By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor
If you have been learning guitar for any length of time then you know that unbridled self-expression is a long term project rather than a once-done event. Along the way you may at times find yourself wrestling with a vague sensibility that your playing seems to be technically correct as best you can tell, but yet does not seem to have the lively gut-wrenching feel of your favorite guitarist playing the same thing. Then you may be tempted to think that your technique development endeavors are not getting the job done. If you go online to read some articles about such things, you may stumble across lengthy arguments regarding whether or not technique is more important than feel, whether or not music theory stifles creativity, and so forth. If you are in that stage where you have pretty good technique but do not feel that you are expressing yourself well, you will probably be tempted to align with the “feel/creativity” side of this age old debate, versus the “technique/theory” side.
Let me point out some pertinent issues before addressing the core of the matter: (1) humans (myself included) are averse to work and we will latch on to any rationalization we can find to get out of doing some work, such as technique development, and (2) people who do not have a fully developed understanding of a thing often insist on convenient, simple answers to things where such answers do not exist. So it goes with ideas about learning guitar. Aligning with either extreme in the “technique or feel” debate betrays a lack of experience that leads to further lack of understanding and consequent erroneous judgments over the more subtle aspects of musicianship. Asking whether technique is more important than feel is like asking if a tire is more important than the wheel it mounts to. In both cases, neither can do its job without the other such that they are both critical to achieving the desired results.
So here is the core of the matter: Playing with feel is not the opposite of playing with good technique, but is rather the outgrowth of having developed your technique to the point that it is no longer a barrier between you and self-expression.
By way of example, I recall in my youth being greatly moved by certain beloved songs. I had more than enough feel. I was bursting over with it. What I did not have was any idea how to make such sounds come out of my guitar. My lack of knowledge and technique utterly crippled my efforts to pull what I wanted to express out of my guitar. I needed knowledge of what my favorite artists were doing, and the precise finger control and hand coordination to make it happen. Without sufficient mastery of technique, all the feel in the universe is useless in making music.
So I set out on my technique development journey with a scale book, metronome, and various private lessons. Some years later I reached a point where I could rip through scales at speeds I would have never thought possible for myself, but I still could not make my licks sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s level of raw passion roaring from every phrase (or at least not to the level I wanted to … some folks thought my playing was quite good at that point).
The next level for me was working on refinement of my bending and vibrato, particularly the accuracy of the start and stop points of the bending, plus the rate and proportions of the sweep of the bend. Then to nail these down beyond pure technique accuracy, I looked toward my favorite Blues players and mimicked their technique. Bear in mind, if I had not had the experience and results of laying the foundation of accurate and timely bends then I would not have had the ear for what my favorite artists were doing, much less the finger control to reproduce it.
Then I needed work on my pick attack. I think much of the “feel” in guitar music comes from the pick attack, which varies a bit from one guitar player to another, and from one style to another. Pick attack is a very personal part of musicality, but there are certain universal aspects of pick technique that enable good playing … proper pick hold, strong articulation, accurate timing, playing to the song, etc. Again, without the pick technique foundations you will not have control to apply the subtleties that make for true self-expression.
It is also important to understand that no matter how well you have developed your technique, if you do not resonate with what you hear coming from the guitar then you are not going to be able to play with maximum feel. Self-expression is ultimately a sort of dance between you and your guitar, transcending technique. Technique must be something that is done and out of the way, but you also must enjoy and be moved by your guitar’s tone to get the most out of your playing. If you are not sure what your tonal preference is, just listen to your favorite guitarist and start tweaking your tone towards that. Much like overall musicality, tone development is not a once-done event, but rather a process. The sooner you get started the sooner you will find a tone that compels you rather than hinders you, and then you continually tweak from there as your ear and tastes develop.
Now let us consider a more subtle aspect of music that you must be aware of to avoid undue frustrations with your playing. If you want to play with feel, you must play music that you truly feel! As an example, I am never going to play highly expressive solos in certain styles such as progressive metal, jazz, or bluegrass flatpicking, because I do not really resonate with these styles. This is not because I have any contempt for them or those who play them, but they do not move me as do Blues and Classic Rock. This does not mean that I can not play anything at all over these styles, but my best playing will always happen when I am playing along with Blues or Classic Rock or their close cousins. So if for instance you are attending my group classes, you may not really resonate with all of the variety of songs I use for these since I need to appeal to the tastes and abilities of a broad audience. So, if you find that your solos are coming out somewhat lifeless in these situations, realize that this does not mean you are failing at guitar. Always strive to improve your overall skills of course, and recognize that sometimes being a musician means playing what suits others rather than just yourself. At the same time, recognize that you are never going to be able to get into the “zone” while playing music that does not really stir you up inside. That is perfectly normal, even for pros. (If you take a moment to think about it you will notice that most highly regarded guitarists are known for excellence in only one very narrow range of style.)
Likewise, when playing open jams, playing with a friend, or being put on the spot by someone who knows you are taking lessons asking you play for them, realize that you are not going to do your best playing in these situations, so don’t judge your skills by how you perform under these conditions. Open jams are notorious for including musicians who are not well developed enough to keep good time. You can not feel the music when one or more instruments of the rhythm section is out of time, and you can not resolve phrases properly when a chord change you are expecting is early, late, or just wrong. When you get put on the spot with no warm up you are not going to be able to play as well as after you have had thirty minutes or an hour of playing behind you. The best thing to do with these types of situations is to avoid them. If you wish to play open jams then just play rhythm as best you can and see if the general level of musicianship is going to allow for good soloing with feel, before attempting to cut loose with your best chops. If someone pulls out a guitar from a closet and asks you to show them what you’ve got, tell them you are going to show them some Hendrix first and then smash the guitar over their head. If you are attempting to play in a band and the group is not in good time with one another (i.e., “tight), then do not expect your best playing to happen with this group unless and until they get it together.
Finally, we need to strike a balance between technique development and making music. In answer to a question like “how much technique development do I need to invest my limited time in”, I respond, “rough rule of thumb for a hobbyist, about 20% more than you need to play the music you want to play”. For instance, if you wish to play Blues and Classic Rock, then you do not need to invest a lot of time in cultivating sweep arpeggios to 1000 notes per minute, but you should work on speeding up pentatonic scales and licks to 20% past the speed that you will use them in live playing. This gives you a buffer to offset stage fright, distracting anomalies in the rhythm section, etc, such that you have more than enough control to listen well and play with feel at the speeds you really need, even under these imperfect conditions.
So … if you have been thinking that “feel is more important than technique”, try doing some spirited sport driving with the tires removed from your wheels. After you get out of the hospital then get back to metronome practice, and lot’s of it. 😉
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