“With a wonderful command of the guitar you can say a great deal with just a little, because it means that two or three notes sound amazing when they are stated with passion and conviction. This is truly great playing.”
I am convinced one can become a great player with a limited knowledge of harmony, theory and technique. Now, before you jump down my throat and say “Why on earth would you recommend that?!” Well – I’m not recommending that you stop learning these invaluable aspects of music. I am saying that there is a great deal one can do with just a little. Of course, the more you know about music theory, the easier it will be to continue to learn and absorb information. The more you know about harmony, the easier it will be to understand new music and give you access to harmonic reinvention. The more you know about technique, the easier it will be to execute things you hear in your head. There is never a reason to stop learning these things. But there is so much that can be said with just a little. I will try to explain…
Once you have a basic knowledge of guitar playing it is important to live with your guitar, you know, develop a relationship with it. What I mean by this is that all the things you practice have a need to be absorbed into your playing. You need to have patience and know that things aren’t necessarily going to happen overnight. Some things kick in after a while and when you least expect them to.
I can remember a time at my classical music college in London. I was studying solo classical guitar and in my own spare time having a fascination with jazz. But I had some problems with right hand technique, and frankly I had a ton of jazz vocabulary to learn, not to mention sight-reading and everything else that was on my musical plate at the time. So I studied and studied and my friends at college rarely saw me as I stayed at home all week shedding. I was pretty obsessed. Eight hour days of focused practice ensued and I watched the results, which of course fueled me to practice even more.
But then I left music college and I was presented with the daunting task of making a living in my chosen profession, and so my practice hours gradually lessened. I even remember stopping scheduled practice completely for several months and I just played. And you know what?… this is when things really kicked in. My playing took on a huge leap. Why? because I stopped forcing things and let things naturally absorb…..or not. Some things didn’t get into my playing that I practiced (Some quite difficult Wynton Kelly licks I seem to remember!) but a great deal of what I practiced did get absorbed. The point is I let things breathe a while and things took on a natural course of their own. It was an incredible epiphany for me. That whole process of practicing and then just living. It seemed right.
And then I realized something equally interesting, to me at least. That whatever I played on the guitar had to really come from my fingers and not the guitar. Every note on the guitar, across the entire fretboard, had a completely different feel, sound and requirement. Not only did I have to learn how to play a musical piece but I had to learn that each individual note had its own set of technical and musical problems.
Let me try to explain this a little simpler. Play the note F on the top E string, first fret, and just sit on it and wait for the note to die away. Now play an F on the 2nd string at the 6th fret. Listen again for the note to die away. Do the same thing on the G string, then the D string and finally the A string, probably about as high as you can go. You will find that the top string F note sustains less than the B string and maybe more or less than the G string but probably more than the D string and for sure more than the A string. Now, take in to account that every guitar feels and sounds different and the results may be slightly different again.
Now, each note also requires that we sustain it for as long as our musical piece requires us to, or for as long as our ear tells us we want to at that split second, if we are improvising. Bare in mind that there are other technical issues like the top string and bottom string being close to the edge of the fretboard, each string is a different thickness and we have other things to accommodate.
And with all these things, what results is that every single note on the fretboard is unique and we need to build a subconscious relationship with every note over time. I say ‘subconsciously’ because it is not practical to theorize or be vocally academic while we are playing. It has to be inherent. And the only way to do that is to live and build a relationship with your guitar. In other words, get the music inside us.
Another way to explain this is is to talk about bending notes and position playing. Every player will feel and bend notes on the guitar in their favorite places. Over time we know that a note can be bent upwards on the G string and will sustain differently according to which key we are playing in. Some notes, according to Nigel Tufnell of Spinal Tap, will “ring on forever!” But some notes won’t. Other notes you might need to dig in a little harder to say what you need to say, others may respond more easily. But they are all subtly different. Some not so subtly.
This observation is immediately apparent when you hear a lesser experienced player who is starting to get some vocabulary and beginning to get around the fretboard. But there is something lacking. Usually it is that the player isn’t fully aware of each individual’s physical note requirements. It’s not just a technical thing – it’s a “feel” thing.
And I think this is what people really mean when they talk about having a great “feel”. A great player understands their instrument and has a grasp on how each note needs to be treated. And it’s all in the fingers. And I fully believe that one important thing you must do to improve this aspect of your playing is to just live with your instrument, get to know it – all the notes – everywhere on the fretboard. Have a relationship with your guitar. Play it. And of course listen to other great players that have already mastered it.
With a wonderful command of the guitar you can say a great deal with just a little, because it means that two or three notes sound amazing when they are stated with passion and conviction. This is truly great playing.
Practice and live. Command over your instrument takes time. But it’s the one thing I believe separates the good players from the truly great players.
Visit Chris Standring at ChrisStandring.com