Updated: Mar 4, 2019
Clothes? Yeah, clothes. Since people have been programmed to listen with their eyes, how you literally dress makes a difference in what they think they hear.
But what I really want to talk about is clothes-as-metaphor. Metaphor for what? As a metaphor for versatility.
One of the aspects of my current personal brand is paisley, or paisley-like, shirts. This is not random. Why paisley? Well, I could get into all kinds blither-blather about the historical, philosophical and symbolic aspects of the design itself (it's Persian in origin and a Zoroastrian symbol for fertility and eternal life), as well as my personal history and how it sets off tiny little time-pills in my right brain, but one main reason is it's versatility.
Sometimes I'm made fun of because of my paisley shirts. I get it. I don't mind, because I know why I'm doing what I do. And yeah, I also know I'm a pencil-neck geek. But I'm a pencil-neck geek musician! And just FYI - the world is full of pencil-neck geek musicians mated with supermodels. Especially paisley-wearing pencil neck geek musicians. Think about it.
Paisley goes with everything. I can wear a paisley shirt with faded, torn-up jeans and dingo boots on a Classic-Rock gig and it is an appropriate look. I can wear a paisley shirt with black suit and tie in a jazz club or a high-class dance band for a private corporate gig and it works. I even have a black-on-black paisley vest I can wear with a tux for formal gigs. Paisley is versatile - but it's still, and always is, paisley.
I have a reputation for being musically versatile. I play Jazz gigs, Blues gigs, R&B gigs, Soul, Disco, Country, Classic Rock gigs, I have a sensitive acoustic singer-songwriter schtick (it helps that I can sing) - I've done Dub-Step recording sessions, I play classical music at weddings and funerals - all kinds of styles and genres.
I'm gonna let you in on a little secret; I play the same stuff, the same vocabulary, the same content, no matter what I do, I just dress it up differently - kind of like my paisley shirts.
Guitar = "clothes"
So let's talk about my metaphorical clothes. Take a look at two of my guitars:
The one on the left is my 1966 Gibson 175. It's a full sized hollow-body. That type of guitar is generally associated with traditional jazz guitarists.
I say "generally" because a few rock guys have used them:
Steve Howe of Yes
Eric Clapton is not associated with hollow-body guitars but he
played one at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh.
Rock guys generally don't like hollow-bodies because they feed back uncontrollably at high volume - Ted Nugent has said that's WHY he played one - he wanted the feedback!
Solid-body guitars are generally associated with rock and pop music. My blue guitar on the right in the above picture is an 80's-era Charvel-Jackson. It is a solid-body, strat style guitar. There are many styles of solid body guitars but the strat style is very popular with rockers:
Eddie Van Halen
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi
Jennifer Batten (Michael Jackson's guitarist)
BTW - notice the clothes? I'm talking about the literal clothes. Look at the jazz guys. Then the rock guys with the solid body guitars. The rock guys with the hollow body guitars disassociate the traditional image of the guitar by NOT wearing the jazz guy clothes (or hair). The fact that a rock guy can take an instrument associated in pop culture with jazz music and make it sound rocked-out complete with volume and massive distortion (hello Ted Nugent!) tells you there is nothing relative to a specific genre intrinsic in the instrument itself. Conversely, there are jazz guys that use solid body guitars - and make them sound like hollow body jazz guitars.
You can do anything with anything!
But what I'm talking about are associations triggered in the minds of most people by visuals.
Let me tell you a little anecdote. Throughout the early 80's I was playing the popular music of the day - namely top-40 80's rock, plus Michael Jackson, the Police, etc. - whatever was popular. I was poor and I owned one single electric guitar - the Gibson 175 pictured above on the left. I was using a 100-watt Marshall amp (associated with rock music), I used a slew of effects, several different kinds of distortion, delays, chorusing, wah-wah pedal and so on (all associated with rock music). It was loud. It sounded rocked-out. It was rocked-out. But over and over I ran into people who heard my band playing Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Joan Jett, all the 80's rock stuff, and yet I was this "jazz guy" - and I wasn't playing ANY jazz! It was because of what they SAW. They saw a full-size hollow body guitar and their minds said, "Jazz!"
My booking agent/manager critiqued me, "You'll never look like Michael Jackson's guitar player with that guitar." My response? "You'll never hear what I'm doing if you listen with your eyes."
