I’ve been thinking lately about how we become fluent in a particular musical language. What are the things that we must understand in order to be convincing when we play rock, or jazz, or country, for example? In jazz there are standard compositions that players are expected to know. The same thing is true in other genres, though it is not as plain. Understanding the standard repertoire is important because it gives us an idea of the stylistic markers for that type of music. I might not play in a Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin cover band, but knowing something about those groups, and knowing some of their songs down to the last detail, is part of what makes me a good rock guitar player. I often advise my students to spend time just listening to a song that they are learning. As musicians we should be hearing music the way an art student looks at a painting. It is not enough to just say, “I like that song.” We need to understand why we like it so that we can bring those elements into our own playing and writing. Jimi Hendrix has amazing tone and creativity. George Harrison can be incredibly melodic yet terse. Beatles music teaches us almost everything we need to know about pop song structure and potential variations (like putting the solo in the beginning instead of the end of the song as in “Nowhere Man”). Chuck Berry keeps his guitar solos short because the solo serves the song, and not vice versa. Black Sabbath distilled riff based hard rock into riff based early metal.
I am a huge proponent of understanding music theory. I love practicing scales, chords, and arpeggios. But knowing my standards helps give me a practical application for those concepts. We all know the common I-IV-V progression, but most people don’t seem to realize how ubiquitous the I-bVII-IV progression is in rock (think “Can’t Explain” by the Who – the song is in E but it has a lot of D chords). The more we learn songs, the more we understand what is happening in the music that we play. We learn simple rhythm parts like striking high chords on beats 2 and 4. We learn the potential range of useful guitar tones for soloing, from bright and clean like “Sultans of Swing” to almost completely out of control like “Crazy Train”. We become music historians, but our knowledge base is practical. We know what guitars and amps our heroes used and that helps us in our search to find our own tone. We combine our influences to create our unique voice. I’m hugely influenced by Paco de Lucia but I don’t play flamenco music. I might steal some of his simpler licks and play them with gobs of fuzz. That’s part of my sound now.
One question I often ask is “What does it mean to know a song?” In jazz (painting with a way too broad brush), it means being able to play the melody and the chords and knowing how to improvise over the form, but really accomplished jazz musicians also know the critical recordings inside and out. In rock I feel like knowing a song means knowing the parts. When does the guitar start doubling the bass line in “Taxman”? How many times is the opening riff to “Sunshine of your Love” played before the vocals are in, and when does Clapton play high instead of low on the last three notes? Not knowing those details won’t keep you from playing the song, but knowing them is part of understanding the language of rock. Imagine if you were playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but you only knew the chords. There are basic melodic parts that are critical to that song, not to mention the importance of dynamics. Knowing your standards will make you a more competent player, and that is a good thing!
Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.