Leaving Open Space in Your Playing is an Often-Overlooked Part of Music!
If I’m not making music in some form, or fashion, I tend to start getting very antsy and my mind will start to worry about all the things going on in my life. So, as a result, I tend to keep myself pretty busy with a solidly booked lesson and recording session schedule. Sometimes I might have to go play on a recording date at a moment’s notice, so I usually keep a small portable tube amplifier, like my old school Mesa Boogie Subway Rocket, and a guitar in a gig bag with me at all times. It’s easy to throw in the back of my car, and it seems to cover the most ground tonally and musically, which is great for when you don’t know what kind of music you’ll be playing before you arrive at the recording session. I like my small Mesa Boogie because of its relatively light weight, it’s 12-inch speaker, the EL84 power tubes give it some more low end than other amplifier choices, and the channel switching on the amp really allows me to cover a wide range of gain tones-all without bringing a pedalboard to the gig. There’s no studio too small for me to come out, whether it’s a small home studio, to a video production studio, to a full out HD professional recording studio. On any given week, I’ve worked with a wide range of artists and musicians- usually at a minimum of five different clients a week.
Since I tend to play on so many last-minute bookings, I work with the full spectrum of musicians- from top-tier session pros to complete novices looking to get their first project under their belt. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t when you’re making music firsthand. Strangely enough, it isn’t poor technique that hampers most performances or recordings, but the way you approach how you perform certain sections can! Now, of course if you have never picked a guitar up before there’s bound to be problems, but basics can be picked up quickly. However, whether you’ve been playing six months or 60 years, what separates great musicians and great musical performances from bad ones is ultimately how you listen and how you serve the song as a player!
It all starts with timing. Being in time can make up for being a bad to mediocre guitarist, just because you lock in to playing the song. People tend to listen to how the groove goes along, and the last thing you want is a stop-start driving stick shift like feeling to take away from the music. Remember, if you aren’t in time there’s no amount of polishing to a recorded track you can do to adjust the performance, so practice with a drum machine/metronome to get it right! Playing in time should create a hypnotic groove that can establish the space of the song you’re playing in. While you’re building a simple rhythm part, pay attention to how it fits with drums rhythmically, and match your guitar’s dynamics to the intensity of the other instruments on the song. Bad fills will take away from the hypnotic power of the groove, so don’t over think it and play what you can, as simple as you can!
Now, once you have a track that gives a certain feel to play over there’s a right way to approach playing over the song, and a wrong way to approach playing. Most inexperienced guitarists will begin playing over a song by throwing as much of what they know at the song as fast as possible. Whether it’s just straight pentatonic soloing ninety miles an hour mindlessly over everything, or whether it’s trying to fill up space unnecessarily with an awkward guitar fill, or thrashing away at full volume most players don’t understand how to let a song breathe. More importantly, bashing away at a song is just a one-dimensional way of approaching something in a musical situation. It’s about as musical as throwing a package of nails into a dryer!
When you hit something as hard as possible, and yes that includes a guitar with your picking hand, you will naturally lose the organic tone of the note. You end up erasing notes of all the clarity and subtlety they would normally have when played with more control and nuance. Furthermore, you end up having nowhere else you can go because you’ve started right out of the gate using all your power. You can’t shape the music dynamically with variances in volume to enhance the emotions you’re trying to convey. Remember to let the pick and the amplifier’s power to do the work for you, NOT your biceps! Remember to RELAX!
Lastly, don’t feel like you as a guitarist need to take up every amount of space in a song. Remember your goal should always to be to make listenable music that people can enjoy, and sometimes that means playing less that everyone else on a song. Take a song like “Bullet the Blue Sky” by U2 off their Joshua Tree album. That’s a song all about Larry Mullen’s tight drum groove, and Adam Clayton’s hypnotic bass drive to propel the song forward. U2’s rhythm section is really THE song here and guitar playing by the Edge takes an important backseat to their wonderful groove. You should think about incorporating what you do to serve what they are already doing! Think of Edge’s part on the song. It’s a sparse, yet effective simple, crunchy, echo-filled slide riff. But maybe more important are the parts Edge decided to not play over. The times in the song where he let Adam’s bass come forward and take command of the song. It makes the overall song hit harder and feel more hypnotic in the verses and makes the chorus that much catchier when the guitar comes back into the song. It’s a brilliant performance that shows how to make a song groove harder by being simple!
We live in a wild time. Everything has become faster, louder, more chaotic, and busier than every before. If one has the ability to play, it seems you’re encouraged with temptations to show off, instead of playing in the most musical way possible. So instead of trying to make that competitively liked Instagram video of you rocking out on your guitar that will surely make someone’s day for 30 seconds only, until they scroll down to the next time waster of the day, remember music is more important than that. The song doesn’t always ask you to do that. If music really is a universal language, try to do your best to allow everything to be heard equally around you so the message can truly sink in. Be sure to add some silence in between parts so you can be heard intelligibly!