For all the words of encouragement you have ever heard pertaining to picking up the guitar and practicing, either from me or your own sources, this article may come as a bit of a surprise to you. For once I am going to tell you to put the guitar down!
A little confused? Don't be, I'll try to explain. And the best way I can get my point across is by sharing an experience I personally had some time ago.
Back in the 80's, I went to music college in London. I feverishly studied classical guitar for 3 years. Practiced for hours each day. During this time I really developed some good disciplinary skills as far as practice was concerned. I would split up the day. Morning playing Bach fugues or whatever torturous classical guitar piece that had enslaved me at the time. A break for lunch, and in the afternoon I would pick up my electric guitar and plough through violin and flute music, which I'd rented from the music school library, to get my sight-reading together. Reading jazz and pop music is very different from classical music because phrasing interpretation is relative to the genre being played. So it is as much about listening to the band as it is reading the note values. So I wanted to get that together. Finally I worked on jazz harmony, specifically vocabulary for playing over changes. The Charlie Parker Omnibook was my bible, but I would also listen to be-bop players and steal their phrases and try to figure out how I should work them into my own playing. I remember stealing from Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Mike Brecker, and I fell in love with the swinging styles of pianists Red Garland and Wynton Kelly, both of whom played on Miles Davis’ album “Milestones", a record that had a profound effect on me. Just as importantly, I listened to the way these musicians would feel the music. It wasn't just about the notes.
Wynton Kelly in particular had a certain thing about playing over altered chords. He would play 4 note phrases that would be repeated in thirds going down. Sometimes in whole tones. In fact many jazz guys I knew at the time would make fun of his style a little bit by singing his name as they played those motifs, going “Wyn-ton-Kell-ey-Wyn-ton-Kell-ey" and so on. After I got the hang of his ideas I would find myself sitting at the guitar and working out my own variations of those ideas. Pretty soon I had a whole bag of Wynton style ‘tricks".
And then something interesting happened. . .
I would practice and practice these new motifs and melodic ideas and really try to work them into my playing. Pretty soon I had a pretty broad library of resources I could draw from. And I would practice them over Jamie Abersold records and so on. The woodshedding continued. Over time, I realized that some of those phrases were technically difficult to play on guitar (at least for me) and when I tried to pull them, off half the time I messed up. Other times I managed to pull them off but because I was really having to concentrate, the ‘technicality’ of it all would take me out of the moment and I didn't like it. I wanted to improvise without thinking after all. So some stuff stayed with me, some stuff didn't.
About three years after I left music school I felt completely ‘educated out’. I was by no means at the level where I could rest on my laurels. Absolutely not. But I had had enough for the time being. I needed to get out of my little London flat and live life a little. Communicate with people. Maybe learn some social skills! I had been locked up in the woodshed for too long. And so I took a break as I slowly joined the professional world of music which, as I soon found out, involved much more than pulling off Wynton Kelly licks! I simply let things go. I went with the flow for a while.
Now don't get me wrong, I wasn't giving up on practice, I was breathing in air, allowing nature to take it's course, that's all. I concentrated on ‘playing’ rather than practicing. I would do gigs around town and simply just play. I stopped worrying about whether the hip notes were going to come out. I just wanted to play and enjoy playing without competitiveness, whether it was with myself or others on the bandstand.
And a fascinating thing happened. Fascinating! During those three years my guitar playing took on a new life! I improved in leaps and bounds and in ways I couldn't have done had I continued practicing the way I had. Phrases that wanted to remain with me did, phrases that didn't want to didn't, and it was all OK with me. I simply stopped forcing things and allowed nature to take its course. And as far as I can remember, this was the best thing that I could have done at the time to grow as a musician. I even started to get a style of my own because I had stopped trying to force my heroes into my playing.
Now I am happy to say that from that time I have gone through many periods of practicing and letting go, practicing and letting go. Personally I like music to breathe, I don't like it cluttered, so if I want the music to breathe I feel it is necessary for me to also. It's as simple as that.
But everyone is on a different path so you must assess whether this pertains to you at this time in your journey or not.
Finally, I do want to point one thing out and I have thought about this a great deal. Jazz musicians can be intense and insular. They can get lost in their own bubble because they spend so much time thinking about music, practicing and so on. This intensity can, and often does, come out in a musician's playing and makes it hard or uncomfortable to listen to. I have always thought that jazz musicians should spend more time socializing with non-musicians to really open themselves up. Opening the mind opens up the soul and the soul is what needs to be bared if we want to really communicate the music.
And I am not saying I am right, by any means. All I know is that putting the guitar down once in a while really worked for me!
Chris Standring is a recording artist and the owner of Play Jazz Guitar.com - check out the website for his ground breaking home study guitar courses.