“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”

If you want to be a great guitarist you should try to develop and nurture passion for other art or music that has nothing to do with guitar and adapt or assimilate those things in your playing.

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Story Time

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Please allow me to share a story with you.  This is a true story, but the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Once upon a time, there was a doe-eyed child trapped in a 17 year old body who left his small town of 2,000 people and went to a big city to study guitar.  The institution of learning he went to study guitar at was a very big place with several thousand musicians.  At the absolute minimum it was completely overwhelming for him as an experience.  He went to the school knowing his ass was going to get kicked – but not knowing that saying his ass would get kicked would be more like telling the parachuter mid jump when his/her chute wouldn’t open he/she might break a bone from the fall when they “bounced” (yes “bounced” is the technical term for this occurrence and yes, it happens often enough that a term needed to be developed).

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It kind of broke him.

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In addition to the culture shock of being in a city, rather than a place he described as “Deliverence with snow”, he found the school had a real focus on Jazz and anything non-Jazz was looked upon with complete derision.  He was bombarded with fellow students and faculty telling him the music he liked – the music that was a part of his soul –  was trash and he was wasting his time with it because Jazz was the only music that mattered.  So he did what anyone from a small working class town would do, he became a walking middle finger to anything Jazz because he thought that it was the only way he could defend his identity.  The moment that door was shut was the moment his undergrad experience was doomed.

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Now to be fair, the blame for this was 50-50.  He had no understanding of Jazz as a style.  

Where he grew up in upstate NY, Classic Rock radio and top 40 was the staple and those were his primary means of musical exploration.  But the problem was the curriculum was based around an academic buy-in for Jazz pedagogy, so if you knew nothing about it stylistically – there was no easy way in.  It was just simply rammed down your throat and you either swallowed or spat it out.

In his lesson – a weekly 1/2 hour slot – he and his teacher went over a series of proficiency requirements that were necessary to pass the final exam.  The student asked questions about why he needed this material and how he could utilize the material in the rock and metal music he was playing –  but he was just told these were tools he needed to play Jazz.  And given what we’ve said about his (now visceral) reaction to Jazz you can imagine how well this was received.

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His second semester he found another teacher and this teacher was more understanding about what he was trying to do and who shared a lot of his interests.  The two of them started delving into Japanese modes and other concepts and he actually got excited about what he was doing.   The student asked his new teacher if they could just keep going in this direction instead of focusing on rote memorizations of reharmonized chord-solo renditions of tunes that he didn’t need solo renditions.  The teacher said to talk with the chair of the department and get his approval.

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The chair of the department was newly appointed, had a lot of work to do and was not happy with the prospect of meeting with this student.  The student explained he had a very specific direction that he wanted to go in his playing, that this direction didn’t coincide with the narrow parameters of the proficiencies and then asked the chair if there was any way that he could be accommodated.  The chair informed him that wasn’t what they did at the school.  The purpose of the school (according to the chair) was to have students master that particular school’s style and then when the student got out he or she would have the rest of their carer to develop their own style.

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The student said that while he realized he was only a student – the logic of the argument evaded him.  Actually, in the interest of honest reporting and to exclude any pretense of articulation what he said was,

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“Look I know I don’t know anything – but that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  There’s only 12 notes – that’s the substance.  Everything else is style.  What is the point of having 800 people all walking out of here and all sounding exactly the same?  Isn’t my style the only thing that’s going to make me different from every other guitarist out there?”

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The student was then told that was the way it was and he could either take it or leave it.  

The student thanked the chair for his time, walked over to another office and submitted a change of major form.

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Music is a language.  If you learn it as a language – immersing yourself in it, learning vocabulary, speaking it to others as often as possible – you will gain fluidity in it.

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I want to discus vocabulary for a moment and then discuss the issue of style.  One way to think of licks is as musical vocabulary.  As a musician, you learn a bunch of licks so you can communicate with other musicians.  It’s similar to going on any trip or travel.  You might not speak a foreign language – but you should at least learn how to say a few words or phrases to try to get you by.

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If you only learn licks from one source –

it will be difficult to not sound like that source.

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If I go to a show and see a guitar player I can tell you usually in a song or two who he’s listened to.  If it’s only guitar players I probably won’t make it to song #3.  Going back to the language analogy, if you grow up in New Jersey and everyone you know and speak with is from New Jersey – you’re going to have to work hard to get a Texas accent sounding authentic, much less an Irish or Spanish one.  Do you have to learn other accents?  No.  No one is forcing you to do so but it’s important to realize that…

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all of your experiences influence how you communicate with other people.

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Hence the Wittgenstein quote in the article.  For those of you who remember Orwell’s “1984” – there was the idea of newspeak,  the language that kept getting smaller each year for the purposes of eradicating thoughtcrime.  The less you experience in the world, the less you are able to express.  This is why 13 year old children writing love songs do not have the lyrical content to truly plumb the depths of the soul, even though they are often supremely confident that they do.

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If your experiences influence how you speak with other people then it stands to reason they can effect how you play with other people.  If, for example, four guys in a room have only listed to, played and learned “Smoke on the water” – they’re not going to write “Giant Steps” on their own any time soon.  They’re going to play “Smoke on the water” and if they do write something new, it will probably have a lot of similarities to “Smoke on the water”.  (Traveler’s advisory – do not party with these guys.)

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Adaptation and the hidden agenda

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This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t learn other people’s licks.  It’s vital that you dobecause you have to develop vocabulary, but I highly recommend you vary your sources.  If you play guitar, try learning music played on other stringed instruments like violin, or from non-string performances like vocal lines.  My rhythm playing is rhythmically informed by things like drum rudiments, flamenco foot work and rhythmic phonetics.  My single line playing is rooted in rock, but there’s various Hindustani, Balkan, Arabic and Koto references that are specific to things I do.

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Almost every gig I’ve ever played I got because I put energy into learning things that weren’t guitaristic and adapting them.  You’ll never confuse my guitar with a Kayagum – but if I play a note with a sharp bend and crazy vibrato it doesn’t sound like a guitar lick either.  It crosses a boundary and becomes something new.  And here is the hidden agenda.

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When it becomes new, it becomes yours and things that are yours have extra value.

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In addition to this, try cultivating artistic influences from things that are not guitar related.  

The painter Francis Bacon probably influenced me at least as much as Hendrix and his works are a model for me in expressing motion and fluidity through art.  I’m passionate about books and films and I try to adapt anything worthwhile in those experiences into my playing.

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Acquiring tastes

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A funny thing happened to that student after he got out of school.  He started playing with a lot of other players who had opened their minds instead of closing them and those people hipped him to a lot of music – including Ornette Coleman and Ornette was making some of the most wonderful music he had ever heard.  The student found that when it wasn’t being force fed to him as the only viable form of musical expression that there were a lot of great artists and great music being made in the genre and years later (with a little maturity and perspective behind him) he became a fan and started adopting a number of ideas and approaches from the style into his playing.

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The important thing is to find things that you are passionate about and explore, adapt and/or assimilate them to the fullest level you can.

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The limits of your musical language are the limits of your style.

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As always thanks for reading!

-SC

One thought on ““The limits of my language are the limits of my world”

  1. Well said! Boundaries of all sorts are just limits in our mind, like signs on a map. Maps – though often useful – are NOT reality! Who says we shouldn’t feel free to explore this beautiful and various planet is trying to control us and doesn’t deserve our precious and limited time.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences!

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