Think about playing guitar as a communication device in a larger conversation.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." —Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
If I'm not gigging, I'm walking around my house wondering what the hell I'm doing with my life, so I try to stay booked to avoid any existential dilemmas. That being the case, if anybody reading this calls, texts, or emails me saying, “You don't know me, but can you be onstage in an hour for a gig?" … I will probably do it if I'm available, it sounds like fun, and I will make some money. There's no hall too small, no bar too far. On any given week, I've played with as many as six different bands in clubs, sessions, and/or tour dates. I keep an amp in my car all the times in case I get a last-minute sub date.
Because I play so many last-minute, thrown-together gigs, I work with the full spectrum of musicians, from top-tier pros to relative novices. I've seen firsthand the most common mistake that undermines a performance. Surprisingly, it's not a lack of technical abilities that derails most shows. Of course, if you have no technical ability, it's not going to work, but a person can learn the basics fairly quickly. However, whether you've played six months or 60 years, what separates good musicians from bad musicians is that the best listen and serve the song.
It all starts with drums. If you have a great drummer and bad-to-mediocre guitar and bass players, you can make it work. But if your drummer is crap, you sound crap. There's no polishing that turd.
Drummers, here's how you ruin it for everybody. We all love John Bonham, but you're not Bonham and this is not Zep. Before Zep, drummers rarely, if ever, hit drums as hard as they could. Today, most novice drummers bash away at full volume all the time, working fills and rhythmic variations into every hole. They think they are slaying it, but it's as musical as tennis shoes in a dryer.
When you hit something hard, it loses its tone. Drums stop ringing and ears shut down. Let the sticks and physics do the work, not your biceps. Make players like Steve Smith your inspiration.
There are three basic elements in music: melody, rhythm, and dynamics. Melody doesn't really figure into drumming, so when you take away dynamics, the only color in your palette is rhythm. Listen, work your dynamics, and stop playing fills so damn often. A groove should be hypnotic, and bad fills break the spell.
And bassists, James Jamerson and Larry Graham were/are genius, but their thing can't be shoehorned where it does not belong. Listen to early U2 albums. Adam Clayton was 20 years old. He played primarily driving quarter- or eighth-notes on the tonic, because he didn't know how to play much else, but those simple parts were perfect. A more complicated bass line would not have worked as well. Start simple and lock with the kick, then build from there as needed.
And for my guitar-playing friends, there are times when you will undeniably drive the train (e.g., everything from the SRV catalog). However, try letting your rhythm section do the heavy lifting a bit more often. Hit a big open chord and let it ring for two or four bars and feel the groove envelope you like you're slipping into a hot tub. Listen to Elvis Presley's cover of “Fever." Most of it is half-notes on bass with quarters on a high hat and no guitar at all. Adding anything would've made it less perfect. The Mighty Eddie Van Halen, who pretty much reinvented guitar, leaves huge open spots in even his most over-the-top performances. Listen to “Hot for Teacher." Ed switches between driving syncopated backbeats to fast runs and big, open power chords that ring for two to four bars. The space makes the track drive harder. It's a brilliant performance that combines restraint with superhuman guitar acrobatics.
Ever notice that the best meals tend to have fewer ingredients? Put butter, lemon, and salt on some fresh fish and you're good to go. Add more and you won't taste what you have. That's why processed food is so bland. There's a list of 30 ingredients and it all tastes like salty cardboard. Taste, touch, see, hear, smell—we can only process so much information at once.
We live in an unrestrained age. Things are louder, angrier, busier, and more chaotic and pretentious than ever before. If you have abilities, the temptation is to show off, but that may not be where the music wants you to be. If music is a form of communication, try to build an environment where everybody's voice is heard. And add some room for silence, so what's being said can sink in.