Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - Sloppiness Pt. 2: Claude Monet and Lead Guitar

Monday, June 18, 2018

Sloppiness Pt. 2: Claude Monet and Lead Guitar

1) What is the threshold of acceptability for your audience?

(this is actually a very accurate meta visual example of what this article is about...)

 (the above picture I took using a pinhole lens I made, deliberately making my modern technology digital camera to yields results that look soft and "sloppy" - like an Impressionist painting.  It is of an artist making a copy of a Monet painting titled "The Stroll: Woman with a Parasol (Madame Monet and Her Son)".  Why?  1) Because the painting was already made, I couldn't make it. 2) You're not allowed to use take pictures of certain pictures at museums. 3) ... which doesn't matter, because it doesn't take any particular skill or mindset to take a "perfect" picture of a painting! 4) The pinhole lens has an element of mystery to it because of it's imperfection and inherent chaotic light scattering.  In a staid setting such as a museum, this makes for a more interesting picture to occur in my opinion.  How many pinhole pictures of the inside of a museum have you seen....?)

  .............This may seem self-explanatory, but it's not.

 Your "audience" might be a record producer or engineer.  In which case, they are going to be listening more closely than The Random Person On the Street.

 Your audience may be people in a music store: it shouldn't be, but having worked in music stores most of my life I can say that this is a reality for some people.  The interesting thing here is that there is a profound disconnect between what the Budding Guitar Store Rock Star thinks is "ok" and what the Experienced and Jaded Music Store Employee thinks.

 Another audience might be, as in my case, a guitar student sitting point blank in front of you.  Which is a curious thing, because everything is on the table in this giant question mark of a case.

 Then there is the "traditional" sense of the word.  In a big arena, "sloppiness" is almost relative given the over-amplified whorl of distortion and volume that is a live show.  In this scenario the audience is going to be ultra forgiving, simply because - they can't really make out much detail in a lot of cases, unless it is "that soft part in the song".

 As venues get smaller the stakes go up, actually.  Because a more and more significant portion of the audience is likely to be hearing your amplifier directly off the stage, or as the capability of the p.a. system to the size of the room becomes greater and greater.  So there is trade off here, depending on the p.a. and the sound of the room.  But...

 At this stage (pun intended) there is a Default State of Acceptable: you have to presume your audience is going to have a pretty good chance of hearing at least as much detail as they would hear on a recording.  The thing to note here is that in general, this is NOT "perfect technique"; it's a mature and pragmatic technique.  A practical one.  This is somewhat my position for myself (as I think of it).

 Then there is the Solo Acoustic Performance In a Small and Intimate Setting.  This is difficult.  This is where "approaching perfect technique" comes in, because everything can be heard usually to a more detailed degree than on a recording.

 This is the realm that "singer songwriters" and solo performers work at, which is actually a much higher level of "getting to perfect" than is necessary for the Rock Musician.   In turn these people are stronger on fundamentals and consistency, because there is no forgiving in this situation.  Combined with 21st century expectation of perfection, this is a high-stress place to be, which is why I choose not to do such things anymore. 

 I used to regularly play gigs at bookstores that used to be part of a large national chain.  These gigs were always weird, because invariably I would find myself playing with what is obvious other guitar players literally at arms length in front of me, staring at my fingers with their arms crossed.  These Musical Buzzards were waiting for their chance to prey on the remains of Any Morsel of a Mistake, and I knew it.

 So instead of thinking about music, I was thinking about string squeaks.  I was thinking about That Really Tough Stretch Coming Up.  That Suddenly Super Quick Legato Part After This Chord.  Execution.

 Which means I could have played easier music (and maybe I should have?).  Or practice even more, which was not a wise utilization of my time given the diminishing returns of what said gig paid!

