Looking at the big picture for the moment (will get to specifics shortly) I am convinced that the single biggest mistake we ALL make is focusing totally on one style or type of guitar playing to the exclusion of others. I’m often asked by my students and others – how long have you been playing? Well, the answer is often “longer than you’ve been on this planet!” but I quickly add that this doesn’t really mean a damn thing. This is because many of those years, and maybe decades, were lost time. For one reason or another I rejected lots of types of music, styles and players because I didn’t consider what they were doing “good” music. I’ve written about that in this space before but it bears repeating.
You can learn something from just about any type of music, things that will surely make your playing better. Now understand – I’m not saying you have to LIKE all kinds of music. Lord knows, I’d rather have a root canal procedure than listen to hip-hop but it reminds me of the importance of rhythm. Discounting for a moment the often inane, sing-song, occasionally misogynist and violent lyrics, I’m reminded that when you come right down to it, the average listener finds an incessant, steady beat just about irresistible.
Put another way, as I often tell my students who are struggling with particular chords, play right through them. They will get better with practice. Your average listener has no idea what full barre F-Major is supposed to sound like but almost everyone can tap their foot! Don’t draw attention to your mistakes by breaking the beat.
Specifically, here are a few things about my playing that I wish I had changed long ago:
Focusing on melody while improvising. When I began learning to improvise the idea was to be immediately creative and come up with things that had nothing to do with the melody. In my defense, I began with blues and scale-wise improvising and melodies are often not very strong in blues. But that’s really no excuse. Jazz guys know this. In traditional jazz, soloists usually begin and end a solo with the “head,” which is the melody of a tune, in whole or in part. The great ones go off on amazing tangents but you never really forget the melody. If I had understood this thirty years ago I would be ten times the player I am today. No kidding. But I am trying to make up for lost time these days and learn melodies before I move on to more complex improvising in a given tune.
Keeping a steady beat. I think I’m pretty solid in this department now but there is always room for improvement. Tony mentioned using a metronome when practicing. Annoying and downright frustrating at times, yes, but I don’t know a better way for a single player to become rock-solid in this essential skill. Wish I used one years ago. I do now but still not as often as I should.
Controlling dynamics, especially when playing with others. This is a huge subject. Making my playing respond to what others are doing without overwhelming them is always a challenge and in spite of my best efforts I still play too loudly at times. We all get wrapped up in the moment when we play, and we should because it feels so good! The trick is channeling that energy and still being spontaneous. The worst and most amateurish abuse of dynamics is to play loudly to get the attention of an audience. I don’t think I ever did that but maybe I’m just ignoring that memory! In any case, understanding the importance of dynamics is something I should have thought about a long time ago.
And lastly, patience. Patience with players who were perhaps not quite as advanced as I was. I think at some point all players are guilty of this. I’m still working on this but I’d like to think I’ve mellowed out quite a bit in my advancing years. There was a time when I had no interest in playing with anyone who wasn’t at least on my level and without a doubt, I missed some great musical opportunities along the way. What turned me around on this was finding myself in situations where it became obvious that my own playing was dragging another player down and how bad it made me feel when I felt their disdain. This was a harsh lesson and in a few cases the sting is still fresh, even after many years.
I guess the point to all this is that as long as we all recognize and accept our musical shortcomings there is hope. Acceptance doesn’t mean we can’t change them, however!
Peace & good music,