Cage Match: Playing It Just Like the CD or…Not
Simply, do you like bands that play everything exactly like the CD or do you like when bands (and their guitarists) take chances and deviate from the recorded version? With songs you might right and record, is there a conscious effort to replicate everything note-for-note live? Or is the recorded (or written) version simply a springboard for flexing your creative muscle ‘in the moment’ on a live stage? This is an interesting Cage Match for me, as I can easily find an argument for both sides. While I touched on some of these ideas in this article, will explore this interesting dilemma further here.
Live! In Concert!
When I go see a live band (especially a super famous I-grew-up-listening-to-this-stuff band), I find my expectations, and the expectations of the audience, are pretty strong. I want to hear the songs the way they are supposed to sound, dude! Take a band like Iron Maiden for instance. I couldn’t think of how they could rearrange Run to the Hills, or how Steve Harris could possibly play a different bass interlude in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. By the same token, the solos of Hotel California and Comfortably Numb are written in our guitar playing DNA, and we might like the idea of the Eagles or Pink Floyd being full of living creative musicians, the expectations of the audience keep them glued to those solos year after year. Imagine if, after 30 years, you finally could go see Pink Floyd, and right when David Gilmour gets to his iconic 1st solo in Comfortably Numb, he goes crazy playing some dissonant psychedelic freak-out more at home on A Saucerful of Secrets than The Wall*. In a way, these types of tunes (and many types of bands) are our modern classical music. Classical musicians don’t dare change one note of Bach, and our idols shouldn’t dare change one note of what they are famous for playing, right? In many cases, especially with classic bands, they are recreating a moment in time for us (and maybe for them, too), and every single note better be right or we won’t bother buying a ticket next time.
*Personally, I think that would be so cool.
The Other Side of the Coin
The musician in me knows that the bands I see are also creative people, and if I wanted them to recreate the songs exactly, I could always put a picture of them on the wall and just play the CD. No, this is not the same thing, but to me, I go to see musicians do what they do best- play. I have to think that for many older bands, they are tired of rolling out the hits, and any little thing that they change makes it bearable to play. So if it is a different solo, or a different vocal melody, I accept that I saw something special, and rejoice that the ‘perfect’ version is on the CD at home.
Some bands, like Led Zeppelin, sounded entirely different live due to the multiple overdubs in the studio. They could have added extra musicians, but decided not to. Their live shows were always unpredictable, and certainly a treat to those who were used to hearing the walls of guitars on the studio album. Jimmy Page didn’t care that it didn’t sound like the album, and he looked damn cool whatever he was doing.
Other classic bands, like Deep Purple, were based on live improvisation. Guitarist and part-time honey badger Ritchie Blackmore never played a solo the same way twice, which makes any live recording of his trade-offs with organist Jon Lord very exciting. His lack of regard for the studio recordings made Deep Purple a great live band, and you could see the musicians trying to out-perform each other every night.
Jazz and fusion players are known for their explosive live playing. Improvisation is expected here, and players are (hopefully) always searching for something new or different than the night before. Fusion maestro Allan Holdsworth‘s tunes are springboards for his improvisations, and if his solos sound like they are from another planet, try learning some of his chords!
In Your Own Music
It is popular today (especially in progressive metal) to write music that fits together like puzzle pieces. While bands are getting more comfortable with playing in complex time signatures and extended-range guitars, this doesn’t always mean they are comfortable improvising within those structures, so most bands I know write a piece, practice like crazy, and then recreate it onstage. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and certainly I am guilty of writing music, and expecting the musicians to play it perfectly every single time. Exactly as I wrote it.
Expectation. There is that word again.
Certainly most modern music is based on a fixed piece, and improvisation, if any, is limited to fills and solos. Sure, jazz and blues are still around, but unless a young guitarist is exposed to improvisational music, they won’t even know to listen to it, much less try it themselves. Fact is, playing things as they are recorded (or as they are written) is a complex issue. Agonizing hours were spent writing, arranging, and practicing. This requires a skill that musicians have worked on for hundreds of years. But to be a well-rounded guitarist, it is all important.
Great. Something Else I Have to Learn.
You never know where your musical journey will take you. Do you want to be in a band that plays the same song, the same way, all the time? Do you write your solos so that every hammer-on, every tap and every slide is there for a reason? Or do you want your audience to expect the unexpected? Do you like not knowing what is going to happen, and have the ability to (musically) react to whatever is thrown at you?
To be a great guitarist these days, both skills are important. Like I said above, I have played highly arranged music from originals to 20 minute classic prog epics, and I have also gone onstage with no setlist, with musicians that have never met, calling out key changes and tempo shifts as I went. It was all fun, and it all made me a better musician than I was.
Do you like to see live bands play their songs just like the record? How do you approach this with your own projects?