Live the Blues to Play the Blues?
Updated: Oct 14, 2018
I had a good friend (now deceased) who was a wonderful Blues guitarist. He had a clean, pure tone and a wicked vibrato - every bit as good as B.B. King's. He was about 10 years older than me and gave me lots of good advice about how to navigate the traps and pitfalls that abound on every side of the music business.
Much of his wisdom was due to the mistakes and poor decisions of his earlier years. The Mark Twain adage applies: "Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement."
Mark Twain notwithstanding, I have tried to teach my kids that life is easier when you learn from other people's mistakes.
We knew each other well enough that we could be brutally honest with one another. He was instrumental in steering a younger me away from a bad decision that would have resulted in years - possibly a lifetime - of heartache and regret. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time and said the brutally right thing. I am forever grateful to him for that; the whole conversation took about 30 seconds.
Anyway, as my friend got older, he became very interested in Jazz. He studied very hard, practiced a lot and even started playing some jazz gigs with jazz guys. However, his jazz playing never achieved the same level of authenticity and authority that he exhibited when he played the Blues - and he knew it. It was a very frustrating thing for him. We spent many hours discussing the issues and comparing notes.
One night I dropped into a club to listen to him play. I loved the purity of his Blues playing. He invited me to sit in and offered his guitar. I played a couple of jazz standards and then sat down at a table with him. I think he may of been slightly inebriated and crying in his beer a little bit.
"Man!" he said. "I want to play Jazz so bad! I wish I could play Jazz like you. But you know, when you were in your parent's basement practicing your George Benson licks, I was in Vietnam killing people and that's why I can play the Blues!"
I said, "That's the biggest crock-a-shit I ever heard! You don't have to live the Blues to play the Blues! All you gotta do is love the Blues! You play the Blues better than me because you love the Blues more than me. You were playing kick-ass Blues before you ever went to Vietnam."
In 1997 or '98 a student brought in Johnny Lang's Lie to Me. "Holy crap!" I thought. "Where has this guy been? I've never heard of him."
He had a voice that sounded like decades of whiskey and cigarettes. His guitar playing was authentic and authoritative in a rip-yer-face-off Blues/Rock style - similar to Stevie Ray Vaughn.
I experienced quite the cognitive dissonance when I learned he was a 15-year-old white kid from Fargo, North Dakota. As his Wikipedia entry says, "...shockingly young..." That fact was completely incongruent with the picture generated in my mind when I first heard him. There were no decades of whiskey and cigarettes, no shooting up in the alley, no divorces, no killing people in Vietnam. And yet, he could play the Blues - authentically.
So obviously, you don't have to live the Blues to play the Blues - at least not the whiskey-cigarettes-heroin-addicted-divorced-killing-people-in-Vietnam kind of living the Blues. Sure, everyone gets the blues, but that's not what my friend's statement implied. He was implying that there is an unusual, extreme level of living the Blues that is necessary in order to authentically play the Blues.
Everyone knows that the Blues - and music in general - is all about the feeling. The lesson I learned about playing with feeling I wrote about extensively in When Your Face Does Stuff It Just Sounds Better.
The short version is; The feeling in music is supplied by the listener, not the performer. The performer uses many integrated techniques (inflection in the music, facial expressions, body language, clothes, attitude, etc) that trigger an emotional response in the listener who then projects that emotion back on the performer. Thus the listener's perception is that the performer is "playing with feeling," when in fact, it is the listener's own feeling that is being perceived. The performer may or may not be playing with feeling (all good performers are good actors) but there's no way for you, the listener, to know that - you only know what you feel.
Many people (including musicians) resist this idea because they think it takes the mystique out of the music. It denies the common myth that the performer is somehow imparting or channeling his feeling to the listener. Believe me when I say that there is plenty of mystique left in the music even if all this is true - that would be a subject for another blog.
The ability to play the guitar in any style - even a style as simple as the Blues - at a reasonably high level of proficiency requires dedication, persistence, practice and repetition. I call it Grunt-Work. In order to get the result you have to do the work - and you can't do the work that's required if you don't love it.
Check out this clip of 16-year-old Johnny Lang:
Sure looks like he's playing with feeling, doesn't it? That feeling you feel? That's yours, not his. If he was feeling it, it was in 1998. His feeling that night is long gone. A video doesn't have feelings; neither does a recording. Feelings don't get recorded, sound gets recorded. The sound and the visuals are triggering an emotional response in you. It's your feeling.
He is proficient as a guitarist and singer...and as a performer. In other words, he's done the work - which means he loves it. And he knows how to sell it. Living the Blues is not part of the equation. Loving the Blues is what's necessary.
What I'm talking about here applies to any genre, not just the Blues.
Back in the '70's when I was studying classical guitar at Kansas City's conservatory of music, my teacher, Douglas Niedt, told me, "You have the ability to be a concert-level classical guitarist. All you have to do is practice 8 hours a day for 10 years." It was meant as a compliment and an encouragement. He was serious; that's what he did. That's what it takes. I was gratified and honored to hear it from a guitarist such as him.
But I knew I didn't love the classical guitar enough to do that. I have put that kind of time in on the guitar, but not the classical guitar.
Doug also told me, "If you're going to be a real classical guitarist you have to have a European attitude." He was talking about posture, the way you sit, the way you hold your guitar, the way you breathe, the way you pose - your general attitude. That's selling it.
You don't have to be European to be a classical guitarist. You have to have the love for it in order to do the work so that you can play it, and then sell it with the appropriate European attitude.
You don't have to live the Blues to play the Blues. You have to love the Blues in order to do the work so you can play, and then sell it with attitude - like Johnny Lang, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B King or my blues guitarist friend.
As he aged, my friend continued to work on his jazz playing, but I think he eventually returned to his first love - playing pure, unadulterated Blues music with his clean tone, impeccable phrasing and wicked vibrato.
He was a better Blues player than me, not because his life was more difficult or tragic than mine, but because he loved the Blues more than me.
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