When Your Face Does Stuff, It Just Sounds Better!
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
In my last blog post I gave a quick argument for the proposition that the feeling in music is supplied by the listener, not the performer. If the musician has his performance techniques and stagecraft together, he doesn't have to be "into it" to sell it - to create the perception in the listener that said musician is "playing with feeling." All good performers are good actors.
In this post I'm going to recount a very truncated version of how I arrived at this understanding. It took approximately 5 years of performing at least 6 nights a week - on stage, in front of an audience, every night. Yeah, maybe I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed - actually, I can be pretty dense - just ask my wife! It took lots of thought, trial-and-error and years of experience to "get it." As opposed to some guys who "get it" intuitively and do it pretty much from day one. That's not me, unfortunately. All I can say is, "I yam what I yam and dat's all dat I yam!" (Popeye)
When I first started performing on a nightly basis, it became clear to me pretty quickly that sometimes there seemed to be this disconnect between MY feeling/perception of my playing and the listener's perception. Whether or not the listener appeared to feel what I was feeling seemed random - coincidental. Sometimes it was great! The stars were aligned and mah Mojo was woikin'! But many times when I thought I was kicking ass there was no response. Many times when I was having a bad night, wondering why I was even trying to play the stupid guitar in the first place, people would come up to me and go, "Man! You are awesome! How did you learn to play like that! Do you give lessons?"
At first, my thought (I would never say this out loud) would be, "Well, that just shows what an idiot you are, I OBVIOUSLY sucked tonight and you're too stupid to tell the difference!" Self-centered with a little dose of narcissism thrown in. It never occurred to me as a possibility that their feeling/opinion about my performance was valid and my feeling/opinion was the one that was skewed. I later realized I was projecting my own feeling/perception onto them and disrespecting theirs. But at first, I didn't realize that my judgement of my own performance might, just maybe, possibly, could be flawed??? I judged everybody in terms of my own feeling/perception/judgement. Classic projection.
It actually happened - more than once - that someone came up to me and said, "You are really good, but you need to play with more feeling." My response? "I was totally into it tonight, I was playing with all kinds of feeling, why didn't you get it? What's your problem?"
BTW - that was an honest response. I was playing with feeling - I could feel it!. I mean, I can feel my own feeling and I know when I'm feeling it! It was frustrating that a sincere listener wasn't feeling my feeling when I knew good and well that I was feeling it. Of course, we were both assuming that MY feeling was what the listener was supposed to be feeling!
Anyway, this apparent disconnect kept happening. Eventually I had to acknowledge that there was a problem, and that it was MY problem; not the result of the musically ignorant, unwashed masses.
At the same time, I was really obsessed with technique. For a few months during this period, I actually counted my mistakes! And I was VERY strict - not just wrong notes, but every little slip, every little hesitation, every flaw in my timing (lots of those!) - I counted EVERYTHING! My goal was to see if I could consistently get to ZERO mistakes on any given night. This is somewhat of a separate story but it does relate as you will soon see.
So...I wound up in this band. It was a cover/dance/nightclub band - it was the disco era. There were clubs all over the place that had live music 6 nights a week. The interesting thing about this situation was that I was hired to replace a keyboard player. The bandleader was the guitarist. They'd had a keyboard player quit with no notice, they had gigs booked solid for the foreseeable future and couldn't find a replacement keyboardist in time. A rock band with 2 guitars is very common - formulaic even. A disco band with 2 guitars and no keyboards was a crazy concept. Imagine trying to play the Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Chic, Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang WITH NO KEYBOARDS! In Disco music, the guitar is basically a percussion instrument, playing little single note riffs and chinky rhythmic chords plus occasional solos. The keyboards provide the bed - all the orchestral parts, strings, horns, etc. as well as keyboard/piano/synth sounds. When the band decided on a second guitar, the guitarist/bandleader said, "Whoever we get has to have a TOTALLY different sound and style than me!"
Thus...moi! I was hired because I was a "jazz guy" who was willing to play the pop music of the day - a rarity! My job was to recreate strings, horns, keyboards and anything else that a keyboardist would normally play. I was using a big, hollow body guitar normally associated with jazz music, running two amps, splitting my signal into stereo and using all kinds of effects and processing gear trying to sound like anything except a guitar - this was way before affordable guitar synths. I was fine with this situation. It meant I didn't have to play those boring disco guitar parts, and that I had to come up with arrangements of all these keyboard parts on guitar - so my jazz background, knowledge of theory and arranging etc. could be put to use - for steady money! It was actually somewhat of a living - at the time. And it was the perfect transition for me out of my jazz phase into pop music where I could actually make some money. I needed to play a gig every night and that was impossible to do as a "jazz guy."
