?

In the guitar community, it is very common for a person to learn, or write a "lick", and then try to write a song around it. Generally speaking, the result is not as effective (in my opinion) as learning a lick, and understanding it in a way that it can be transformed to fit any song. More times often than not, the transformation might include changing the note grouping, transposing it, you might even end up having to "cut a part of the lick off", but it is much more satisfying knowing that the time spent in learning that lick paid off in a way in which it can be used at will, instead of hoping that some day it can be played live in a song that might not sound completely generic and/or awkward.

In conclusion: Music is an art. Not a science. That is why there is "music theory" and not "music law". Guitar is just another instrument created with the purpose of expression, not competition. Your band mates are equally important to the song as you are. Remember to keep the average listener in mind instead of the guitarist who is standing in front of the stage with his/her arms crossed, or the guitar forum guy that criticizes everything that is not fast or "clean" with unrealistic demand. Even the guitarists they praise make a ton of mistakes. That person won't like anything you do. So, don't make them the focus of your playing, and don't worry about them.

OK. I guess that will be it for now. I hope this article was somewhat helpful in your developments as a guitar player. Please feel free to visit me at my web site and on MySpace. Good luck.

Alfredo Herz, a 1997 graduate of Music Tech in Minneapolis, has seven years of teaching private lessons and seminars under his belt. He has also won several Minneapolis area guitar competition, and is a regular contributor to guitar sites on the Internet.

Songs from an upcoming instrumental CD are currently part of the rotation in the radio show GTR Radio from Oregon. Herz is endorsed by VHT amplification, Xotic effects, The Guitar Wheel and Do Denim clothing.

Alfredo Herz