This is Part 2 in a series on Guitar and Creativity. Read Part 1 here.
What is You? As people, we tend to form our own identities and the emptiness in our lives with various things: gender, religion, race, job, education, money in the bank, clothing worn, sports, height, body, physical appearance, favorite music, favorite movies, etc. and even sometimes something as stupid as number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
A wise man once told me that as guitar players, we have the amazing but often neglected opportunity to tap into our truest forms. What he said was that beneath all the superficial nonsense, there is an identity deep inside each and every one of us that is one of a kind and unique to ourselves. The way that identity is forged is from some combination of life’s experiences and subconscious thoughts, and cannot be adequately described with any conventional method. Call it a soul if you will, but it is the duty of any guitar player (or artist, really) to somehow access this special voice and transmute it into art.
Of course, the task is easier said than done. An instrument with virtually limitless possibilities and room for exploration makes for a challenging palette and canvas. Before breaking the rules, one needs to learn what the rules are first, which requires discipline and dedication.
Getting to the Jump. How does one transform this energy and make that Evil Knievel jump over the chasm of cars and into the world of the truly creative? It goes without saying that at a minimum, some sort of requisite level of fluency in the desired idiom is necessary. To reach the chasm, an dizzying selection of materials are available online and in book form, with tabs typically being the most popular form of education—and there certainly is nothing wrong with learning songs and solos that emotively move you. From there, theory is commonly the next step, if one should choose to take a next step in the first place, which is a hefty assumption. The merits of theory are certainly debatable: on the one hand, Hendrix, Van Halen, Montgomery, Clapton and countless others became immortal while knowing no theory, but on the other hand, there comes a certain point after playing for a while where not knowing how the instrument works can feel a bit embarrassing. All in all, is it interesting and does it somewhat inform your playing? Yes. Is it a necessity? No.
The important point is that neither licks nor theory will get you past the chasm and into the realm of creative imagination. The more you listen to a guitar player or band, and certainly the more you learn a guitar players licks, the more you will end up sounding like him/her. Add a few more influences into the mix and you become a juggler. Likewise, the commendable step toward theory taken improperly will just sound scale-y and ludicrous. In order to make it sound less so, guitar players resort to licks they’ve heard, which ends up somewhat negating the forward progress. At this point, guitar players either fall into a rut or plateau, or seek learning through a guitar teacher.
Most Guitar Teachers Turn Students into Clones. There definitely is nothing wrong with getting a guitar teacher. Teachers can accelerate your learning curve and point out mistakes that you’re making that could potentially turn into bad habits or take years to notice. For this reason, teachers are probably the fastest way to reach the chasm. I’ve seen teenagers in Guitar Center or Sam Ash who had been taking lessons for only a few years just obliterating the fretboard. These kids probably end up being legendary among their friends, but fast forward years later and if they haven’t quit the instrument out of boredom, they’re either still copying the same rock licks as everyone else, or they’ve gotten tired of trying to play faster than anyone and have resorted to copying the same jazz licks as everyone playing jazz. Jazz is a musical world of incredible depth and complexity, but stroll into a bar in the Village and you’ll hear an array of guitar players who are masters and elite talents no doubt, but are still playing post-bop jazz in the same vein as Joe Pass, Grant Green, George Benson, etc. maybe with slight personalized twists.
Most guitar teachers do little to ameliorate this sadly static state of guitar. In one scenario, a student will come to the teacher with a list of favorite guitar players, songs and solos, and ask for some sort of unlocking of their secrets. In a second, more advanced scenario, a teacher will pretty much show the student how to sound like him by sharing his own licks and approaches to the fretboard both theory and technique-wise. The result with either is a student who ends up as a clone in one way or another.
The Best Teachers are Those Who Encourage You to Sound Like You and No One Else. Conversations I’ve had with teachers of this special type have been reality-altering and earth-shattering, both guitar-wise and personally (aren’t the two one and the same, anyway?). They become mentors in a way, guiding you in a spiritual journey toward finding your own voice by giving you a framework of thought for guitar playing while still kicking your butt if you sound like you’re becoming a robotic clone. My opinion is that this type of teacher is the only one worth learning from, after a certain point.
