So, I trekked out to Mississauga recently for a music clinic. Don't know if I picked up much of what the instructor tried to impart, but I sure gained some insight into my musical self.
Some people—and our dear instructor, a jazz musician, is clearly in this camp—pick up an instrument in order to gain proficiency, if not mastery. Which is, on the surface, fair enough; after all, it's pretty hard to make music without knowing your way around at least one instrument, even if it's your own voice. The goal is to practise, practise, practise and just maybe, you'll become the next Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani. And I must confess, I worshipped at the altar of technique when I first picked up the bass guitar years ago. My early influences were giants of the electric bass: Chris Squire, Phil Lesh and above all, the magnificent Jack Casady. In retrospect, it served me well to aim that high, as it soon became apparent that steady practice, a few lessons and some basic music theory (thanks, Mom) were the bare essentials needed to even approach my idols' prowess. Never got there, but I did learn how to play reasonably decent bass.
But you know, a funny thing happened on the way to Billy Sheehan: I fell in love with songwriting, arrangement and production. I came to understand that what I really wanted to do was write great songs and make great-sounding records. And to accomplish that, I had to do two things: acquaint myself with a variety of instruments and figure out what makes a song work. Thirty years later, I'm still working on both.
In terms of technique, this means I've become a generalist, not a specialist. I'd rather play ten instruments adequately, and in some cases barely, than one brilliantly. In my experience most "musos" (technicians) find this sort of attitude absolutely baffling. Case in point: the clinic instructor was dismissive of cowboy chords, urging us (presumed) muso guitarists not to limit ourselves to such mundane forms of musical expression. And sure, run-of-the-mill players like me play easy-strum chords partly because we're lazy and inept. Guilty as charged. However, the main reason I and thousands of songwriters use them is because they sound so good. There's something to be said for the shimmering overtones of open strings ringing out, especially in folk and rock.
In the end, perhaps it's a matter of differing tastes. I suppose if you're excited by flurries of notes, unusual scales and metres and convoluted jazz chords, my ringing easy-strum G chord would bore the pants off you. Conversely, if you'd take Roger McGuinn's opening lick to "Mr. Tambourine Man" over any Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani lick ever played, you know of what I speak.
Anyway, we did get some swag last night, for which I was most grateful: a pick holder, a circle of fifths poster and a sheet of promotional stickers, and that's where I'll wrap up. One sticker, now on my lyrics binder, really caught my eye. Designed like a name tag, it said, "I Play Guitar Like A ..." inviting us to fill in the blank. I thought about it for a split second and right away, I knew—
I play guitar like a songwriter.