You make choices all the time when you play.
If you are trying to duplicate something exactly, that’s a choice. If you learn a song as a basic framework, that’s a choice as well. And most of all, every time you learn or create a song you choose how you’re going to express a particular note or chord. And once you’re developed a level of comfort with your playing, many of those choices can be automatic. But should they be?
Now, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a player that generally doesn’t play note-for-note renditions of songs. As a songwriter and creative interpreter I prefer to leave myself as much room as possible to explore the different ways a song might be played. There are times when playing a song faithfully is the right choice. Some people are most interested in learning to duplicate sounds that inspire them, and that’s fine. But if that’s all you do, you won’t develop the kind of creative flexibility that helped make your musical heroes inspiring in the first place.
There’s always another way to play a particular note or chord on the guitar.
Think of a song as a framework filled in by specific details. Different performances might fill in those details differently. If you’ve ever learned a simple “strummer’s” version of a song, you understand this concept. If you can strum the chords and sing the melody, you’re performing the song even if you aren’t playing the specific guitar part from the recording. A C chord is made up of the same three notes no matter how they are played: C, E, and G. The guitar gives us lot of different ways to put those notes together, and each can create its own a distinctive sound. So why would you want to choose the same one every time?
Many people do, though. It might be because they only know one way to play a C chord, but it also might mean they just didn’t think to try another. It’s an easy trap to fall into, even for a skilled player. I have caught myself being thoughtless many times, taking the easy or obvious choice. But when I put some thought into my choices, I often find something more interesting. That first obvious choice still might turn out to be the best one, but there’s no way to know if you don’t ask the question.
There are more options to consider than which fingering to use for a given chord, or where to play a specific note.
Dynamics, tone, and phrasing are all artistic choices a musician needs to make in performing a song. Every aspect of the music is a product of chance or choice. These choices can be intuitive, and that’s ok. As an improvisational player I’m a firm believer in flow and the wisdom of intuition. We’ve all seen how amazing sounds can simply flow out of a gifted artist. But at the same time, when you hear someone onstage there’s no way to know how much time and effort they spent working out and developing the performance.
What does this mean for you? It’s a simple idea, really. There are two ways to create, or two aspects to the creative process. One is the flow that allows the idea to appear, and the other is the evaluation of whether that idea expresses the artist’s intent. The music benefits from both sides of the process, regardless of how gifted or skilled the artist might be.
Wherever you are in your musical journey, there will always be something new you can learn.
If you only know one way to play your basic chords, learn some new ones. If you find you’re using the same rhythm or strum pattern again and again, simply ask yourself how you could change it. This is especially relevant to songwriters. Is the feel of the song right for what you want it to say? What about the tempo? Do your chord choices and voicings match the overall feeling? You may not know the answers to these questions, or you may not have thought to ask about at least some of these aspects.
The bottom line is that as a creative musician or writer, you want to be able to work both sides of the process. You should be able to let ideas flow, but also to step back and question each choice. You should have the means to make other choices and try other options. And you should recognize that every aspect of the music is flexible and can benefit from this process. Ultimately, your goal should be to maximize your expressive options so that you can confidently stand behind every choice you made.
Many of the best musicians are never completely happy with their choices, but that ongoing desire to reevaluate and question is part of what makes them great. You don’t need to be a great instrumentalist to take this idea to heart. Just know that the goal is not perfection but to make the best choice you’re capable of in each moment. This is what allows you to grow and keep growing as a musician and an artist.