What was I thinking? That a smart-ass comment like that would instantly rewire his brain and cause him to book me more gigs? The fact of the matter is, he knew that the visual was a primary component in how people would respond. I hadn't figured that out yet. Plus, I was dirt-poor and couldn't afford to go out and buy a strat just so I could look a certain way. Besides, it wouldn't change the sound, or the content, of what I was playing. I also told him that if he could book me for more money I could afford to buy a strat. He said I needed a strat in order for him to get more money for me.
I was hanging out at a music store one day and a complete stranger came up to me and said, "Dude! You are the ONLY guy I've ever seen play Van Halen on a 175!" That was very gratifying - but it illustrated the problem; Sonically it was great. Visually, it was disjunct and created cognitive dissonance in the audience.
The day I acquired the electric-blue Charvel strat-style guitar and started playing it on rock gigs was the day I quit hearing the "jazz guy" comments.
Nothing else changed. I played the same way with the same amp and the same effects. The type of guitar is "clothes."
Effects = "Clothes"
I mentioned effects...those are "clothes" as well. I'm not going to go into an explanation of all these pedals and what they do. If you want to know, go here. The point is, these devices change the sound of the guitar. Certain sounds are associated with certain genres or styles of music. This is the pedalboard I use for Rock, R&B, Soul, Pop - all kinds of popular music.
This pedalboard is a clothes closet.
Technique = "Clothes"
There are technique differences that one must employ to play this-or-that style authentically. One example would be using distortion as opposed to playing clean. When playing clean, there is a much greater continuum of dynamics - louder/softer - and a greater variety of tone is available simply by HOW you pick the string. There is a big difference in the volume of the note when picking hard as opposed to picking gently. The angle of the pick, the thickness of the pick...all these things affect the sound when playing clean. Guys that are good at playing clean (like jazz guys) have a lot of control and finesse in how they pick the string.
However, distortion evens out the dynamics. Picking softer or harder doesn't change the volume of the note. The angle or thickness of the pick doesn't affect the sound as much. So when using distortion, you have to employ other techniques to create inflection - things like palm-muting, pinched harmonics, bends and so on (like what rock guys do). It's a different skill-set.
There's nothing more cringe-worthy than watching and listening to a jazz guy who doesn't understand distortion play with distortion using the same technique he uses to play clean. All that finesse is futile. Dude! You're wearing the wrong clothes! ATTACK that note! "Attitude" makes a big difference. My classical teacher once told me, "If you're going to be a real classical guitarist you have to have a European attitude."
Likewise, it's equally cringe-worthy watching and listening to a rock guy trying to sound jazzy by playing clean but using the same technique he uses when playing with distortion. Wrong outfit! All that palm-muting, pinched harmonics and string bending amounts to a bunch of bullshit clutter that obscures the tonal variations that are possible and gets in the way of the pure sound of a lovingly plucked string.
Technique is physical - it's mechanical. It's an acquired skill-set. The technique employed is different when playing different styles.
Technique is a more nuanced level of putting on the appropriate clothes.
Of course there are guys - tons of guys - that do both equally well. And there are wonderful, amazing players who combine it all into their own seamless fusion of styles.
Now all this "putting on clothes" - the type of guitar, the effects, the different techniques that are appropriate to different styles - PLUS the actual, literal clothes you wear - none of this has anything to do with actual musical content.
There is certain content associated with different styles, but all styles use a lot of the same content. A G major chord is a G major chord, whether it's in "Amazing Grace" or some satanic death-metal song. There is also certain rhythmic content associated with different styles, but there is a LOT of rhythmic content common to most styles.
I'm not going to get into the content of MY content. That's too big of a subject for this already-too-long blog (I've dealt with the subject of content in a general way here). I will only say that there are certain musical concepts that I like to deal with. And I have figured out how I can deal with the content that I am interested in no matter what musical genre I happen to be in on a given gig. One of the main ways I do that is by putting on different clothes - both literally and metaphorically.
Most people don't really hear content - they hear the clothes.
We can talk more about "clothes" if you want to but if you're interested in content and not just clothes, Sign up as a Master Guitar School site member - it's free! - and get access to dozens of free site-based lessons, a monthly newsletter that contains a brand-new free lesson, and DEEP discounts on lesson series downloads - plus more!
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