Inbred Guitar Culture
Updated: Oct 23, 2018
Many guitarists only listen to other guitarists. Their record collections, whether vinyl, CDs, downloads or streaming services, are overwhelmingly guitar-centric.
Guitarists even have their own written notational language called, "Tab" - that's short for "Guitar Tablature" - that NO ONE else understands or uses. My opinion about the use of Guitar Tab will be the subject of a future blog, but I state my basic position here if you're interested. Spoiler: not a fan.
Guitarists frequent guitar websites and hang out at guitar stores with names like Guitar Center, Guitar Shop, Guitar World, Guitar Syndicate, Guitar Source, Guitar Dock ad infinitum.
BTW - I'm not against guitar websites and stores; I have 2 guitar-related websites. I teach at a local guitar store and I buy as much of my gear as I can at locally-owned music stores rather than online or at corporate-owned big-box stores.
Guitarists engage in endless debates about who is better, who plays with more feeling, who has more soul, who shreds the fastest, who is more creative, who is more original ad nauseam. One of my most responded-to blogs to date was The Decline of the Guitar God. I spent hours keeping up with and responding to multiple threads on multiple social media sites linked to it. The overwhelming majority of the comments were knee-jerk reactions defending the commenters favorite guitarist.
Guitarists are constantly self-judging by comparing themselves to each other (I suspect this is true of everyone - it's a common human foible).
How many guitar players does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Ten. One to screw it in and the other nine to stand around and say, "I could do that better!"
"...skill in work comes from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind" (Ecclesiastes 4:4).
It's a striving after wind because no matter how good you are there's always some unknown genius bagging groceries at Safeway who will kick your ass! The internet has made it worse. Now there's some 13-year-old kid in Hicksville posting videos of himself jamming to tracks in his bedroom - and he's kicking my ass!
Eric Clapton was once asked, "Who's the best guitar player in the world?" His answer? "Contests are for horses!"
If your motivation to play and improve is driven by comparison to others you're setting yourself up for chronic dissatisfaction and unhappiness because it's "vanity and a striving after wind."
Many years ago I was sitting at a bar with a friend of mine who shall remain nameless. He is one of the world's leading jazz guitarists. He's recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in jazz. We were listening to our town's latest 18-year-old wiz kid (who has since become world-renowned himself and shall also remain nameless) sit in with my friend's band, with my friend's guitar, and just slay everyone. My friend sat at the bar and pantomimed beating his left hand to a pulp with a beer bottle. Even guys at the highest levels are susceptible. Dude! Clapton was right; it's not a contest!
I've described in a previous blog I Trust Myself and Keep Playing how my priority flipped from how good I was to how much fun I was having. Constantly judging yourself in relation to how good you are is an exercise in futility. Your motivation has to be rooted in growing, having fun and expressing yourself - not how much better or worse you are than the next guy.
I would suggest that instead of deriving a negative self-judgement from a player that you perceive as better than you, use that player as a source of inspiration and motivation.
Of these manifestations of the inbred nature of the guitar subculture; the proliferation of guitar-exclusive stores, websites, magazines, record collections, comparisons between players, Tab and the tendency to listen to only other guitarists - I think the latter two, Tab and the tendency to listen to only guitar music, are actually harmful to the individual guitarist's potential to progress on the instrument.
The subject of Tab will be dealt with in another blog. In this blog I want to talk about the harm in listening exclusively to guitar music.
The tendency of guitarists to listen to only guitar music is a very limiting thing. I understand the appeal - the guitar is quite simply the sexiest instrument on the face of the earth! But allow me give you a couple of concrete examples of how my guitar playing has greatly benefited from getting into players of other instruments:
When guitarists comp ("comp" is musician's slang for "accompany") behind a soloist or a vocalist they tend to play blocky-sounding chords in a rhythmically boring way. Chunk-a chunk-a chunk-a chunk. There's not a lot of variety in chord voicings or rhythm.
Listen to piano players comp. When there's a 4-beat, 8-beat or in the case of a Blues, a 16-beat chord, do they just statically play the same chord 4, 8 or 16 times? No, they move internal voices around, they move triads around within the tonality of the chord, and they variate the rhythms of all that within the duration of the chord.
Additionally, especially when accompanying singers, they voice chords in a way that puts the melody in a prominent spot both voicing-wise and rhythmically. This is very supportive and helpful to the singer.
