“Yeah, that’s good but doesn’t he use a Gmaj7 there instead of just a straight G?”
“That song is supposed to be in the key of (fill in the blank). It sounds better in the original key!”
Responses to these kinds of statements are met many ways, depending upon the experience and ability of the players. I’ve had a few students who have gone to open jams sessions and open mics and come away disappointed because there often seems to be a hot shot or two who shows up and wants to school the other players in the “right” way to play various songs. This gets to the issue of ego intruding on playing with others, something I’ve written about in the past and won’t go into now. What I’m thinking about is the relative merit of exact replication versus putting one’s own spin on a song. It is a complicated subject, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.
I’ll start with my own experiences over the almost five decades I’ve been playing the guitar. In the beginning (thank goodness!) most of the folk music I wanted to play was simple in most ways. Three or four chords, maybe five, mostly majors and minors with the occasional dominant 7th. Thank you, Mr. Dylan. Thank you, Peter, Paul and Mary. So my friends and I could come pretty darn close to what we were hearing on records (remember them?). Yes, mastering basic finger patterns was the first real hurdle but that came to us after a while. It was fun, and we didn’t sound half bad.
But then things began to change. The influence of the Beatles and the California groups could not be ignored. Much fancier chording, fancier arrangements, much improved production and bolder explorations of the musical lexicon seemed to appear overnight. G, C, Em and D7 just weren’t going to cut it anymore, not if we wanted to sound like the exciting new music that seemed to be everywhere – and changing all the time. And naturally, we wanted to sound that way too.
So we tried our best to replicate the music exactly. A few of my friends succeeded to a fair degree; most did not. I certainly didn’t. It was frustrating and depressing sometimes. So we said to each other: you know what, I’m going to play that song MY way. Which usually meant with easier chords and simpler rhythms. And at least in my world, that’s when the problems started. Not unlike athletes who get better at their sport than those they learned it with, some of my playing friends lost interest in playing with lesser mortals such as myself. Worse yet, occasionally one or two of them would be quite dismissive of my efforts. So I worked harder, learned more, spent amazing amounts of time carefully lifting a needle off a record and trying to place it back down just before that riff I was trying to learn, again and again and again. Like so many of my peers and I suspect like players today, too, I continued to be most impressed with players I knew who could play something by a well-known artist note-for-note.
After more years than I care to admit I finally figured something out. I was wasting valuable time. There will come a day that in spite of having gained much musical knowledge over those decades I just physically won’t be able to accomplish what my head commands my hands to do. The time had come apply what I knew to the best of my ability. If it comes out just like the recording, fine. If not, does that really matter?
Of course you want to play great and you should always strive to learn more! A cold, hard reality is that as a professional player who is a work-a-day musician you will often be judged by your audience based on how accurately you replicate well-known songs. There’s another aspect to consider there however. Many years ago I took my parents to hear a local jazz big band. As I’ve mentioned here many times, my dad was a superb drummer who played with some fairly big deal jazz bands in his day. Well, this local band was marginal at best, but to my amazement the audience (of my parents’ generation primarily) absolutely LOVED them. Afterward I said to my dad – did you really like that? Didn’t you think they were pretty bad?! And was the audience just ignorant or desperate or what????
Well Gene, he said, you have to understand: when they were butchering that Benny Goodman song, they weren’t hearing the band….they were hearing Benny Goodman! So it really doesn’t matter a whole lot how perfect they were or weren’t. The audience loved them, and they loved the audience loving them.
I swear, a light bulb lit up in my thick skull. I think that was the day that I decided to worry less about exact replication of famous artists and music and more about playing my best, not just for an audience but also for my own pleasure. So what if I can’t play exactly like James Taylor! I can do a reasonable interpretation of his songs, and in any case, to whom am I doing a disservice to feel that way? He’s James Taylor, for God’s sake.
So here’s my approach these days. I keep practicing, I keep an open mind (most of the time, anyway), and I don’t waste time with the minutia of imitation. Sure, I want the listener to recognize what I’m doing and I do my best to avoid taking the easy way out musically because I feel that is lazy. And it is very cool to discover some of the things that make great players so great.
I avoid judgmental players whenever possible but that is not always easy to do. There will always be those who will dismiss me because I cannot play a certain song note-for-note, because they can. Does that make them better than me? I’ll leave that for others to decide and live with their opinions. Or ignore them. Does that make them happier with their playing than me? I doubt it.
Peace & good music,