Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - Sloppiness Pt. 1: For Whom Do You Play, and Pig Skateboards?

Friday, June 15, 2018

Sloppiness Pt. 1: For Whom Do You Play, and Pig Skateboards?

 On the planet right now, there are a gazillion different guitar players.  They all feel they slot into a mythical and intangible scale of "sloppy vs. not sloppy".


Part of my quiver


  A lot of people don't evaluate their outcome goals to meter that.  Worse, I think that the 80's wrecked a lot of people's sensibility regarding the concept and turned it into a overly simplistic, all encompassing unobtanium throne of "Perfect Technique".

 I'm going to digress (because it's easy), to an even earlier time of the mid-70s and tell a story about skateboards.  Then, I'll try to tie that into a useful analogy for guitar playing.  I call this "stunt blogging":

 In the early 70s skateboards were very skinny.  They were undeveloped engineering and design-wise, still mired in a limbo zone of being mostly a "toy".  Then, in the mid -70's skateboarding exploded and suddenly there were companies whose sole purpose was to make not only just skateboards, but skateboard parts.

 One company was Dogtown Skates.  Previously there had been a few companies making skateboards, but the shape and size of the skateboards was never really explored (except in length).  Somewhere along the line, the guys that rode their skateboard decks start noticing them getting bigger and bigger, and suddenly it became apparent that a wider board is more stable.  Boards reached beyond being 6-7" wide.  By the 80s people started using boards averaging 10" wide, or more.

 Since then, things have settled down into the typical popsicle stick board seen today, 7.5"-8.5" wide.  But wider than the early 70s, and some still prefer wider today.

At Dogtown, there was a guy in charge of cutting out the planks of wood for the new decks.  This was pre-CNC milling, computer controlled manufacturing.  What he was doing was taking and old deck, and using it as a template to cut out new boards.  Then for the next run, he'd take one of the new boards... and use it as a template for the even newer run of boards.

 Every time he made a new run of boards, he was gradually making them wider.

 For someone who doesn't have a real artistic mind set, the obvious answer to "what is an acceptable amount of sloppiness?" is "obviously" none at all.  The 80s saw the dawn of people staying at home in their bedrooms practicing for many hours a day with their amplifier probably no further than a few feet from their ear.

 The new urge to play faster and more technical led to countless people sitting in front of their amp - in a sonic-microscopic fashion, playing their favorite technically challenging guitar parts from recordings. 

 The thing is, the people they were copying didn't record in that fashion, with their ear up on their speaker.  They heard it blended in professionally by the recording engineer, or maybe out in the studio room with the rest of the band: a less than optimal way to hear what they were doing.  Unless they deliberately soloed their tracks, to polish what they were doing.

 But that was in a *studio* setting.  When that generation and prior was learning guitar, they were listening to more primitive recordings on more primitive playback gear.  They may or may not have been able to make out most of the detail of what their favorite Chuck Berry lick was.  Which was a good thing: this allowed for mutation and hybrids.

 Practice amps were not that great, nor were guitars for beginners prior to the 80s.  So the process of sitting in the bedroom to copy what one's Favorite Guitar Hero did was a more coarse experience, also not tempered by the social pressures of having to have extraordinary technical skill.

 So what was happening in the 80's was akin to the skateboard deck getting bigger and bigger by default. 

 People were transcribing guitar solos with more accuracy and precision than in some cases the original guitar part was played.

 Not only that, but since in most cases the guitar solo on the record represented the guitarist at his "best, peak performance", the practice of replicating that performance over and over and over in the bedroom meant that the Bedroom Guy's skill set was elevated over the original. 

Was art getting better by that process?

 Most would say "no".  Most became intimidated by the anti-punk philosophy of being not just pragmatically skilled, but highly skilled. Then it became trendy to say "no", and that begat the "alternative music" rebellion in the late 80s/early 90s. I think that was a harsh and moronic herd-mentality reflex, to the countless technically adept guitar players that came out of the 80s  unburdened by an artistic sense. But something else just as bad came out of it:

 The moronic, Dunning-Kruger notion of Attaining "Perfect Technique".

 It became kind of tres-cool to say things like "oh yeah, Hendrix... he was sloppy" in the 90s.  I would hear this from both metal guitar players, and technical blues Stevie Ray Vaughn aficionados.  Which was doubly stupid for the SRV fan to say, given Vaughn wouldn't have existed without being a Hendrix fan.

 That attitude matured into what is now a finely shaded and graded scale of "how perfect is your technique?" by a lot of players.  Finely shaded, because what constitutes "perfect" is different depending on who you ask, and actual reality.

 Here's reality: there is "sloppy", and there is "making mistakes". The question is: what is a pragmatic approach to being a a fallible, imperfect human?

 There are 3 concepts that should be recognized in this context, in order to have a practical, pragmatic and useful philosophical attitude on this subject... (outlined in Part 2):



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