Open-mindedness, experimentation, and dedication are key to getting great musical results.
If you don't look much deeper than the surface, the world can seem a bit bleak when it comes to music these days. But when you think about it, it's really always been this way in the world of popular music. The bands and artists that appear at awards shows and on the covers of magazines are usually not the ones pushing the envelope in terms of artistry. That's why it's so important for all of us to aspire to be the best we can be in our songwriting, sonically, and in our playing. It's up to us to drive the art form forward by striving to have something to say.
Let me start with a quick story about a gig I sadly didn't get. Back in December 2004, I auditioned for Nine Inch Nails. They were about to release the With Teeth album and were embarking on a long tour. I first played for the drummer and bassist—just jamming along to a few NIN album tracks at an L.A. rehearsal studio while they watched. A few days later, I was invited back to play for Trent Reznor.
This second audition basically consisted of Trent asking me to play along to seven NIN songs. I was very prepared: I had the studio versions, live versions, and any alternate versions ready to go on my laptop. As prepared as I was, it was still absolutely nerve-racking playing along to my laptop while Trent watched me perform his music!
Unfortunately, they ended up going with another guitarist. But not long after in early January, Trent called me up and asked how soon I could come down to play with them. Things didn't work out with the fellow they'd chosen earlier, and just 24 hours later, I was in the San Fernando Valley rehearsing with Nine Inch Nails.
Still, for various reasons, guitarist Aaron North ended up doing the With Teeth tour. The silver lining is that I did get to rehearse with NIN for a few days and learned many things in the process, not the least of which is that Trent Reznor is an incredibly focused and driven artist. He won't settle for mediocre anything. It was inspiring to see someone so intent on making everything the best it could be.
Dave Grohl's movie Sound City is chock full of inspiring moments and lessons. In it, you get a glimpse into Trent's musical focus in the scene where he's tracking the song “Mantra" with Dave on drums and Josh Homme on guitar. There's a point where Trent is playing bass and they all agree things weren't sounding totally right. Trent offers to let Josh try a bass part, opts to switch to keyboards, and then the song really comes into focus. Dave states, “That right there sounds so [expletive] beautiful—I really like the sound of these three things together," before Trent moves to guitar to overdub a crazy filtered part that is unique and very effective.
Take just a few minutes to check out the interaction between Reznor, Grohl, and Homme during the recording of “Mantra."
What we can take away from this great scene is that guys as talented as Trent, Josh, and Dave don't settle. They checked their egos at the door, and worked towards making the song as good as it could be. In Trent's case, this meant moving from bass to keys and letting Josh try a different idea on bass. Through experimentation and creativity, the song emerges. What I've noticed when working in similar studio situations is that when everyone feels free to be creative and speak up, the best ideas float to the surface. There's usually a consensus about them. When a bass part really locks in, or a guitar part and tone really contributes to a song, everyone in the room feels it and the collective mood elevates.
A little later in the film, Trent says, “The tools are much better today than they were five years ago—certainly 30 years ago. Now that everyone is empowered with these tools to create stuff, has there been a lot more great shit coming out? Not really—you still have to have something to do with those tools. You should really try to have something to say."
What does this mean? As a guitarist and songwriter, I interpret “have something to say" broadly. I strive to make every note mean something. With the melody, with chord changes, or with grooves— striving to make each part special and take the listener on a journey is the name of the game. There is no substitute for time spent practicing. Sometimes you just have to sit there and beat a song up for three hours to make it reveal itself. Sometimes shaking things up with a completely different part or tone is what's called for. And if I'm at a total roadblock musically, I might throw on an album for inspiration and wonder what that particular artist would have done.
Make sure you really try to have something to say with every tone, every riff, every chord change, and every lyric. Your audience will thank you.