Is to be able to express oneself through your playing.
Now, if you are a true master, then perhaps the ideal is to be able to play anything and everything you hear in your head.
Wow! Can you imagine the freedom you’d feel, if you actually had such a capacity? Most of us don’t even have command of spoken languages, to say exactly what we mean. To be able to play everything that you hear in your head — that’s such a range, such a command. The playing then becomes the ultimate form of communication. You can probably express a lot of things, even feelings that are hard to put into words. I can only imagine what it’s like to have that level of command. I wonder if Steve Vai can do it? One guitarist I can think of is Jeff Beck. His playing has such range of expressions — I wonder if he considers himself capable of playing everything he hears in his head.
Qualities That Lead to Expression
Now, when you set your sight on expression, you start to realize that there are several necessary ingredients on the way to mastery.
- Desire: to begin with, you have to have the desire to express, a will to communicate something. If you didn’t feel like expressing something, then obviously you can’t. And you can’t express what you don’t have. To express anger, you have to feel angry first. Doh.
- Openness: you have to then feel comfortable exposing yourself. And it can literally feel like you’re taking your clothes off, potentially embarrassing yourself. Some of us are more comfortable expressing more emotions, while others feel more comfortable keeping it inside. But if you keep it inside when playing, then your playing doesn’t say anything. A sense of humor, for example, is something I feel comfortable expressing. Anger, I have a hard time with. I am not someone who get visibly mad, but that’s not because I don’t get angry. I just don’t feel comfortable with it in social situations. I can put it into my playing, though.
- Confidence: confidence can lead to Openness, but I’m not sure if it’s the same thing. When you’re confident, you feel free to express yourself. If you’re insecure, then you worry more about not making mistakes. See? There’s a fundamental difference in what you’re trying to accomplish.
- Command: command of your instrument doesn’t necessarily equate with virtuosity or mastery. Some guitarists (Neil Young comes to mind) can express a lot, and rawness and mistakes are part of their expression. But for most of us, command is what builds confidence. The more familiar you are with your instrument, the more techniques we master, the more confident we feel. In the other words, though, if we’re practicing but not building confidence, you’re really not getting any closer to being able to express yourself.
Begin with an End in Mind
That line is straight out of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (a classic in personal development literature) but it applies here. When your goal is to express, then it means you begin with something to express.
I’d like to point out the difference between that goal and the line of thinking common among us guitarists, including myself. Perhaps because our range is still limited, or perhaps because we are so engrained in the traditional Do-What-We-Are-Told thinking that we’re taught in schools, but it’s so easy to go about our playing by picking the appropriate licks to play.
It’s like a mathematical equation. So we’re playing blues in A, and we’re coming up on a turnaround, so we pull out this turnaround lick in this position. Or we’re playing a metal riff in E, so we make up a passage by running down the E pentatonic scale. Perhaps we mix in flat 5th or flat 2nd, ‘coz we playin’ metal!! We’re so focused on the mechanics of playing, that the thought on the effect, or the impact of our choices doesn’t even cross our mind.
When you’re expressing yourself, this is the line of thinking: OK, this is a nice and intimate moment, so I want to convey this tenderness I feel. And then you bring out the appropriate notes, technique, timing, approach, tone, effects — basically everything you have in your arsenal — with the goal of putting out that tenderness you feel. Yes, licks and scales are part of the picture, but that’s not the end goal. You are choosing what to play because you have something to say with it.
Now, while that sounds like it’s a realm you reach only after you achieve significant command over your instrument, I beg to differ. After achieving some basic competence with your instrument (and for some, even that’s not a requirement) you can just begin to use what you have to express something.
It just requires a different line of thinking. More Cause-and-Effect. You Begin with the End in mind.
So let’s say you want to express anger, because you’re into metal guitar, but you don’t have enough experience/command to play fast. So you start thinking, how else can I make my instrument sound angry? Perhaps picking harder will do. But then you realize that when you have that ultra-distorted tone, picking strength doesn’t really come through. So you try backing off the distortion. Wow! All the sudden the note attacks have more kerrang! to it. You sound angry. And you deliberately ignore the scale and play notes off the scale, which sound dissonant and downright ugly. You sound angrier. You analyze your riff and your notes and make a mental note — play that note over this scale = angry. By now, you are fully in touch with your pent-up anger, you really feel it. You grimace and hit your guitar with wild abandon, and in a moment of freakish inspiration, grab your tremolo bar and go crazy with it. Now not only do you sound outraged, but you look f-ing mad, too. Do that on stage, and people will get what you’re trying to convey — your angst, your discontent, your rage.
Then the music takes a turn to the left and gets all quiet and tender the next section. The grimace goes away, distortion is turned off, choose a neck pickup, and you delicately brush your strings with your fingertip, near the fretboard as opposed to the bridge, producing this warm, mellow tone. What you’re expressing is intimacy. All the girls in the crowd will get teary eyed and are overcome with desires to come hug you, kiss you, and hold your head in their arms, over their chests. 😉
Joking aside, if you can pull the above off, then you’re displaying a significant range of expression. And that range defines your maturity as an artist. That’s how you begin to make music that means something to other people. If you’re just playing licks, it’s like practicing — so you can play accurately, so what. Playing right notes at right times can be so boring.
When you set your sight on Expression and have Desire, Openness, Confidence and Command — then you can begin to express something at most, if not all, stages of development as a player. Of course, you seek greater command as a player because that’ll give you even greater range, more things you can say.
When you begin with this end in mind, then you go about practicing a little differently. You go, so this music calls for something intense. What have I got in my arsenal for “intense?” Wide vibrato sounds intense, but I can’t really do it on thicker, low strings, but this music calls for low notes because it sounds heavy. So I’m gonna work on a wide vibrato on low notes. You woodshed on that for a month, and you gain more Command of that technique, which leads to Confidence, which leads to Openness. It all began with a Desire to express intensity.
Saying Something You Want vs. You Should vs. You Can
You’d think that in a pursuit such as guitar playing, which is something we do because we want to, that we always start and end with what we want. But I find that it’s still easy to fall into practicing things because we think we should. A good blues guitarist should be able to play this or that lick. A good jazz guitarist should be able to play over these changes. And while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a well-rounded player, you have a different kind of motivation when you’re driven by things we want to say. Ultimately, we all start playing because it’s fun and we all listen to music that means something to us, and we want to play something that means something, both to ourselves and to others. And often, the music that means something are so because it gives us a certain feeling. So it makes sense to start with the goal of conveying that feeling in our playing, then acquire tools to convey them, be it a technique or gear.
And there is something to say about saying what we can, wherever we are in the development as a player. Learning to play music is like learning a new language. So you only know how to say one sentence: “I sit on a chair.” That’s really not what you want to say, but that’s what you get to work with. So you experiment with the tone of your voice or your pronunciation or your emphasis. “I SIT on a chair” coveys something else than “I sit on a CHAIR.” Scream it at the top of your lungs, and people may get that the literal meaning of the words have nothing to do with the feelings you are trying to convey. 😉
So I try to keep that in mind as I’m playing. Acquiring techniques is all fine and dandy, but it’s a moot point unless I learn how to use it to say something. And whatever it is that I do have, no matter how limited it may seem, I can always say something with them. What’s important is that we recognize what we want to say, and what, if any, of what we have at our disposal will say it, so we can begin to deploy them at the right moments.
I really believe that this is what turns a player into an artist.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly want to be the latter.