The Fusion Way. I’d like to give two examples of how people make the leap into originality and innovation. The first is the master juggler. The very best jugglers of licks and styles transcend mimicry by creating a magic of their own. This trait is typified by elite fusion players who blend pentatonic rock licks with inside/outside jazz-ish playing and blazing chops. Somehow these players are able to add a unique twist of their own in the way they weave up and down the fretboard that makes them special and different than the rest. However, these types are less uncommon. My favorite player of this type in New York is Mike Stern, whose infectious energy and zest for life oozes out of his guitar. In the global guitar scene, IMO UK-based Guthrie Govan is clearly at the top of this category, with his unparalleled combination of chops and fluidity. He embodies the spirit of the sponge who soaks up every single juicy tidbit of every musical genius of the past century, then releases it all in an epic concoction of brilliance.
The Experiment Way. Another way is to forge a new sound by taking an informed walk through the world of theory and doing it in a way that is imaginative and energetic. While I never attended the Berklee School of Music, the academic approach to guitar playing has always seemed to me very formula-based. This approach usually entails lots of jazz theory and the understanding of modes, intervals, harmony and rhythm inside and out. The Berklee approach can sound very dry and overly cerebral at times, but when done right and combined with a sufficient dose of magic and spirit, shatters walls and breaks new ground. During my years spent in New York City, the champion of this approach in my mind was Wayne Krantz, a Berklee grad from Corvallis, Oregon. He literally sounds like nobody and talks about not listening to any other music for fear of inadvertently absorbing other players’ styles and sounding like them. While Meshuggah hails from Stockholm, Sweden and not Berklee, they seem to be at the forefront of academic rhythmic complexity in rock, with massive superimposition and polyrhythm in a way that has by now amassed a huge legion of followers worldwide.
“What If I Want to Stay in a Specific Genre?” There is nothing wrong with being a blues, country, jazz, folk, fingerstyle, or singer-songwriter guitarist. Certainly with any of these, an abundance of passion and commitment is necessary. However, it is of note that these genres are rooted in musical and cultural history, and have already largely been pre-defined. If you end up trying to forge your own sound while pledging allegiance to an idiom, you usually end up with just a personal twist (e.g. blues with a twist, country with a twist, singer-songwriter with a twist). The goal should be to make that twist as personalized and awesome as possible, because doing so is the only way that audiences will detect a fresh new creative talent to gush over.
10 Ideas to Make the Leap to Creative Imagination Off the Top of my Head in Roughly Increasing Complexity.
- Use a Metronome and Always Record Yourself Screwing Around – When you hear yourself play, you’ll notice all sorts of horrible mistakes. You’ll also hear stuff you really like, and if you’re listening to yourself doodling in a wacky way and you catch something that sounds weird or different but cool, you know you’re onto something.
- Chordal Voicings – By taking CAGED or other constructs and combining it with knowledge of theory, you can construct your own chord voicings that could floor people with their fresh sound. For example, John Mayer used his Berklee education to come up with hip acoustic chords in Room for Squares that ended up making millions of girls scream. A good place to start is suspension, seventh chords (major, minor, dominant), and diminished/augmented.
- 3 Note per string – I typically think of positions in 2 ways: CAGED and 3-note per string, CAGED having more potential for sounding different but 3 note per string definitely more optimized for blazing fast lick playing (e.g. repeating a pattern upward or downward). If your goal is to generate cool shred licks, a good place to start for 3 note per string would be the Guitar Grimoire book and John Petrucci’s Rock Discipline DVD. However, it definitely has an obvious sound and has been done ad infinitum, so beware and try to do something cool with it.
- CAGED – A typical answer to freshening yourself out of a rut and creating a new sound is to jump into a different position. The reason for this is that the vast majority of rock’s lexicon is in the “G form” of the pentatonic scale, and working through the four other positions is going to screw up your muscle memory and mental circuitry of how to play, forcing you to think differently. For CAGED my favorite book is Fretboard Logic by Bill Edwards.
- Different Tunings – Different tunings can be a mind-blowing paradigm shift for anyone like me who has always been stuck in EADGBE or Drop-D in some way or another 100% of the time. Open tunings like open D or open G are really fun ways to create a sound different than most of the other material out there that’s created in standard tuning.
- Learning Licks and Progressions in Other Idioms – The end goal of learning licks in other genres isn’t to copy the licks, but to try to unconsciously inherit some of the melodic and rhythmic quirks and tendencies in those genres and possibly toss them into your playing. The end goal is to be a well-informed player, comfortable in all idioms but not subscribing or bowing to any single one.
