As guitar players, we often find ourselves resorting to the same old ingrained licks and habits we’ve had for years. But recently, I had an experience that got me thinking in a whole new way. It also got me listening to music differently when in the studio, thanks to some interesting insight and advice from a friend.
I’m lucky enough to still jam once in a while with buds I’ve played with since the eighth grade. Its pure fun—no rules, just play what you feel. At a recent outside gig, it started to rain, so we took cover in a shed. The lightning outside was quite bad and there was no electricity, so I found my way over to a couch in the pitch black. On the couch was some kind of guitar, which I pushed aside so I could sit.
After 20 minutes of non-stop storm, I laid the guitar across my lap—it was so dark I couldn’t even tell what it was. It had F-holes and was tuned to an unfamiliar, odd tuning. I strummed the open strings and it was a chord. Hmm, I thought, this is cool. I felt my way around the neck, took out a pick (we can always find those in our pockets no matter how dark) and played a little.
Within minutes, all four of us in the room had found some sort of instrument, be it a chair or a one-string bucket bass (seriously). We were jamming in the dark, with a wicked lightning storm providing only an occasional flash of light. I had no idea what I was playing and was inventing chords on the spot. Once I found a pattern and a figure that worked, I would stretch out to feel something different and build from there. The jam went on for a good hour and a half until we decided to make a break for it. I put the guitar down and we felt our way out of the shed.
I still don’t know what the tuning was or what kind of guitar I was playing (and haven’t yet asked). It was incredibly liberating and refreshing to not know what I was doing—relying purely on instinct, sound and rhythm to make music.
Sometime later, I was talking with Grammy award-winning engineer and producer Dave Isaac about his experiences as a kid, and an experience he had working with Stevie Wonder.
“I spent most of my early years lying on the floor, on my back with my eyes closed, with my head between speakers listening to music,” he noted. “I was seeing the artists and musicians in my mind, not knowing that it was preparing me for something greater later on in life. I didn’t know that I was training my ears to not only block out the outside world and really focus on the music, but to be perceptive of distractions in mixes.” Isaac continued, “I was training myself to see what was perfect in the music. By perfect, I mean to listen to the music in a way that you hear it all as one, yet you’re listening to individual performances, hearing a melody and the way that it’s passed off from one instrument to the next, hearing every nuance and dynamic of the vocalist or musician—perfectly focused to get the true meaning of the music… to truly be touched by the music, as if you were listening to Mozart or Stevie Wonder play before you.” Isaac got to realize the dream of seeing Wonder play before him.
“One night I was called by Stevie to engineer a vocal session with him,” he told me. “I normally wouldn’t be nervous because I’ve worked with many popular artists over the years, but this was the guy that really made me close my eyes in the first place. To see him when I was a kid, a blind singer that sang the way he did, I just wanted to close my eyes and see what he heard in his headphones at Motown. So I would close my eyes and imagine that I was him. Now to one day come full circle was mind blowing! Stevie has a way to make you instantly comfortable. He’s kind of a jokester, which relaxed me enough to remember what the night truly was all about, which was to now share that experience with the man himself. So I turned out the lights and closed my eyes to get a brief look into what Stevie was hearing. I made sure that nothing was in his way or distracting him in regards to level and panning, in his headphones or in the speakers. He did the vocal and afterwards we sat, joked, ate donuts and drank coffee until 6 am. Life was good!”
So next time you’re stuck in a rut and not “feeling it,” close your eyes and reach for something a little deeper. It’s in there—you just might not see it.
Rich is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie . A life-long guitarist, he’s also the auther of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for such networks as Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and National Geographic.
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