There are angles around some of the pitfalls.  Some Famously Skilled Acoustic Wizards have acoustic guitars set up with crazy low action, resulting in guitars that when unamplified do not sound very good.  You can also use compression (audio electronic effect), and weird guitar amplifier-like equalization to approach an electric guitar-like feel, but at that point one has to ask are you deluding yourself or the audience?  Hats off to the singer-songwriter guys that just use electric guitars, negating this downside as well as side stepping the "trying to make an acoustic guitar loud/amplified and still sound like an acoustic guitar" battle.

Using a lone microphone, not a pickup, in front of an acoustic guitar is very revealing and challenging.  When you watch footage of James Taylor or Neil Young playing solo in the early 70's, they're not playing hyper-technical licks BUT - they're playing point blank in front of a microphone, not an "acoustic guitar" with a pickup system through a processor/p.a..  That is something of an anachronistic skill set in the 21st century.

 At the bottom of the barrel is the "Fool My Friends" skill set.  In this scenario as long as you almost hit enough notes that whatever it is you're playing is recognizable - you've accomplished something.  And I'm not ragging that - it *is* an accomplishment.  It's something the Friend that is Your Audience can't do, and something you couldn't do at one time.  You can have fun in the garage band, and it's a stepping stone to the next level as long as one understands that concept. 

 The question is, do you let yourself stay there?

2) What is optimal in order to be artistic?

  Jimi Hendrix wasn't perfect.  He didn't strive to be.  He strove for balancing on that Live Audience Acceptability Standard versus going out on a limb improvising.  In my opinion, that is what you want. You want art you've never heard before, right?

 On the other end you've got the Technical Metal Guy who is looking at it as a sport, as is the audience.  Can he play hyper-technical and note-dense music flawlessly, all the way to the end?  GO!!!

 That's... interesting somewhat, but not artistic in itself.  It also runs counter to making art.  This is the realm of what I was talking about previously: the guy that is listening as if another guitar player is sitting in front of him.  Which has nothing to do with Making Art but impressing someone.

 Even within that idiom there is a scale of slop.  Some people think Yngwie Malmsteen is sloppy, others think he's "perfect". Does Yngwie care?  No.

 But this is a very hard road to travel, because we're already at the end of it where there is a sign marked "THE LIMIT OF HUMAN KINESTHETIC ABILITY".   Diminishing returns.  Bands like Rush and Yes set a high bar int he 70s, along with fusion acts like Return to Forever, Weather Report, Al DiMeola, Allan Holdsworth, and the king of complicated music, Frank Zappa.

 In reality, humans are not going to exceed what Zappa did with a group of people when it comes to playing Complicated Music.  It's been done.  Note density, tempo, duration can be made into hurdles, but that's all they are.

 Life is too short to spend worrying about What the Other Guitar Players Think.  I'm OCD so I worry about that - but I shouldn't.  I'm not playing music for musicians, even if a lot of them are. Having said that, the following caveat should be heeded:


3) What is best for a given practice routine? 

  This is where not being sloppy actually counts the most.  There are things you should practice at a certain minimum tempo, even at the expense of sloppiness, but in general striving for perfection when practicing will pay off.

 Which brings me to this point: the reason I'm writing this is in the hope that a student or students will note the gravitas of this.  I've said it a thousand times: playing fast is the easiest thing to accomplish on guitar.  It's just a matter of making yourself practice PERFECTLY.

 The trick is understanding what that means, and most people don't really embrace the idea that it's quite literal.  Not only that, but it's then multiplied by the perfect, optimal rate against duration.  At that juncture it's just repetition and training, patience in waiting.  If you're doing this properly, you can't help but to get faster.

 Which goes back to my point about the guy sitting in his bedroom in the 80's.  If you put a microscope on your playing, and do it enough - you get better.  It's very simple.  Patience.

 The flip side is that I encounter, about once a year, the Random Student That Has An Unrealistic Idea About Where Their Skill Set Should Be.  This person gets stilted by trying to make perfect something that takes more time than they allow, at the expense of not taking time to work on other things.  This is the "horse with blinders" brute force approach, that seems to make sense to some people.  Perfect practice has to include the calculus of the bulk of what needs to get done, not just one hay bale in the corner of the painting!

