Talking trash can get you canned. Be nice or leave.
I believe it was Gandhi who said, “Winning isn't everything … it's the only thing." That's all well and good for a stone cold gangsta like the Mahatma, but does that philosophy apply to us sensitive musician types? Music is a loving gift from the universe that connects us to ourselves and to others while enabling us to communicate the ineffable. Everybody wins in music, so why are guitarists so competitive, and sometimes dickish, with each other?
This question reminds me of the old joke: How many guitar players does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to do it and a thousand to watch, sneer, and say, “I could have done it faster."
There are more guitarists than well-paying gigs, so some players are loosely competing for the same positions. But the majority of us are on the same team, working toward the common goal of trying to play better and enjoy the journey. Yet many act like, well, catty bitches.
Ever notice how civilians seem to enjoy concerts way more than musicians do? Look out at any crowd at a show. The people dancing wildly, playing air guitar, and jubilantly cheering are not musicians. Those are the Normals. The musicians are the ones with their arms folded, making snide comments to each other out of the sides of their mouths, taking glee in anything that goes wrong.
So where's this rant coming from? Recently I got cornered at a gig by a late-20s, C-level guitarist who was equally ambitious and misguided. For 20 minutes he applied his two-pronged approach of self-promotion.
Prong 1: Talking a lot of shit about what he's going to do.
Prong 2: Talking a lot of shit about other musicians.
I always know exactly what to say to somebody in a situation like that. The problem is, it doesn't come to mind until 40 minutes later, when I'm in my car driving home, obsessing about what I should have said. In real time, he yammered on while I nursed my beer and nodded “yeah man" until I could excuse myself and hide from him for the rest of the evening.
I wish I could be one of those brutally honest/clever Alec Baldwin characters who'd grab that wanker by his mop and say in a low rasp: “You can't build a reputation on what you're going to do, and insulting others does not make you play better. Shut your yap, wash those jeans, and practice with a metronome if you want to work in this industry."
Actually, reading that back, it sounds a little too harsh—albeit true. Maybe what I should have said was, “It's okay not to have a resume. We all start on the same playing field. Also, those players you're insulting have some cool stuff in their bags. We could both learn from them."
Clearly this guy just wanted to get to the next level and this was a case of ill-thought self-promotion. His is a strangely common mistake, because players have to appear confident or nobody will hire them. Here's what he missed: The best players are self-assured, but know the law of the musician's universe—be humble or be humbled.
In 1969, just days after Woodstock, a top-of-his-game Hendrix appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. There's this great part of the interview where Cavett says, “You're considered one of the best guitar players in the world."
“Oh, nooo, no, um; I wouldn't say that," Hendrix replies.
“Well then, one of the best guitarists in this studio," Cavett nudges.
“How 'bout some of the best to sit in this chair," Hendrix says.
Watch this clip and you'll recognize Hendrix's genuine humility. He knew music was not a competition, but, rather, a gift from God, the universe, or whatever you want to call it. Hendrix didn't want to dominate the world of guitar. He just wanted to play and spread the love because he knew that, “when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace." Beautiful, right?
It's been said that if you ever think you have a drinking problem, move to Dublin. Once there you'll realize you're average at best. If you're a guitarist with an ego problem, move to YouTube. No matter how well you play, scroll random guitar videos for an hour and you'll find some child in Toad Suck, Arkansas, or Mumbai making videos that will blow your mind. In Nashville, every time I order a pizza I wonder if that stoned kid in the greasy Domino's hat is a killer guitar player. Some of them are. It's easy to remain humble and grateful with that in mind.