School of Rock: Introduction and Intangibles

You have a tough life, Mr. Black.

Here’s the beginning of a feature I’ve been kicking around as an idea for a while now that you’re sure to see on a semi-regular basis going forward (provided you guys don’t give this thing five views or a bunch of two-star ratings or anything).

I know we have some other musicians as both readers and writers here, so let me just go ahead and say that (as with all my writing) I don’t consider myself an authority and my intent isn’t to get up on an awfully high soapbox or talk down to anyone.

I’ve played guitar for close to ten years now (yikes, am I that old?) and bass guitar for a little more than that. I also dabble in drums, keyboard, mandolin, singing, and even trombone (way back in the day). I never took lessons and have a still limited knowledge of and comfort with music theory. This isn’t about me, but it’s just to say that I don’t think studying or playing or writing music is a one-size-fits-all concept. There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s… er, I mean to write a song. Damnit.

With that in mind, though I don’t consider myself important to the process of making music, I’m at least good enough at my part in it to have been asked for advice more than once recently. The things that have helped me improve over time (and I was very bad for a very long time) won’t work for everyone, but if they speak to you then maybe they unlock the instrument for you in a way you hadn’t really considered previously.

In addition, if this series continues and I don’t get an annoyed IM from dangermike tonight, then I would also like to use this to look at a band/artist’s artistic relevance and note things about them or in the music itself worth studying. Under both scenarios, I’d encourage any other TBSErs to contribute if they feel compelled to. Something like ginger jack handy’s recent piece on Tupac with an emphasis on the second half is exactly the kind of thing I have in mind.

Well, without further ado… I’d just like to write about this silly idea that probably all of us playing an instrument have or have had at one point. I know I certainly did when I first picked up the guitar and was listening to my friends cover Zeppelin while I struggled to play barre chords. It’s easy to watch someone with more experience and a trained ear tear up the fretboard and think you can’t play or write good music until you can shred at that speed, with that kind of tone, etc.

Sure, speed and technique give a musician more tools to use with their instrument, but a lot of times less is more. My friend Dave told me at a band practice long, long ago about Police drummer Stewart Copeland playing a “solo” for a drum clinic. He basically played a very simple beat for three minutes and said that the biggest problem with music today was that people (specifically drummers in this case) didn’t know how to take a backseat to make a song work.

Learning an instrument can definitely be a slow and frustrating experience, but getting expectations and what others sound like out of your head can make it more enjoyable. Free of those restrictions, you can begin finding your voice on the instrument – which is honestly the most important ingredient. And there is inspiration for a “less is more” music ethos on guitar all over, but new wave is a great place to look (bands like Joy Division and The Cure). You’re about to hear a lot about John Frusciante’s hard funk rock on Blood Sugar Sex Magik with the album’s 20th anniversary coming up later this year, but the CD he says he is most proud of is Californication, which features very sparse playing inspired by the same era. I mean hell, the good version of Green Day was just a bunch of power chords (and songs about beating off).

Music wants you to find it; it will come so long as you open your mind up and let go of the expectations of impressing people or fear of embarrassment or whatever frames how you think about what you are supposed to do with your instrument. Everything else falls into place once you are willing to accept that those judgments aren’t relevant at all to your ability to play music and to enjoy that creative process. As with most other things, joy will come from viewing the process as of equal or greater importance to the results. Music is a discipline all about enveloping oneself in the process and letting it dictate what the results will be. I truly believe we ‘channel’ music and none of us are actually writing it. The individual is an unimportant part of the process (i.e. music would still exist had – god forbid – Jimi Hendrix never been born. It would have continued to evolve and move forward.). In this way, music is one of those beautiful contradictions – it’s an example of where the ego can be your best friend and worst enemy all at once. You need to be confident in your ability to play your role in making music; i.e. you are always good enough. But the moment you think that you’re good enough because you’re special or some kind of prodigy, the attitude inevitably shifts towards impressing others, making money or otherwise working to promote that ego. All of those things are going to interfere with letting music come unrestricted, and it is typically not difficult to tell the difference between an honest song and a marketing toy.


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