- Playing Horizontally Instead of Vertically – Due to the way the fretboard is constructed, the vast majority of guitar playing is done vertically in a position with a width of four or five frets. This conveniently keeps your hand where it is, changing strings instead of moving the hand left or right. However, there is something incredibly stifling mentally about this way of playing. In contrast, a piano player is able to see every note at his disposal in a sequential array from left to right, and can visualize lines and melodies much more easily. Guitar players can benefit from this more natural visual construct by moving up and down single strings. A good way to work on this is to pick one or two strings and just doodle lines up and down the fretboard. It’s very awkward and counter-intuitive at first, but increases your flexibility two-fold, while also making your playing more vocally focused.
- Modes – It’s very easy for someone to say, “Just learn modes, man”. As a better answer hopefully, I like to think of modes as different flavors at your disposal. By learning what the important intervals in modes are, one can accentuate the varying flavors of each mode at any moment in time, whether it be the #4 in Lydian or b2 in Phrygian. Outside of Ionian (natural major), Aeolian (natural minor), and Dorian (common in rock and jazz), the other modes are more or less exotic and give you an opportunity to sound a little bit different. Once you’ve gotten those under your fingertips, the modes of melodic minor and harmonic minor add even more colors to your palette. (It’d be incredibly cool to be able to call one of these modes famously your own.) For more on this, The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrich blew me away (still I haven’t digested 10% of the wisdom in this book).
- Formula playing – As an extension of modes, formula playing gives you access to sonic energies that are not predefined by typical western conventions. For example, all modes have a formula (e.g. Dorian is 12b3456b7). You can create your own formulas (e.g. “let’s give 1b34b5b7 a shot”) and then use your knowledge of intervals and the names on the fretboard. By not borrowing from any conventional mode or idiom, your sonic possibilities are literally endless. This is the universe where Wayne Krantz resides, and for this, he has a really cool book called An Improviser’s OS.
- Think About and Figure Out Who “You” Are – More difficult than all of the others combined, one has to work toward achieving the bridge between his or her unique internal voice and its outward sonic manifestation. By letting go of any burdensome thoughts or inhibitions weighing you down, certain sounds will resonate with you and your life experiences. Releasing this manifestation of who you are out into the public and having it well received is probably more fulfilling than having all of the money in the world, and in the end, fulfillment is what we desire as guitar players.
Traveling, Too. For me, traveling has done a great deal for my sound. Immediately upon landing in Europe, the notes and chords I reached for on my guitar were suddenly insanely different. I don’t know why but I feel that it’s opened up my playing by lowering my musical inhibitions and self-conceptions of what I should sound like, which I think suffered from the same level of copycat syndrome that most of us try to overcome.
The Story of Boltzmann. If you think back to your old high school or college Physics class, you may remember something called the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. The Boltzmann part of the Stefan-Boltzmann comes from a dude named Ludwig Boltzmann, an Austrian physicist from the 1800s. The story goes that when he presented his soon-to-be legendary findings to the scientific community, he was laughed off of the floor for their utter stupidity and impossibly flawed plausibility. Needless to say, he was dejected, and sadly, he ended up hanging himself as a result. Years later, his findings were proven to be correct. Clearly, it pays to be persistent.
The guitar community can be a tough place, and so can the public appetite for music. While people wouldn’t laugh you off of a stage by throwing vegetables, the general feeling of no one giving a damn and lack of any degree of commercial success can be crippling. Guitar players are stereotypically and notoriously emotional creatures, and understandably so—our brains and hearts are hypersensitive to the vibration of sound.
A few years back, I saw Steven Wilson give a talk at the IFC Theater on W 4th in New York for the screening of his documentary on the sad state of music since the invention of the iPod. One of the things he said really stuck with me when he said something to the effect of, “When you write up a resume and get rejected to a job, that’s not really you getting rejected. But when you write music, you’re creating a true representation of who you are, making rejection very painful.”
The point is that guitar players should never give up but also know that it is incredibly unhealthy to focus solely on music without developing other parts of life. Not only will you suffer financially (unless you’re a trust fund baby), but music is psychologically demanding in a way that non-musicians will never come to realize, and not applying your mind to anything else is potentially very destructive.
The Survival of the Guitar Depends on It. The guitar may be at a crossroads at the present moment in time. Hip-hop and electro dominate the airwaves and guitar is becoming less and less prevalent. Although there are plenty of new awesome guitar talents (new players like Misha Mansoor/Bulb and Andy McKee come to mind), the world needs more creative imagination and fresh playing. No one wants to hear the same old licks. In order for the guitar to live on, every new generation of guitar players needs to spawn new sounds, new licks, new riffs, and fresh flavors in every genre. Now make some awesome music, and thank you for doing so.
Next, Part 3: Charting Innovation vs. Accessibliity