I often meet two kinds of guitar students at the intermediate level when it comes to soloing: The guitarist who can catch a listener’s ear for a short time using the same basic fretboard concepts over and over again, and the guitarist who has a lot of harmonic information, but eventually puts the listener to sleep. In the first case, the guitarist usually starts repeating himself right away and loses the listener by the second song. In the second case the guitarist is so caught up in exploring all the melodic and harmonic possibilities, he fails to make music and leaves the listener cold.
All guitarists go through these phases in the pursuit of honest musical expression. One of the greatest pieces of information a guitarist needs to know is that it doesn’t take a lot to please an audience. I’m talking about the average music lover who wants to hear music in a club situation – not the long-haired guy wearing an “Yngwie Who?” t-shirt standing in the back of the club, with his arms folded, mouthing the words, “Impress me.”
Your average music fan doesn’t need to witness the second coming to be entertained. You don’t need to be Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai, Shawn Lane, or Allan Holdsworth. You don’t need to blow away the audience, change the molecular structure in the air, or cause a ripple effect in the space-time continuum. You only need to do your homework, be yourself, and do what makes you happy. You are enough.
Regardless of genre, the audience responds to honesty, soul, and seeing you enjoy yourself – not freakish technical wizardry. The sooner you understand this and take the pressure off yourself in performance, the sooner your playing will evolve. Having fun is vastly underrated when it comes to being a better guitar player. If you’re having fun, the audience will feel it.
Here are a few simple strategies to help you give audience members something they can feel:
Do What You’re Going To Do
Work on things in the woodshed that you will actually use in performance. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s quite common to hear about guitarists who practice chromatic exercises, three-note-per-string – string skipping exercises, and the two-handed tapping intro to Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” only to show up at their local jam to play Chicago blues.
You’re the best at what you do the most. There will never be a situation where a girl singer asks you to play chromatic exercises up and down the neck at 200 beats per minute. She’ll appreciate you more had you learned the changes to Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Lover Man.”
To fully embody the music you’ll be playing, you need to live in that world. Live in blues world if you’re playing blues, live in death metal world if you’re playing death metal, etc. Become a student of the genre. When you take the stage, that world will arrive with you and people will hear it in your fingers.
Let Your Brain Lead The Way
Another good strategy is to hear what you want to play before you play it. Your fingers should never play something your brain didn’t hear first. Your brain makes the music, not your fingers. Hear the line, play the line. Better yet, sing the line out loud and then play the line. If you take the time to practice this you’ll find that what your fingers do will be a lot more musical. If you can sing it, it’s going to sound good on guitar. This rarely works conversely.
It’s also a great idea to listen to horn players. The great horn players play tasty melodies with a beginning, middle, and end. It ends because they have to breathe. Having to breathe makes for concise and meaningful melodic lines that never dribble on and on like a run-on sentence. The line ends and they take a breath. Playing too many notes is common among guitarists, and it would serve them well to take a breath to punctuate the end of their lines. It’s about quality not quantity.
The Well Structured Sentence
A guitar solo is like a conversation. You don’t want to be the guy who talks too fast, too much, uses big words out of pretentiousness, or uses escaped mental patient non-sequiturs. You want to be clear, concise, and have your humanity be felt. Think of a melodic line as if it were a well-structured sentence with a period at the end of it. That period is often times the root of the chord you’re playing over. It gives the listener a sense of structure and sets you up for the next sentence. Play a line – take a breath – build on the previous line – take a breath – make it slightly different – take breath, etc.
Where’s The Money?
Guitar players love scale patterns, easy to finger symmetrical shapes, and our old friend, the pentatonic minor box. If you want to hear the “money notes” within your solos, you have to know where they are. The “money notes” are chord tones, i.e., the notes of the chord you’re playing over. Jazz legends Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian based many of their solos off targeting the notes of familiar chord grips all over the neck. Applying this strategy works for all genres of music.
You can’t get more meaningful than nailing chord tones during a guitar solo. It’s the thing that makes our ears smile the most. Go the extra mile and study triads and arpeggios all over the neck. You will find the money.
The late great blues guitarist Albert Collins tuned his guitar to an F minor chord, added a capo, and milked one position on the neck all night long without ever boring his audience. He played short stinging melodies that were an integral part of his music. You felt every note. Jazz guitarist Pat Martino uses his vast harmonic knowledge to fulfill the emotional life of his music without sacrificing soul or feel. His ideas are absolutely mesmerizing.
While we are forever on the path of broadening our knowledge of the fretboard and it’s harmonic possibilities, our mission should always be the pursuit of musicality, communication, and a foot stompin’ good time. Good things come to those who give the audience something they can feel.