Serve the song by choosing substance over flash. You’ll be a better player for it.
As I write, I’m waiting to board a flight at Narita airport to head back to the U.S. from Japan. Last night I performed a club set in a somewhat stripped-down acoustic setting for a television show with my current boss, Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi. When Tsuyoshi stopped by our hotel this morning to see us off, he paid me a high compliment that I really appreciated: He said I was very “giving” in my playing, always listening closely to him and being sensitive to where he was going musically.
The older I get, the more musical I try to be, and I find myself only interested in serving the song. Substance over flash is the name of my game! This month, I’ll explore some ideas about keeping it musical.
Practice musicality. As a teenager learning guitar in the shred-happy ’80s, I’d practice scales and repetitive patterns for hours at a time. I often played with a metronome, and my speed and agility increased dramatically. I don’t regret for a second the time spent working on chops, but I now recognize that most of what I was practicing wasn’t really musical. (No listener wants to hear guitarists running exercises!) I would have been better off playing things that expanded my chops, while standing on their own as listenable ideas. So my advice for practicing is to seek out phrases and patterns that are melodically and rhythmically interesting.
Serve the song. When it comes to playing music, serving the song matters more than anything else. This applies whether you’re writing and recording your own music, performing someone else’s song live, or playing a session and coming up with a part. Like a good film, music should take you on a ride.
All great movies have great scripts, right? There’s a captivating story that ebbs and flows at a pace that holds the viewer’s interest. Likewise, great songs are well structured. They feature dynamics and an ebb and flow that pull a listener in. Notes and phrases (and how they’re delivered) are like film dialog, and we all know how tedious a movie with bad dialog can be.
A great exercise for learning how to serve the song is listening to and dissecting some of your favorite music. What makes it special to you? Why does it hold your interest and elicit an emotional reaction? Take note of how the individual parts work together to form a cohesive whole. Study how individual parts drop in and out and how they serve the big picture.
Case studies. Let’s look at two very different songs that, in my opinion, are extremely well structured and written. AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” starts with an infectious and hooky four-measure intro riff that also serves as the guitar part for the main verse. Phil Rudd’s pounding, simple-yet-effective drumbeat enters at measure five, and the lead vocal enters at measure nine. There is no bass guitar or other auxiliary parts at this point. The bass finally enters in the buildup to the first chorus, opening up the track and dynamically propelling the song. A simple, Chuck Berry-style guitar solo follows the second chorus, and lead-guitar fills play perfectly off the vocals in the outro chorus. It’s a textbook example of how a minimalist, less-is-more approach can yield powerful results.
The Cardigans’ dreamy pop hit “Lovefool” is masterfully produced. It features a really effective arrangement, especially the guitar parts. There are some wildly different tones, but all are totally appropriate for the parts. Bright, funky rhythms … dark, jazzy chord washes … aggressive, stabbing rhythm parts … fuzzed-out single-note lines … they all work in harmony to create a hooky masterpiece. No parts clash, and they all serve the song beautifully. This aesthetic can be applied to any kind of music. Use your imagination, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
Thoughts on soloing. When it’s time for you to step up and take a solo, don’t just grandstand. It’s your allotted space to say something, so choose your notes carefully. Solos shouldn’t be pointless and self-indulgent. They should be essential to the big picture.
David Gilmour’s two solo breaks on “Comfortably Numb” are terrific examples. The first is a major-key diatonic masterpiece that seamlessly takes over where the lead vocal leaves off. Gilmour phrases the solo like a vocalist would sing it—that’s what makes it so memorable. It transcends cliché rock guitarisms and elevates the song. The second (outro) solo is a bluesy minor-key affair that positively soars with emotion. It’s not just the notes—the space between the notes gives listeners enough breathing room to absorb what’s being said. What you don’t play is just as important as what you do.
A final thought: As an exercise, try looping a chord progression and then singing or humming simple yet catchy melodies on top of it. Next, find these phrases on your guitar. With practice, you’ll get to the point where you’ll be simultaneously playing and singing. This is where the real magic occurs. Your natural melodic instincts will come out through your guitar, and your soloing will sound less lick-like and be more memorable and mature. Until next time, always strive to keep it musical!