Last weekend I accompanied my wife on an acoustic guitar while she thumbed through a few children’s songbook, singing to my tired-and-needed-to-wind-down children. And this little family event reminded me of the importance of doing the simple things well.
Finding the Challenge in Simple Things
From a guitar player’s point of view, it can seem rather boring — songs after songs with simple I-IV-V chord progressions. I’d sometimes try to get creative with how I play my part, but usually I stuck to the basics. Maybe because I’m not so skilled, but attempts to add colorful notes, walking bass lines or little fill-ins came across to me as distracting. When you’re the sole accompaniment to a singer, you just get out of the way. Don’t draw attention to yourself by trying to pull off something fancy. Be rock solid on rhythm, stick to the basic and predictable chords, just be an invisible background.
Saying it that way makes the ordeal seem even more restrictive and uninteresting, but in order to serve the greater needs — providing what the song needs — a guitarist should learn to find worthy challenges in doing the simple things well.
Pros Demand Simplicity
Once I had a chance to sit and talk to an established record producer/engineer, and he told me of how many guitar players tend to overplay. They are trying to be impressive or satisfy their own muse and not paying as much attention to what the song needs. Another time, I was working as a translator to a Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi’s managers and backing band. They are not a household name in US but in Japan they were huge at one point, so these were some of the highest-paid rock musicians in the industry. Knowing how hard Japanese people practice, I was expecting them all to be wiz on their instruments — but throughout the rehearsals and sound checks I witnessed, I never once saw any of them play some flashy, complicated parts. The music was retro-tinged pop rock and they all just did basic things. I came away from the experience thinking: I can do that.
But if this weekend was any indication, I really can’t do it. First of all, my fingers quickly got raw because I don’t practice enough on acoustics, and you can’t produce good, well-defined tone with soft fingertips. Secondly, my poor attempts to “spice up” my accompaniments always sounded distracting to my own ears. And I missed some of the chord changes over and over, often because they were slight twists to what was expected. Some folk songs employ simple chords yet the changes come at unexpected times. My brain shouldn’t have checked out, thinking it was an easy song.
In his books and forum posts, Berklee College of Music professor Tomo Fujita emphasizes the need to keep things simple, and not make mistakes. Slow down and contain your playing to the minimal notes required, and instead focus on playing them well — with good tone and timing and appropriate articulation. You see, it’s one thing if you’re playing the guitar just to satisfy your personal fetish — but out in the real world, someone who can do many simple things perfectly is the most useful one. Simple arpeggios, simple chords, simple rhythm, simple leads. All executed without a fuss.
Improving on Simplicity
In my experience, the ability to do the simple things well is best cultivated where they are needed: real-world situations. As I’ve said previously, I think an ideal practice should be split into exercising and performing, and it’s the latter that focuses on simple executions.
Strumming is one of my strengths and it was developed by night after night of accompanying camp fire songs in a Bible camp where I worked at during summers as a teenager. An in-demand keyboard player I knew in Austin, Texas, told me of how he got his start in Nashville, being in a house band of a club six nights a week, having to play everything that was thrown at him. Having to perform forces you to do simple things over and over, because that’s what is needed in 90% of situations.
If you are not in a place where you can perform regularly, the next best thing is to record regularly. It’s because when you’re recording, you have to contain your mistakes to minimum — and if you thought you played well, a recording can quickly reveal otherwise. Unstable rhythm, errant finger noises, unsustained notes — those kinds of mistakes aren’t very obvious when you’re just practicing, but in recordings they reveal themselves as obvious flaws. It forces you to keep things simple so you can instead focus on playing each note perfectly.
Among guitarists, it’s easy to focus on flashy and technical playing. It’s not inherently wrong, but in real-world situations, it’s infinitely more practical to focus on doing the simple things well. When you realize this, you’ll start seeing that developing that ability still takes loads of practice, though perhaps in a different way than acquiring advanced technique. If your goal is to make yourself a useful musician, I highly recommend that you acquire the skill of doing the simple things well.