The audience was way more interested in something else entirely – the vocals. Over the many years I’ve taught, the overwhelming majority of guitar students approach the guitar with a fairly simple goal. They want to strum or finger-pick songs to accompany their own singing or the singing of others. That’s not to say the level of their playing doesn’t need to stand on its own; there are hundreds of what are essentially back-up guitar parts that are enjoyable on their own. A song like the Beatles “Blackbird” is a good example.
And in the end (oops, an inadvertent Beatles lyric quote!)… It still comes back to the vocals. For most people anyway. If you have any doubt, listen to this. See what I mean? Is there any doubt about what is the most important part of the mix? So how should a guitarist deal with this reality?
Assuming a player has conquered the basics of keeping a steady beat and chord changes without hesitation, other, more subtle elements should enter the equation. First and foremost is something I discussed recently in this space: dynamics. Any backing instrument, whether it be guitar, keyboard or even single pitch instruments should never compete with the vocals. I’ve seen plenty of semi-pro players who just don’t get this. It seems that they are in some kind of competition with the singer, trying to draw the attention of listeners away from the vocals to their awesome guitar playing. What they don’t realize is just how annoying this is for the average listener. When it comes time for an instrumental solo, that is the time to crank it up – but just a bit, and lay back when the vocals resume. A good sound person really helps with this. If an instrument is only mic’ed, knowing how to approach and pull away at the right times is essential.
Even if you have no intentions of ever playing in public, melding an unobtrusive but solid guitar part with vocals is gratifying. The best part may be that it doesn’t have to be fancy guitar licks or complex changes. Listen to what songwriters like John Prine or even Jimmy Buffett do with only three or four chords, sincere and committed (if not necessarily opera quality) vocals and catchy lyrics.
You may not consider yourself a singer. That’s just fine. Close the bedroom door and sing away anyway. This forces you to depend on your guitar playing in ways that really matter. Have fun and don’t be too rough on yourself. That’s the difference between just playing and making music.
Peace & good music,