“Your left hand is what you know. Your right hand is who you are.”
Wow, I can’t think of a better way to express the reality of making music on the guitar. (This assumes you’re right-handed of course!) When guitarists reach the intermediate level of playing and on into advanced technique they need to consider the next step beyond pure replication of a piece of music. In classical music there is an entire dictionary of Italian terms to convey what the composer wants beyond the playing of the notes. But in popular music it is rare to find such notation in printed music. Why is this? Perhaps because the writer of the music doesn’t really expect much interpretation, assuming someone learning their music is mostly concerned with getting the right notes and/or chords. Who knows?
I often stress with my students the importance of “making the music your own.” What I mean by that is not being afraid to divert from spending all their time just trying to play a tune “right” whatever the heck that really means. Of course – we all want to play a song as the artist intended it on a purely nuts-and-bolts level. But by adding subtle elements or even more radical departures it’s possible to come up with something that is not only satisfying but in many cases, more interesting to the listener.
Let’s start with the simplest one of all: dynamics. If you’re unfamiliar with that term it means playing parts of a song softer or louder, or with more or less emphasis. I’ve seen hundreds of people playing in bars and lounges as solo acts, duos and larger groups and I can say with certainty that very few if any vary their dynamics at all. OK, I understand this may be on purpose; if you’re playing in a rowdy bar and banging out rock, country or Irish drinking songs you’d best be loud and energetic or you won’t have the gig very long. Loud and rowdy = more drinks sold = more money in the cash register. I get that.
Conversely, if you’re playing a nice restaurant where your function is to help set the mood and never, ever intrude on conversation you’d better keep that amp turned down low. I’ve had instances in these kinds of places where patrons would ask to change tables as soon as they saw me show up with even the smallest amplifier, before I even turned it on. Again, I get it.
But in both the above scenarios some subtle variation in dynamics at certain points in certain songs will make the music more interesting and compelling if those subtle variations are surrounded by what the crowd expects.
Next element in making a song your own is variation of tempo. This can be quite radical if you’re bold enough but also quite effective. Jazz guitarists do this all the time. One of my favorite players, the Brazilian master Romero Lubambo often takes jazz standards and plays them in bossa nova or samba style and it is way cool. The great Stevie Wonder routinely takes the vamp in the middle of his “Superstition” and begins slowly it down more and more, then gradually increases the tempo back to the original speed and the crowd goes crazy, every time.
Now, these are radical examples. A more subtle way is to let the music “breathe” just a bit. When you get to significant phrase in the lyrics perhaps slow down just a tiny bit for effect, or even pause for a few beats before returning to the original tempo. This has to be done judiciously and not too often. The idea is to not be entirely predictable but at the same time compelling. Little (intended) variations of tempo make for a more interesting listening experience. Of course, if you are playing in a band be sure to rehearse these little variations and close listening to other members while playing is essential. Nothing with make a drummer’s head explode quicker than a player who is unpredictable and can’t keep the beat!
Then there is the structure of the tune itself. Things like playing a piece in a different key than is used in a familiar piece music can really open the door for some interesting variations. Even non-musicians’ brains “remember” keys of familiar songs, even if they have no idea what a key is. Shake ‘em up a bit. There is a risk that some listeners won’t like it but making music is and should be about taking risks! You might even take it a bit further and change the chord structure a bit. Try inserting a Am7 where the original music call for a straight Am. Add some scale-wise motion in the bass end between chords. Add an occasional hammer-on or pull-off here and there. Or even try substituting relative chords in a few places (G Major instead of Em, or vice versa; Am instead of C major). You may or may not like the sound and too much substitution risks changing the tune too radically to be recognizable but it may lead to some other ideas, too.
These are just some of the things I mean when I say, make the music your own. And who knows? Making someone else’s music your own may inspire you to write something. Which means making music that is entirely your own.
Peace & good music,