On another thread in that same forum someone posed the question: Who is the greatest living acoustic guitarist? And of course there are many replies.
Competition is part of our genetic makeup. The caveman who could bring down an animal before some other caveman was going to eat that night. And then somewhere along the line people realized that on some level competition (hopefully, not the life and death kind) could actually be…..fun. Taken to its modern extreme, that’s where we are today in just about any human activity you can name. Talent judging reality shows are hugely popular on television. So it’s just fine to judge musicians against each other and attach labels like “best” to some of them. Or is it?
Back when I started playing the guitar and began listening to and seeing many experienced players I certainly was one of those who would compare players and confidently conclude that he or she was better than someone else doing the same thing. The certainty of youth was to blame of course, plus the need to be viewed as having some higher sense of knowledge and taste. As the years passed I became more and more certain of my opinions and on some level I was passing judgement based on many facets of the competitive urge I thought I saw in those players – and in myself. Without being able to verbalize or even recognize it I just assumed that one thing that made a player great was his or her need to be better than their peers. Boy, was I wrong about that.
What started to change my mind about the relative merits of competing with other musicians became something more personal. Slowly but surely I began to realize that I never was going to be as accomplished as some of my heroes. That may sound logical and a little bit naïve but anyone who’s serious about playing a musical instrument has to get to that place if they are going to progress. In any case, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for anyone and I’ve known some very experienced guitarists who outright quit playing when that realization took hold. It saddens me to think about players I’ve known who could have taken their playing in whatever direction they wanted but took the easy way out with vague excuses like, nah, I don’t play anymore, it just doesn’t turn me on like it used to.
Most of us don’t quit though and that brings me back to the competition thing. Every year there are dozens of big guitar, fiddle and banjo contests around the country. Back when I played and toured with fiddler Marie Rhines we took part in quite a few, most of which Marie won. At the time I thought it was pretty cool. Players who win the big contests at places like the National Championship contests in Winfield, Kansas and Weiser, Idaho are venerated by fellow players. This is all well and good and there is no question that these players are world-class, in a league that few of us will ever enter. The danger I think comes from believing that those winners have some God-given super powers, and that if I practice my ass off perhaps He will grant me those powers too. And how will I test those powers? By comparing myself to and competing with my fellow musicians, of course!
That competition takes many forms for the passionate but misguided guitar player. Sometimes you can see it when a guitarist fires out his fanciest licks when he knows there is another guitarist listening. A player who speaks arrogantly to other players, or orders them around in a group setting is just trying to win some competition that the others may not even know they are in! A guitarist who is playing with others for the first time and has no patience with lesser players and will never stop to explain what he is playing or why he played it at that moment in time. To his way of thinking, if he did take the time those other players might become his equal and that is definitely not what he wants. He wants to win.
You could say these are basic ego issues, and you’d be right. Insecurity plays in the equation too. If you boil those two problems down, how does a misguided player deal with the situation? By viewing everything he plays as a competition.
But here’s the kicker. Without exception, every truly great guitarist I’ve ever met, people like the jazz legend Pat Martino and blues guitar master Duke Robillard are the nicest, most modest and sincere people you’d ever want to meet. From everything I’ve seen online, my hero the British jazzer Martin Taylor is the same way. A good friend of mine who plays mandolin related a wonderful story to me recently about having a long and stimulating conversation with mandolin great David Grisman. All these players have entered the realm of knowing they are not competing with ANYONE. On the other hand, in my experience, the most insufferable guitarists I’ve met were ones who were pretty good, even excellent, but were obviously threatened by any other guitarist they may come into contact with. That threat did not exist but that didn’t stop them from acting like it did. After all these years of playing I can pretty much pick those guys out instantly and I avoid them whenever possible.
I’m not naïve enough to think anything is going to change in the world of competitive guitar playing. I just don’t choose to be part of that world. The only competition I allow myself is competition WITH myself, and even that gets tiresome after a while.
The player who allows himself to fail once in a while and doesn’t let it bother him too much has a much better chance at success than one who assumes a listener (whether that listener is a guitarist or not) takes some sort of pleasure or gets satisfaction in witnessing those small failures.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying I put very little stock in guitar competition in any way and on any level. To me anyway, it’s just not important. And really, it doesn’t prove very much.
Peace and good music,