Over the years I’ve had a few students who could rip through pyrotechnic licks at will and they did at the drop of a hat. And if you want to see this tendency on full display, go down to your local Guitar Center any Saturday afternoon where the younger guitar heroes are trying out the latest Strat or Les Paul. Impressive? You bet! It takes a lot of effort and many hours of practice to play like that. I guess my question would be…. Why?
OK, I know the answer because a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I too wanted to be the fastest guitar player on the planet (or at least in my town!). That didn’t happen or course but look, when you reach the point that you have reasonable overall command of your guitar it’s natural to want to spice things up a bit. For a young guitarist – male, in most cases; girls and women know better than to fall into this trap – it’s all about what that young player is most impressed by, and that is often SPEED.
Is it wrong to go down that road? No, of course not. Except that the need-for-speed is often driven more by ego issues than truly wanting to be a better player. I think the real question should be: just who are you trying to impress? Your friends? Cool, they are your friends and if they are impressed with flashy solos they will tell you because, well, they’re your friends! Other guitar players? Hoo boy, that’s where is gets complicated and ego becomes the dominant force at work. In my experience it is rare to find another guitarist who will truly and sincerely react in a positive way to showy, flashy playing by someone they consider their contemporary. More often, they are thinking along the lines of, “I can play that better!” or “Is he doing that to make me feel worse about my own playing?”
An audience? Sorry to say, roughly 95% of most audiences on the local level, when listening to a player who is NOT famous, couldn’t give a rat’s @ss how fast or flashy you can play. And the 5% who do care will most likely be comparing your playing to someone who IS famous. But if you can sing well, they are yours. Hard, cold fact there, aspiring guitar heroes. Sorry.
So does speed and flash have any value at all? In the right hands it certainly does. What you will notice with those who do employ speed to their advantage is that they frame those fancy licks with stuff that is not flashy but RIGHT. This is done by using phrasing, rhythmic variation, being melodic and a host of other things that only come with experience. Most importantly, let the music breathe. Don’t try to fill every moment of time with sound. That will draw in the listener and when you finally do whip out that fancy riff, I guarantee it will sound all the more impressive. Listen to great players in blues, jazz and country and you will notice this right away.
“Don’t play it if you can’t sing it!” I love that credo, which has been used for a very long time by teachers introducing soloing to their students, especially in jazz and classical music. That mind-set has value for rockers too. Listen to the solo by Larry Carlton on the classic Steely Dan tune, “Bodhisattva.” It builds from a fairly simple theme and when Carlton does let loose it takes your breath away. If he had started out with the extended 32nd note part of the solo, would it have been as impressive or would the interest wane quickly? I’ll let you be the judge.
Peace & good music,