Looking for inspiration in the world around you
One evening many years ago as I was leaving my day job, I had one of those time-stopping experiences that serve to remind us that nature can be our greatest muse and instructor. As I walked across the parking lot to my car, this bird cut loose with a call that sounded like something off of Paul Simon’s Graceland. It was complex and harmonically rich, at least two barres of sheer genius. I stopped dead in my tracks and held my breath. My little virtuoso repeated it, riff for riff, over and over. I was astounded, and totally steamed that I did not have a recorder on me.
For years, I have hoped to run across that bird again, but sadly, I’ve never been able to find him. I have in my head an impression, just a wisp of the melody, but the inspiration of that moment has stayed with me. I left that job in 1999, and a decade later I can still remember the moment precisely—the exact shade of the sunlight and angle of the sun, the exact row my car was parked in, the coat I was wearing, everything. I have tried to capture that moment with my guitar a million times, and have never satisfied my inner ear that I got it right, but, I have pulled a ton of songs out of that single moment of sheer natural perfection, and for that I am hugely grateful.
My son is experimenting now with ambient music, sometimes called atmospheric. He records sounds and mixes them together rhythmically and melodically. One day I saw him outside on the porch with no coat on, recording an ice storm. He’s recorded birds, bugs, thunder, hail... if it makes noise, he’s probably recorded it. Even the sounds of our very urban neighborhood (traffic, sirens, children playing, adults fighting while children play in the traffic and the resulting sirens...). But in addition to putting them together in rhythmic sound collages, he takes what he hears to the piano and the guitar and echoes those natural sounds musically.
Next time you’re out of musical ideas, open your ears. Take your guitar outside and try to play what you hear, wherever you are. Try to learn the birdsongs, play the sound of cars driving by, imitate water flowing over rocks, or rain falling on the roof. Use flatpicks, fingerpicks, the flesh of your fingers and your nails; hell, Michael Hedges once said he’d use his teeth if that’s what it took to get a particular sound. An acoustic guitar is such a dynamic thing: you can strum it, whack it, drum on it, pick it, pluck it, hammer-on, pull-off, tap, hit the strings with pencils... you can use a slide, a capo, a partial capo, de-tune it, plug it in, or just hold it while you hum and listen to it vibrate. There is no end to the variation and the beauty that you can hold in your hands, every single day.
Don’t over-think it, either. Your first attempts are probably the purest attempts at this kind of playing, so you might want to keep a digital recorder handy to document what you do. You never know when what you think is a horrible sounding and perfectly stupid idea is going to end up being the long-missing piece in a song you’ve been trying to write for years. So don’t hold back, don’t censor yourself, and don’t try to perfect it before you get it down. Those initial ideas are pure gold, trust me.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bird to catch...