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Playing for the People

Think about the music that completely turns you on.

The guitar always serves the song throughout the Fab Four’s masterpiece, Abbey Road.

As a life-long multitasker, I try to keep current on music while driving—listening more as homework than for kicks. Usually, midway through the first mindless pop drivel, I scan my way back to Supa Sounds of the ’70s and stay there.

This morning I lighted upon Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” which immediately cut through my layers of cynicism. What makes this song awesome? Is it the simple little acoustic opener, or the harmony solo where each guitar works a straightforward melody based mainly on four notes of a descending major scale? Is it because it reminds me of being in the second grade riding to school in my mom’s Country Squire? Hard to say—all of the song’s elements are uncomplicated, yet this song does what great music should do: It elicits an emotional response.

Think about the music that completely turns you on. Seriously, stop reading for one minute and list the four songs that make you feel something, take you out of this work-a-day world, and transcend our earthly drudgery. I will wait.

Okay, finished? Here’s my list of what’s doing it for me right now:
• “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight,” The Beatles
• “Lenny,” SRV
• “Breakeven (Falling to Pieces),” The Script
• “Big Sky Country,” Chris Whitley

My list changes radically any given hour (apparently I’m feeling a bit sentimental right now—less rocking and more pensive). Regardless of how my lists may differ, the common thread in any song catalog I might concoct is that it’s more song-driven then guitar-driven, which is perhaps a bit unexpected for a full-on guitar geek. A lot of musicians lean toward the esoteric, but my personal taste remains pretty pedestrian. It rarely takes a musical virtuoso to connect with me on an emotional level. Ironically, virtuosos are sometimes less likely to connect with the audience because they focus on ability more than music, and tend to play a difficult part instead of an easy one that fits better.

There’s a great scene in the Les Paul documentary Chasing a Sound where Miles Davis complains about not reaching Les’ level of success. Miles says, “You know what? I’d give anything if I could get a hit record. What’s the secret?” Les answers, “It’s simple. Play the melody. Play ‘Mockingbird Hill.’” Miles says, “I wouldn’t be caught dead playing ‘Mockingbird Hill.’” To which Les replies, “That’s why you’re hungry, Miles. If you want to play, you’ve got to play for the people.”

Les Paul was clearly a virtuoso, but he never let his endless chops get in the way of the song. Les knew that music, at least for the listener, will always link to the heart and crotch before the brain. Here’s where it gets complicated: You can’t actually play music without engaging the brain, but you don’t want the brain to be entirely in charge. It’s like walking a tightrope.

Premier Guitar columnist Paul Gilbert walks that line incredibly well. A full-on guitar master, he’s capable of playing anything, yet he always chooses to play the right thing—even if it’s just a big, dumb, open-A chord. Look at “To Be with You,” the No. 1 hit Gilbert had with his band Mr. Big. Most guitar contemporaries of Gilbert’s would have jacked up that song ... not because it’s too difficult to play, but because it’s so difficult to have the restraint to play some easy open chords and a sweet melody.

Hell, I don’t have half the chops that Paul has, but I would have probably ruined the song with weird chord substitutions and a fast run in the solo. Paul showed the perfect discipline and aesthetic sensibilities. (Maybe it’s easy to show restraint on a mid-tempo, Beatles-inspired acoustic song, but Gilbert shows the same good taste on rockers like “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind.”) It’s rare to find players who can handle anything technically, but virtuosos with self-control and taste are one in a million.

Most of us have spent years learning how to play guitar, then, hopefully, we learn when to play. Many guitarists skip one of these steps and end up with either great ideas they can’t execute or a big bag of tricks that fool some, but not all. I’m always looking for that balance.

Regrettably, when I play all the time, muscle memory tends to take over and I rehash the same ol’ same, or I work on new things, forcing in awkward phrases where they don’t belong. When I don’t play as much, I find that my hands don’t work as well and I can’t think of what to play. I’m often disappointed in myself either way. That golden Zen zone where your hands do as they are told, and yet your soul/subconscious/heart gives them the right direction—that’s what we all strive for. That’s the transcendental sweet spot.

Next time you listen to music, notice if the guitarist is playing for himself or for the song. See if that guitarist knows how and when. Next time you play, bask in the endorphin rush of a good melody instead of a fast dweedal-a-dweedal-a. Hit a low, chugging A groove and grin like a 13-year-old in a garage band.