Play guitar long enough and you'll eventually contemplate the musicianship concept and how it transcends the limited idea of being a mere guitar player. Few people would deny that musicianship, at its summit, is an art. Wouldn't you like to be known as an artist instead of just a player of an instrument? Maybe you already think of yourself as an "artist." Maybe you are and maybe you aren't. To illustrate what I'm getting at, let's juxtapose two well-known jazz musicians: Kenny G and John Coltrane – I realize that jazz fans everywhere are cringing at the comparison. But why would they?
Kenny G, the entertainer, plays the sax whereas Coltrane, on the other hand and so the story goes, was an artist who happened to express himself through the sax. But why, exactly? Did 'Trane know more scales? Did he play faster? Is there some technical gulf that separates the two? Undoubtedly there are analytic differences between Kenny G and Coltrane, and I would concur that the artistry of Coltrane can not be compared to the fluff of Kenny G. But the main thing that separates the two, the thing that differentiates candyfloss from gold, is what we might call, momentarily, the quest for transgressive fluidity. What does that mean? How does that relate to you? And, finally, assuming that I wanted to be an artist rather than a guitarist, how do I get to that point myself?
The Artistic Imagination and Fantasy
"Art is" according to one noted authority, "a stylized form of fantasy" (Zerubavel, The Fine Line). And as "stylized fantasy" it's greatest power is in its ease and facility in transgressing boundaries, exploring new frontiers, and blurring distinctions. Check out what Zerubavel has to say about art and reflect upon how you might like your playing to correspond to this characterization or just how far away you are from it:
As a mental adventure, art, like fantasy, "…respects no boundary (which is precisely what makes it at the same time so attractive yet so feared by the rigid mind)…. Fantasy likewise blurs the conventional distinction between live and inanimate…and mocks the very notion of insularity…. Typically abhorred by the rigid mind, blends and mixtures, too, haunt our imagination in the form of mythical…. Art also promotes unconventional mixtures and combinations. Artistic 'promiscuity' is prominently featured, for example, in the arts of collage, assemblage, and photomontage and is likewise manifested in culinary art…and well as in music (in stylistic melanges such as Astor Piazzolla's blend of chamber music and tango, Pee Wee Hunts' Dixieland version of instrumentalists accompanied by jazz rhythm sections)…. The quest for fluidity also underlies the artist's attempt to defy the conventional partitioning of reality into entities by blurring the very distinction between figure and ground…..we normally regard the ground against which we perceive 'things' as empty, a void. Artists, however, often attend such 'negative' spaces and use them dynamically in painting and sculpture…. (The Fine Line). When I read this, the thought that springs to my mind is just how far away most guitar music is from embodying the artistic spirit.
Anti-Art: The Rigid Mind
Of course, the opposite of this artistic form of imagination is the rigid mind. The rigid minded person, unlike the artist, subordinates themselves to established boundaries, rules, and norms. The rigid person recognizes the authority and formulas of established ideas and they obey the rules. They fear the personal consequences of transgressing socially accepted ideas and they adhere closely to well-worn and conventional formulas – whether linguistically, with fashions, and with the production of music. The rigid person fetishizes methods and techniques and the efficacy and "correctness" of traditional methods, seeking not to revolutionize the domain that they find themselves, but to "fit in" and be "normal" and, if they work hard enough at it, become well known and distinguished from the crowd. The rigid person also finds an existential necessity in establishing their activities, like guitar playing, within an established and hopefully respected tradition. They devote huge quantities of time and energy in learning the products of their predecessors, i.e., heroes and influences rather than striking out on their own. The thought of isolation, independence, and the threat of public opinion is frightening. Moreover, they lack confidence in their own charisma to say "Thou it is written I say unto Thee!" In other words, they seek not a transvaluation of conventional values, as Nietzsche so eloquently put it, but merely to be good at embodying those values and, hopefully, profiting from exemplary conformity.