 Which is where I come in as musical "coach".  People in general are all over the place with their notions of expectations and sloppiness, and how that impacts what they play.  For most it's an inefficient perspective and combination.

 Knowing and understanding the above concepts will help a guitar student meter out their efforts, hopefully.  I can't impart to the Technical Metal Student that having a sort of Kurt Cobain level of coarseness applied to technique is not going to work, or to the guy that just wants to play punk music that obsessing about the angle of their pick in degrees while not working on playing barre chords is also wasting their time.  There are things one should consider "sloppy" from the outset and other things that are not as much of an issue, depending on where someone is in their development.

 In conclusion: "sloppiness" is relative, but something one should consider as a concept that one accepts as a philosophy, depending on your "audience".  There is no reason to expect your technical high-gain metal chops to translate to a steel string acoustic.  There is no reason to try to bother with legato lead guitar technique if you're not interested in that, either.  These are specialty skills that have different expectations for "cleanliness" in execution, and there is no reason to impose non-logical restrictions when 98% of your audience won't hear it.

 For the 2% that do, they're probably of a mental state that is non-congruent with reality, making and appreciating art.  Claude Monet was trained as an artist of the "baroque" school of portraiture and technique. In his early paintings you can see him still clinging to that (literal) school of thought, but with hints of rebelliousness.  It shows that he did have a legitimate baroque technique; but this is post van Rijn and Vermeer.

 Monet took what I think may be the biggest authoritative creative step in history, along with a group of peers in the Impressionist movement.  He started making paintings that were deliberately, intentionally disregarding notions of "sloppiness" of technique.  That is not the same as saying he did not have technique, or that there was no technique present!

 That is not the same as saying he did not have technique, or that there was no technique being used in the presentation. 

He gambled on his audience understanding, literally, the big picture.  Not the gatekeepers of the art schools, or the pundits.

 It took a long time, but obviously people have come around to appreciate his art. Music has, since the late 60s, been mired in a weird corporate-imposed state of limbo somewhat like what existed in Monet's life, a pre-determined set of "rules" that defined "art".  When people ask me "do you play classical guitar? Do you play jazz?" my first thought is literally "Andres Segovia already happened.  Joe Pass already happened".  I'm not practicing to simultaneously have perfect classical technique, or perfect jazz technique.  That has been done, and one human isn't going to do it all as perfectly as one human has done these specific idioms already!

 I do not adjust my "output stream" of acceptability based on the idiom.  I do not care to play Bach as perfectly as Segovia and will not waste my life bothering.  I do not care to play modern jazz as Joe Pass did. Paul Gilbert as the cleanest, precise metal guy.  Holdsworth the most legato.  Stevie Ray Vaughn as the most lurid blues player. They have already happened!

 I am all about hybrid vigor.

 I want something new, in some respect.  We have to move forward.  Monet couldn't be Rembrandt and Monet at the same time.  A 21st century artist does not have multiple life times to become the perfect Impressionist, Surrealist, Classical, Baroque, Picasso, Pissaro, Van Gogh etc..  They have already happened. If you look at that list, Picasso could never have happened if he'd worried about Vermeer's standards of execution.  Also note that Pollack, Kadinsky is not on that list; anti-technique as an approach is outside of what I am discussing.  There are actually people that play instruments deliberately untuned, deliberately out of time with no sense of meter.  There is a movement in Japan for "noise music".  You don't have to have technique at all if you want to make sound.  It might even being artistic; but again.... that's not within the purview of what I'm writing about.

 For some the challenge of being "perfect" might be appealing. For others, the acceptance of "being sloppy" may actually be a hindrance and misguided.  It may be perfectly fine to pursue one of the above, or multiples - I'm not saying that wrong, but I AM saying you want to be aware of the concept of differing approaches to sloppiness vs. perfection.  Where do you sit on that scale?



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