Monday 19 April 2010

Half song playing guitarists & the control freak

A couple of emails I've had recently with fellow guitarists inspired me to spiel up a blog entry, but I fear it is not going to go anywhere. Let's see!

Half-song playing guitarists; if I were to estimate a percentage, I'm guessing that 90% of people who can form an E chord on a guitar are half song playing guitarists. It makes sense, when you first start out on the guitar, you want, nay, *need* something that is going to inspire you. If you took up playing the guitar out of your own free will (wasn't forced on you by well-meaning parents) then you probably did so because of some riff that you fell in love with. So you learn that riff. And a few others.

The problem is that a riff is not a whole song; and probably, that song contains a whole lot of stuff that _isn't_ a riff, so you don't really have a chance of being able to play the whole thing as a complete song. It's a guitarist half-song.

That might be enough for you; pick up a guitar and noodle your favourite snippets. But don't expect any audience to appreciate it. A listener wants to hear a song from start to finish, it's just the way it is.

(I'm in the land of cover music by the way, the rules change for originals and improvisations.)

So what are your choices, when you are one bloke/blokette with a guitar, and have finally/thankfully become sick of playing half-songs? I see three excellent choices, in reverse order of recommendation: 3 - learn fingerstyle, that's where I went; 2 - learn to sing and play guitar, either just strumming or strumming with some picking either finger or plectrum; 1 - don't be one guy playing a guitar, play with other musicians.

Singing and playing guitar is great. Someone who can hold a tune while playing the guitar will engage an audience easily.

I rarely play with other musicians, but of late when I do I've realised that I'm missing something special. The style that I play isn't designed to fit in with other instruments, it's solo fingerstyle, trying to be a one-man-band. So I'd have to drop that style and go for lead, rhythm or bass. None of them really appeal, so I don't think I'd fit in a band.

And there shows the control freak. When you are solo-fingerstyling, you are completely in control, you rely on no-one except yourself, you're doing everyone's job. The situation then self-fulfills, the more you solo-fingerstyle the more control freak you become, the more control freak you become the more you solo-fingerstyle.

Is there a way to break out, and "let go"? I dunno. Do we want to "let go"? I dunno.

My advice then is, if you have played half-songs for long enough then (1) join a band and enjoy being part of a team (2) learn to sing, the guitar is "backing" for your singing and (100) go down the control-freak solo instrumental fingerstyle path.

(I love solo instrumental fingerstyle)


  1. There's one massive advantage to being a solo player. It's your thing that you do - you do it for your own sake and no one elses.

    That sounds very selfish but I think things you do for yourself are much more of a motivation. As soon as I want to do something for someone else I lose that great self-motivation I often have when just playing simply for the hell of it.

    It's a lot like work - I took my hobby (computer programming) and turned it into a job, now it's just a job and I no longer feel like looking at code outside of work.

    That said I'd love to be able to play in a group, but some things are just your own (even if you share them a bit - like you do).


  2. I avoided using the word "selfish" - but that is the correct word :) I'm not sure exactly when I decided that just playing for myself and the dog wasn't enough. A few years ago now.

    As there is a motivation for playing simply for yourself, there is a motivation for playing for an audience. I'm fairly sure it is not ego, "look at me" - well not in my case anyhow. It's something a bit deeper, it's more like connecting at a musical level with other people. You wouldn't spend time talking to yourself (well okay maybe a little bit) - you talk to other people. Perhaps not a good analogy, if I ever think of a better one I'll blog about it...

    Further is playing _with_ other people, ie, playing in a group. That is an even deeper musical bond, except in that case it's a two way street - rather than you just talking, they are talking back, and you are having a musical conversion. The few times I've done it I came to realise that I loved it.

    The older I get the more I realise "all we have is our fellow man."

    I know what you mean about turning something you love into work - some things might be best left as a hobby.


  3. Oliver talks about computer programming, well I can see a link here with guitar playing.

    Programming can be great as a hobby, because you are the one who decides what to do, you are your own designer. So you can be creative with that. You write the code, of course, but you also have the purpose. But in a professional context, that's rarely the case, and what is left is coding, you need to love coding (and many programmers do) because you can't fall back on the purpose, that's other people's job.

    Well, being a half-song guitarist is like being a 'real' programmer, the one who just enjoys the coding no matter the purpose. This type of guitarists just want to play (and improve) as many half-songs or riffs as they can just to prove their skill (to others, mostly other guitarists, just like a programmer's skill can only be appreciated by another programmer), because that's what they enjoy.

