What You Don’t Play
1. In guitar years, I’m definitely an old dog. I’ve been playing and recording for over 40 years. That’s a long time to observe the way other musicians—better musicians—do what they do.
2. Much of my career has been spent in Nashville, which, I’m convinced, has more tasteful guitar players per square mile than anywhere else. Consequently, the bad ones really stand out.
Because of these things, I’ve learned some important lessons about playing guitar, about musicianship and about increasing the odds of having a long career. So here’s my most valuable piece of advice for any guitarist: Quit playing!
No, I don’t mean you should stop being a guitar player. But I definitely mean you should give it a rest sometimes—literally. If you haven’t thought about phrasing before now, it’s time to start. If you’ve been absorbed with speed and flash, and playing 1000 notes per measure during your solos, stop it now. If you’ve ever been guilty of playing a lick that interfered with the vocal, you need to reassess your approach.
Phrasing versus speed
A great solo shouldn’t simply be a showcase for the soloist. It should take the song to a new level. It should be as unforgettable as the chorus. It should not be interchangeable with every other solo you play. If you keep using the same licks over and over, song after song, you’re not helping the song, you’re not helping your band and you’re not making yourself grow as a player.
Don’t get me wrong: Everybody loves a stud lead player who can rip off a scorching string of notes. But if that’s all you do, you’re not creating art. It’s the equivalent of guitar porn. Without a buildup and some musical finesse, there’s no place else to go and your alleged brilliance simply becomes boring.
Instead of speed, try to give your solos meaning. They should have an arc, like a good story. Whether you go from low notes to high notes, from slow to fast, or allude to the melody before you let loose, your solo should, in a way, mimic a vocal performance. You should create memorable phrases that begin and end—and breathe—rather than suddenly vomiting out everything you’ve ever learned.
Don’t be afraid to simplify and don’t be afraid of space. It lets the listener absorb what they’ve just heard and anticipate what you’re about to do. That’s much sexier than constantly being bludgeoned to death by 64th notes.
Pick your spot
This one is simple. If the singer is singing, stop playing. If you want to fill between vocal phrases, keep it simple and be sure to end the phrase before the vocal comes back in. If somebody else has a fill, stay out of the way. You don’t have to plug every hole. It’s not just obnoxious; it’s dumb. If two instruments, or vocal and instrument, are competing for the same spot, one is going to lose. So back off.
Successful players know how to share the spotlight. They know the value of a well-placed one- or two-note lick that speaks, but doesn’t interfere with anyone else. In the studio, it means the engineer and producer don’t have to ride herd on your overplaying. And live, it means the rest of the band doesn’t have to constantly compete, so the music can breathe. It can make the difference between being exhausted and fatigued at the end of every gig or being exhilarated and excited about the band’s chemistry, set after set.
So unless you’re Eddie Van Halen or Jimi Hendrix—and you’re not—you need to think about playing less. Use your ears as much as your hands. Your moments of glory will still come and you’ll have just as much opportunity to impress the audience when you do play. But it will be that much more impressive because of what you don’t play.