What? Of course we’re playing in the present. I’m playing right now! Is that present enough for you? Playing in the present isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds, but it does require some focus and effort. Well, this article will help our playing stay in the present, as well as some tips to play in the past and for the future too. Hold on, as it is going to get bumpy.
Playing in the Past
Most likely, we play guitar because of the past. Something we’ve heard or seen pointed us in the direction of the guitar, and as we grow in age and as players, there is always a soft spot for the very moment that electricity surrounded us and our affair with the guitar was born. It could be a band, an older sibling, a parent, song on the radio/tv or a live concert. Oh baby, we all remember when we were hooked, and said to ourselves “One day, I will make that sound too.” We research guitars, amps, pedals and playing styles trying to find that magical combination that brings us to Tonal Nirvana. Once we get close enough to this magical place, many guitarists move on from this place, studying another player, another style, another combination of equipment. Sometimes a guitarist’s quest for another’s tone is a lifelong one, and they never break out of chasing that tone.
And you know, there is nothing wrong with that. It reminds me of a great cover band: if they are having fun, making lots of money, and not claiming the songs are their own, then awesome!
Guitarists who are in constant ‘tone chase’ mode find the thrill in the pursuit. The past is what keeps them playing, studying and collecting the necessary gear, and phrasing just like the people who inspired us: this is how we learn. I’ve studied many guitarists in my time, hampered only by my inability to study so in depth that I don’t get distracted by other tones and styles. Still, it has enabled me to sit in with many different styles of bands and do a reasonable job of fitting in without forcing my own quirky style on to the other musicians.
Guitarists can learn from styles before us. While most modern rock and metal has dropped the blues as an influence, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. You might find yourself playing with many different kinds of musicians (every musician should) since it reminds us of the past. Honoring this past and learning a few things from it will make our own music more interesting, and give us techniques and sounds we can draw from in the future. Besides, you never know if someone in the future will be researching your tone or technique one day.
Playing in the Future
I know, I skipped over the Present, but I wanted to take our Time Machine ahead just a little bit. How do we play in the future? We practice now so we don’t make mistakes in the future. With the chaos of a live show, you can’t spend as much time worrying about every last pattern or note- something can, and will, go wrong. How we prepare for a music disaster or a gear meltdown has a lot to say about how we have put this ‘future thinking’ into practice. If the singer never knows when to come in for the last verse after your solo, you have to prepare for it. If you forget what fret to start your septuplet sweepeggios for the intro, you have to have a cool enough head to recover. If suddenly you have no guitar sound, you have to decide what went wrong, and fix it, quickly.
This all comes down to preparation. Sure, we have to practice the songs. But not every gig is a precise musical puzzle that fits together. Sometimes we are asked to do a session, or to sit in with an unfamiliar band. Now it is time to use those other skills we have been working on.
Playing in the Present
If we are trying to remember the next chord, or worried about executing those harmony melodies before the bridge, you can’t be thinking of what is happening right now. If every solo you ever play is memorized and tweaked at home and in rehearsal, you can’t be free to execute something spontaneous and uniquely you right then and there.
Playing in the present requires not just practicing our parts and understanding all aspects of our tone at an unfamiliar venue, but it requires us to be proactive and reactive for all aspects of the gig. If the drummer decides to play a different roll, be right with him/her. If the keyboardist plays a spontaneous solo at the end of a song, when it is your turn, notch it up a bit so as not to let the keyboardist win. Never let the keyboardist win.
If we are at a jam, and everyone is playing the stock licks, be prepared enough to play something different keeping in mind the type of music you are playing. Our heroes didn’t get to be that way by always copying, and even if we never achieve the heights they have, we can aspire to. Being musically in the present allows us to drive the bus, so to speak; or at least react in a musically appropriate but spontaneous way when someone else drives.
You can’t be in the present all the time, you know…
Playing in the present isn’t always possible, but it is something I strive for in any musical situation. I am constantly writing, but also practicing improvisation. While that is a bigger topic, it essentially encompasses learning about the past without directly copying it. Knowing the rules before I break them is important, but so is breaking the rules because I want to (and the music allows it)- and not because I don’t know any better. The more we can play in the past, present and future can certainly make us all More Valuable Musicians.
Do you generally make things up at shows or do you practice precisely what you are going to play? What are some of your favorite tones to chase?