Guitarists Caught in a Dilemma
When I hear the vast majority of guitarists I see not the experimentation, fluidity, playfulness, and free-form fantasy characteristic of art but a determined, self-negating, and often dogmatic adherence to conventionality and established expectations. Armies of young people chain themselves to metronomes and play scales, modes, arpeggios, and whatnot, day in and day out – sawing away and staying firmly within clearly delineated and conventional lines. And the world of "shredding" may be more guilty of this than any other genre of guitar and this hold especially for those in the neo-classical vein where discipline, subordination of self to repertoire, and technical rationalization are highly articulated. Think about it this way, when I see and hear most guitarists, especially a lot of "shredders", they remind me of Kenny G insofar that they stay comfortably within the lines, they quote familiar phrases, they utilize familiar scales, etc. And it is safe to do this; the best are even rewarded for continuously reproducing, perhaps with a slight twist, what has already been repeatedly done – following the tried and tested formula.
So what's it going to be?
What implications can we draw from all this? Musicians like to think of themselves as unconventional or even rebellious. But the sad fact is that most are very conventional and at the best rebellious – rather than revolutionary. They'd like to think of themselves as musicians or even as artists (and warm themselves by the cozy flame of moral indignation at the likes of a Kenny G) then feel not a tinge of hypocrisy at donating most of their "artistic" life not in playful and imaginative exploration but in mimicry and subordination to the expectations of other people and aesthetic forms that already exist. They seek distinction not in creation of art but in image, lifestyle, and technical perfection. So, should you forget about learning your theory and stop practicing your scales? Of course not; theory can be an iron cage for a lot of people but only for the rigid ones that make it their prison. Theories are ideas. The more ideas you have the better. Scales are great as heuristic devices or general guides but don't allow your self to be trapped by them. Scales are not laws of nature and you are not necessarily obligated to adhere to them like the law of gravity. You will not burn in Hell for deviating from the Harmonic Minor scale. Of course you might be kicked out of your band for getting too wild but that's one of the occupational hazards I guess.
Strategies and Exercises
It might seem paradoxical to suggest exercises for developing creativity but it can work for those willing to slip out into the deep water of the unknown and the unfamiliar.
A. Some Mental Strategies:
1. Listen to some non-Western, non-Euro-centric music for a change. Listen to the environmental noises around you. Focus on rhythms instead of melodies.
2. When you practice try visualizing scenes from movies or imagine you're creating sound-scapes for an art installation. Think in terms of texture or geometric patterns rather than 'notes' and 'melodies'?
3. Next time you go for that big solo throw away your scales and try to emulate the sound of a person screaming in horror.
4. Listen to free-form jazz: the improviser is free to play any note at any time. You may find it a bit disturbing at first but just let your self go and swim in the "chaos" and "disorder." Also, try some jazz 'tricks' such as playing in the 'wrong key' momentarily like playing the A major scale against G maj (I) chord – this results in a Lydian b9 sound. Or try minor third substitutions for an unconventional sound.
5. Tape yourself playing and then ask yourself: do I sound like a flimsy copy of ____________________________________? (Fill in the blank with the name of your hero of the moment). It's good to have influences but don't become a slave to fashion. Instead of 'sounding like' somebody else, try becoming an echo of the world around you. Read the news. Get out in the world some.
6. Give the metronome a break for a while. Why? You figure it out.
7. Smile when you play. There's about an 85% chance that you haven't smiled one time while playing or practicing in the last year. This is supposed to be fun you know.
Chromaticism: few things can add color, literally, to your playing as chromatic notes. Players full of daring-do, individuals like Vernon Reid, used a lot of chromaticism in their lead lines. Try a few exercises like these and create your own:
Superimposition of Triads: get to know the augmented, diminished, major, and minor triads and how to arpeggiate them all over the neck.
String Skipping: practice some banjo rolls and country-style chicken pickin'.
The Matrix: Begin to think of the guitar as a matrix-based instrument instead of a linear one like the piano. This is tough to explain in a nutshell (I have an entire web site devoted to explaining this) but it amounts to what I call 'multi-tasking' on the guitar. The results are unconventional to say the least but if you're interested in generating unusual speeds then a new approach is necessary.
Give this little mp3 file a spin. It demonstrates the sound of hybrid 'multi-tasking' on the guitar…it is a bit odd, I'll admit, but you've got to be prepared for an odd sound if you want to make the quantum leap from conventional shred into the domain of extreme guitar.
Thanks for taking the time to read this little article and I hope that you get some good ideas from it. Best of wishes in your future pursuits and shred like hell.