"You play so nice and clean!" he said.
Now, this was very much appreciated because that is something I really do work on. Clear, clean tone is kind of like good rhythm - it is something that is very easy to take for granted when you hear someone play, but it never happens by accident. Of the two concepts - clean playing and rhythm, I find that rhythm is the one that gives most players trouble in the beginning; clean playing comes later. Many people seem to have the idea that keeping a steady beat is just something we are born with and it should be totally natural. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Certainly, some people have the propensity to absorb and apply rhythmic concepts better than others. My opinion is that this has a lot to do with how much music we are exposed to at an early age. And what goes along with that is encouragement by our parents to apply rhythm, whether by singing or dancing or playing an instrument. In many cultures music is a part of everyday life, as natural as eating and sleeping. I've spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and when you walk down any street or get into any taxi cab, music surrounds you. So I'll bet kids from those wonderful islands take to playing instruments much more easily than kids from our country, where in some sad cases the playing of an instrument is thought of as a very un-macho thing to do. Whenever I have a student who is struggling with rhythm I always ask how much music was a part of his or her life growing up and without exception, they say it was either a very small part or wasn't heard at all.
So keeping a steady beat is something that many people must concentrate on. This is not a bad thing or a deficiency. It is just requires some work. ANYONE can learn to keep a steady beat - assuming they conquer those other basics of playing the guitar such as changing chords quickly.
Clean tone. So, so important to the finished product. I go through this with my students in detail and give them a sheet with an overview of how it is accomplished (arched fingers, staying close to the frets, pressing down hard, correct hand and wrist position, etc.). What took many years to accept was that playing a simple piece of music as cleanly as possible - with no buzzes or muffled notes - was much more impressive to listener than some pyrotechnic fast licks that were sloppy. I hear many younger players who hide behind distortion on their electric guitars (electronically generated sloppy playing!) and when they are forced to play without the use of volume and distortion their playing is almost painful to hear. On acoustic guitar of course those crutches are not available so clear, clean playing becomes an obvious goal.
So I guess the take-away points here are: Practice keeping a steady beat - use a metronome if necessary. Tapping your foot helps to keep the rhythm in the forefront of your musical mind. Don't be satisfied with playing that isn't as clean and free of muffled and buzzing notes as possible. A great player once told me to always play a piece just a tiny bit slower than you know you can play it - this will clear up a LOT of the sloppiness!
And finally, don't fall into the trap of thinking that a complex piece played poorly is more impressive than a simple piece played well.
Peace & good music,