The difference between playing as fast as possible and really saying something
We guitarists are a strange bunch. Deep
inside, many of us harbor an intense fascination
with all things technical, challenging,
and impressive. We always seek out
the riffs that seem impossible and that
will make heads turn and jaws drop.
“I swear it looked like he had eight hands when he was playing. I could never do that!”
“Did you see him play that! How could any human physically do that?”
It’s part of our DNA and for most of us, it’s what makes us internally tick as guitarists. It’s like an unspoken language of sneaky winks, inside jokes, and secret handshakes among us 6-stringers.
“Hey, kid in the front row with your arms folded with that ‘impress me/you suck’ look … this riff is for you!”
Leaving the Planet
It’s our one-upmanship that separates the men from the boys, so to speak, and aligns the hierarchy of hero worship with earned respect. We all know the badass guitarists that play like they are from another universe. But as soon as we leave the very tiny world of Planet Guitar, we have to deal with something even more intimidating and challenging—music. Not that being a great guitarist isn’t about music per se (yeah, we deal with notes and all that), but sometimes being a musician can be even more difficult.
It’s one thing to have the tricky, fast licks that others of your kind find impressive, but it’s a whole other deal to turn those raw tools of technique into something that people actually want to hear repeatedly and are emotionally moved by. Ultimately, no one really knows how difficult that riff is or how many months it took you to perfect a technique. It comes down to this: Can they feel it? Are they buying the emotion that you are conveying? Have you made a connection that takes them somewhere different?
In my estimation, it comes down to songs and melody. These are the cornerstones that everything we do should be built on. Think of some of the great guitar music of the last decade or so, whether it’s a whole tune or just the solo. For the most part, everything that comes to mind is going to involve a solid song with a catchy melody or hook.
Who couldn’t be snagged by the great feel and melody of Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover?” Even though it’s a boogie-feel tune, I’ll bet you can hum just about every part of “Satch Boogie” without fail. “Still Got the Blues” by Gary Moore stands out as one of the greatest, simplest melodies in modern times. For me, Neal Schon has always been at the top of my list because you can basically hum every one of his solos, and constructing melodic solos is an art onto itself. The list can go on and on, but realize that aside from some searing guitar work interspersed in these songs, there is actually melody and a well-written composition. In fact, the solo is the composition!
Get out of The Way
As strange as this sounds, I believe the ability to do this kind of writing and soloing actually stems from putting aside thinking like a guitarist for a moment and approaching the music from another perspective. What line would fit best here? Can I sing it? Are there too many notes? Is there some sort of theme involved? Is the melody line taking you somewhere or telling a story, so to speak? Is there space and room in the playing?
I think there’s a misconception that if you’re playing slowly, you’re playing melodically. Melodic playing has little to do with the rate at which you play the notes, but rather what you are actually saying with them. My example above, “Cliffs of Dover,” is a great study of playing melodically at a fast clip, but still maintaining a theme and a focus that carries through the song, whereas in “Always With You, Always With Me,” Satch opts for a gorgeously slow and expressive line that is easily memorable.
The bottom line is to get out of our own way let the song guide us as to what to play. I’ve been in sessions where musicians refuse to accept the suggestions that the producer (or the tune itself) is presenting because it isn’t flashy enough or is thought to be below a virtuoso level. You know some people have a reputation to maintain!
I was in the studio years ago in a similar situation trying to figure out something to play over an E major progression I had just come up with. I tried all of the various riffs that were in my fingers and every guitar-centric fumbling I knew. Nothing was clicking. Finally, I stepped back to get a fresh perspective on the song. I outlined the progression in simple triads with a bit of ornamentation and the result was what you might know as my tune, “I’m Alright.” It was this lesson of getting out of my own way of preconceived notions of what a guitarist would play and instead let the song dictate my part.
Neil Zaza tours the world constantly, playing his own brand of melodic instrumental guitar. He is currently recording his latest album, 212, and you can visit him at neilzaza.com as well as facebook.com/neilzazamusic.