    I'm sure you get the picture, so to be brief, the full song guitarist enjoys songs, not just guitar playing, composition, melody, possibly the lyrics, he tries to connect at an emotional level with the audience. And the programmer with a purpose wants to transcribe his ideas into code and create something that he sees as worthwhile, original, whatever.

  4. Very true Roman. I'm starting to think the purpose is where the real enjoyment is - coding is just the tool. It's enjoyable, but unless you're pushing boundaries it becomes mundane - maybe guitar can be like that too, but I think if you love the music (the purpose!) then it won't be.

    That's it's tough trying to push new boundaries, because suddenly that motivation of the 'finished product' is gone, all my singing pieces are 'half song' pieces because frankly I am terrible at it - but I'd like to be able to.

    Also agree with the 'Fellow Man' statement - when I was a little younger I was quite content with solitude and total dedication to 'the task' - not so much anymore.

  5. Your right about the solo fingerstyle turning you into a control freak. This can be a good thing though. I've found (at least in my small neck of the woods) that someone has to step up and just make sure everyone is on the same page.
    I began picking/fingerstyle several months ago, about the same time me and my mates decided to start a small 3 piece band (2G's 1 vocal). The better I got with the FS the more and more I noticed small and major timing/tempo flaws in our performance. This and JAW's advice made me actually start using the metronome I bought a year ago. Now in my humble opinion this helped us immensely, although my mates didn't like it at first. They felt they played from their feelings and that was most important. (and it can be) But adding a beat or changing the tempo irregularly is sloppy, and details such as this were becoming less and less acceptable for me (thank you JAW). This led to quite a few friendly debates. Interestingly enough the first time we played for some people with it one lady complained about the tempo and the lack of "feeling" in the song (So yeah, that didn't help my argument with the guys much.. It's always the loudest person too :) ) but EVERYONE else said it was much better. You can't win them all over I suppose.

    Now with FS I can FEEL myself pulling away from my band mates. Not in skill or talent but in motivation. last Sat we played out and I played an FS GBBS/AO by JAW. Our lead guitarist wanted in on it. Thinking on all the hours I put into this I had to say no :) and he was not to happy. (your interpretation got a standing O btw :) ) Is this selfish? Is it right? My hobby is my guitar. Much of my inner peace comes from my guitar. So now I fight between appeasing my friends and reaping the rewards of a hard fought battle with my formerly retarded picking fingers.
    Anyway what I'm getting to is simple. I think every band needs a control freak who can act tactfully and without an air of superiority. Mending together the minds of 3-5 individuals in order to play tight enjoyable music is difficult without someone stepping up and saying "we need to do this the hard way (the right way) and not necessarily the funnest way". The more and more I play for a crowd the more i realize that it is our duty to do things the hard way even if its not always exciting. In the past I remember saying "I play for myself, not everyone else". That attitude must be set aside, at least for a while. It is for the crowd now. It is so they can feel what I felt when I heard the song, and i believe that making that happen takes a bit of control and a lot of tact.

  6. Hey Ryan, good comment, food for thought! I'd not actually thought about _benefits_ from being a control freak, but you have a point, without someone at the wheel of the ship then you'll probably be going round in circles...I guess the trick is to ensure that the control freak is controlling in the "right" direction ;)

    Glad to hear the metronome is working out for you. I need to take some of my own advice in that area, I don't use the metronome much, and when I do, I find it frustrating - my inbuilt clock is not totally terrible, but it slightly disagrees with the metronome :) Feeling should come into it but as you rightly point out, irregularly/unintentionally changing tempo - or worse, adding/dropping a beat - is just plain sloppy.

    Mmm, I need to put more of the "hard work" into my practise (tempo) which is not necessarily the funnest. Thanks for re-reminding me!

    Glad that GBBS/AO is working out for you; and that is excellent that you got a good result. I look forward to getting back into connecting with a crowd - I've got no gigs lined up at all! As for "sharing" with the other guitarist, well, I have to agree. Solo instrumentatl fingerstyle is _solo_; yes, a lot of effort went into it being a solo, there would have been a lot less effort for the guitarist if it were incorporated into a full band.

    I fear that may in fact indicate that solo fingerstyle is about wanting the spotlight. I would argue no, that's not the case, it's more about a thorough, purposeful and careful creation and the desire is to present it accordingly.

    Hmm. That's almost a blog isn't it - Are solo instrumental fingerstylists saying "look at me!"? The ones that you see, that is; the ones who play only for themselves you never see. I keep arguing no, it's not about looking at me - but if it barks like a dog...

    Thanks for stopping by Ryan, and for keeping me thinking about objectives and motivations!