How many guitarists are even aware of these issues let alone actually have the knowledge and chops to do it?
I've spent a lot of time listening to what keyboard players play when comping. Also, I pay close attention to the keyboard players I work with - I'm constantly getting ideas from them.
I've especially benefitted from playing in Hammond Organ groups where the organist is also playing bass. Because he's playing keys AND bass it's much easier to to decode the way he's thinking about the music; reharmonizing the changes, adding chord substitutions, arranging devices and things like that.
As far as pianists, I've been especially influenced by Chick Corea, Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk.
Chick Corea's Light as a Feather was hugely influential. It was one of the main albums to which I listened for comping ideas - especially rhythmic ideas - and there's not a guitar in sight.
Same for Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard - or any Bill Evans. The duo records with Tony Bennet were significant to me as well as Bill's playing with Miles Davis in the Kind of Blue period. Again, no guitar anywhere. Bill Evans' two duo records with Jim Hall (one of my favorite guitarists) also directly informs my comping chops and ideas.
Thelonious Monk's left hand was idiosyncratic and sometimes jarring. Perfect for guitar! I could be wrong, but other than a live track or 2 of an after-hours jam session with Charlie Christian, I'm not aware of Monk ever recording with a guitarist.
All this is besides the fact that my main teacher, John Elliott, was not a guitar player, he was a jazz pianist who, as an educator, produced many world-class jazz guitarists, including the two unnamed guitarists I spoke of above, as well as Pat Metheny. He inculcated a unique and very pianistic approach in his guitar students. He is by far my biggest influence, and he was not a guitar player.
I had a conversation with Joe Satriani once. Joe studied with a blind jazz pianist in New York, Lennie Tristano. Not only did Lennie not play the guitar, he couldn't even see it! When I asked him about his lessons with Lennie Tristano, Satriani lit up and started talking! Since I was also taught by a jazz pianist we had a lot to talk about. So...be totally open about who can influence you. He (or she) might not be a guitarist.
Another way my playing has been influenced by non-guitarists is in my soloing. The non-guitarists who have influenced my soloing the most are sax players.
But before getting into saxophonists; learning the melodies and how they relate to the chord changes of the Great American Songbook standards will make you a better soloist - no matter what genre you play - and very few of those songs were written for or by guitarists. During the course of our conversation Satriani talked about learning those tunes in his lessons with Tristano.
Note: You might be under the impression from all the above that I am a "jazz guy." It's true that I love jazz. Jazz music informs everything I play BUT...only a minority of the gigs I play have anything to do with jazz. I've spent decades (from the 70s on) playing pop and classic rock; jazz gigs have been a small (but steady) percentage. About half the gigs I play today are solo acoustic guitar singer/songwriter-type gigs. Suffice to say I am no jazz snob. Joe Satriani illustrates that studying jazz (with Lennie Tristano no less!) doesn't mean one becomes a jazz musician. What it means is that Satriani has non-guitar influences and education that contribute to the way he plays rock music.
Back to the saxophone: Compare the sound of a wailing sax solo to a distorted rock guitar solo. They're very similar. Sax players were bending notes long before guitar players ever thought about bending strings. If you do the research you'll find that many of your favorite rock guitarists - especially from the fifties and sixties - were trying to sound like saxophonists when they soloed.
When I'm playing a screaming, distorted rock guitar solo, the saxophonist I have in mind is David Sanborn. His tone, phrasing and inflection is what I sometimes try to get my guitar to sound like.
Bebop gigs are few and far between for me. Occasionally a bop tune will come up on a gig, sometimes a jazz standard will be played in a bop style, but I don't perform enough straight ahead bop to retain many of the tunes.
But this I know, when I break out a Charlie Parker tune in the morning, loop the changes and start working on the head - I'm not talking about soloing; I'm just talking about learning the melody - my solos on the pop/R&B gig that night are better - more creative, both rhythmically and harmonically. There is no doubt that learning Charlie Parker tunes has made me a better guitarist!
Don't get me wrong; I'm a guitarist first and foremost, I LOVE the instrument and I've been significantly influenced by many guitarists of all styles and genres, but don't succumb to the inbred nature of the guitar subculture; it will cause you to miss out on influences that have the potential to radically change your playing for the better!
And remember - contests are for horses!
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