In this context I was not a soloist. There would be a couple of tunes a night that featured me as a guitarist or a soloist - most of the time I was providing the support for the soloist/singer/front guy, locking in with the drummer and bass player. I was the young guy. Everyone else in the band was 10 to 15 years older than me and much more experienced. I learned a lot from all of them but it's the guitarist/bandleader I want to focus on.
I was obviously the better guitarist - he knew it; I knew it. When we were on the road he would assign the rooms so that he and I roomed together and he would get some free guitar lessons during the day. I began to notice that he very consistently got enthusiastic ovations for his solos - night after night. And I didn't. After working through my inevitable, "ignorance of the unwashed masses" reaction I decided that HE had something to teach ME!
I would ask him, "What are you doing that gets this response, night after night?"
He would say, "Oh man, just play! You're better than me, you can do it, just play, man! That's what I do, I just play!"
I realized he couldn't tell me what he was doing. It was all intuitive with him; he just did it. So I said to myself, "This guy has something to teach me, I need to pay attention and figure out what he's doing."
I noticed that his vocabulary was very limited. Major and minor pentatonic scales, maybe the major scale and the natural minor - that was about it. I also noticed he had a lot of chops - he could play REALLY fast, but he hardly ever did. He would do things like play one note, bend the crap out of it, resolve the bend down in micro-tones while accenting everything he was doing on the guitar with facial expressions, body contortions - you know, classic guitar-face:
"When your face does stuff, it just sounds better."
As a result of this, I began to get the idea that extreme inflection on the guitar - dynamics, hammer-ons, pull-offs, trills, bends, vibratos, pinched harmonics, palm muting - anything that would get one note to sound different from another, PLUS facial expressions and body language, all integrating together, was what produced an emotional response in the listener. I saw this guy do it night after night. I saw him do it when I knew he wasn't into it - and yet he still caused the listeners to respond.
I realized this was the result of technique - it was a physical habit. I could train myself to play this way no matter what I felt like. What I felt was irrelevant to the issue of causing an emotional response in the listener. This realization was a HUGE weight lifted off because when you perform every night, no matter how much you love it and how cool you think the band is, there are going to be nights when you're just not into it. It's impossible to be "on" every single night.
One night I decided to put into practice what I'd been seeing this guy do night after night.
When my time to solo came up - my one shining moment of glory - I wasn't going to play my usual, over the top, altered dominant bi-tonal, blazingly fast, high-content solo. I was going to play one note, I was going to play it slow, bend the crap out of it, squirm like hell on it and make the nastiest guitar face I could come up with.
During the gig, and in the song leading up to my solo, that was what I was continually telling myself, rehearsing over and over in my mind what I was going to do.
The moment of truth arrived, I grabbed a note and started bending - and before I knew it my hand was playing a blazingly fast, altered dominant bi-tonal, high-content solo. All by itself! At the same time, my mind was going,
"No no no no! Wait wait wait wait! That's not what you were going to do! You were going to play slow! You were going to bend this note down in micro-tones! Slowly! What the hell are you doing?!? Why is this happening?"
I drove home from the gig in a state of shock. "Dude!" I told myself, "Your technique is totally out of control! You couldn't play slow if your life depended on it!"
I realized that in order to play as fast as I was able to play at that time, I had to do it all the time. The question was; Am I willing to give up the top end of my speed in order to gain control - control to put into practice what I had been learning about causing an emotional response in the listener? The answer was, "Yes" and I have not worked on speed since - that was almost 40 years ago. Yeah, I wish I could play faster - but you wish that no matter how fast you can play - trust me, I know. (See the section, "Speed Kills" in a previous blog.)
The key to expression - feeling - in music, is inflection, and the faster you play, the less inflection there is. I began to work on slowing it down (it's hard to play slow!) and cultivating the habit of using lots of inflection when I play. It's all technique - dynamics, bends, hammer-ons, vibratos etc and integrating that with facial expression and body language.
Just to qualify; I'm most definitely NOT Mr. Sparkly Entertainment Personality Guy. I generally don't do the posing, faces and body contortions in an exaggerated manner. Good frontmen are very exaggerated with this stuff. What I'm talking about when speaking of myself is the same kind of natural facial expressions and body language that I use unconsciously all the time when I speak. I'm just being the most me I can be. It was very helpful to analogize musical language and spoken language - we do it when we talk; body language and facial expression integrated with what we say and how we say it. It's natural when I talk but for some stupid reason I had to consciously learn it when applying it to musical language.
I realized I could still play what I was interested in (altered dominant blah blah blah) but I had to do it with lots of inflection and connect it to simple blues licks that everyone could understand and relate to. That way, I could keep it fresh for myself - it could be the musical concepts I was interested in dealing with - and yet still cause an emotional reaction in the listener. It's mainly the inflection that does that. And I could do this night after night, no matter what I felt like, whether I was into it or not.
To be succinct: To play with feeling you must use extreme inflection on the instrument and ACT like you're playing with feeling - whether you are feeling it or not.
Problem solved. NOT!
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