Does your playing serve your writing?
If you play to write songs, of course you use the instrument as a creative tool. But do you use it in a way that both serves and stimulates your creativity?
One way of looking at this is fairly obvious. Session musicians and side players know that it’s essential to “serve the song”. In that setting, it means letting the song itself dictate the vocabulary you use to play it. A player with a lot of ability and range has many options, but has to choose one that fits. The part has to sound like it belongs both tonally and emotionally. It should stand out but not call so much attention to itself that it takes the listener out if the song. Usually, this involves limiting choices and restraining technique, although there are times when pulling out all the stops is the right move.
On the other hand, songwriters that play to write often fall into a trap.
Writing songs doesn’t require a large musical vocabulary. In fact, we’ve already established that musicians often have to edit themselves to find the right thing to play. Since a good song can be very simple, some songwriters only learn the most rudimentary things. This can work if the writer has a well-developed musical sense away from the instrument. But too often, the limited guitar skills end up in the driver’s seat and determine the rhythm and the melody as well. The ear and voice can be led by the guitar chords, and lead to repetitive and predictable melodies.
So “serving the song” can also mean having enough musical vocabulary and skill to write what you really hear, as opposed to what your skills allow you to approximate. If you want to be expressive as a songwriter, this is important. After all, don’t you have a responsibility to your muses to be as faithful as possible to their gifts?
As a creative person you have a responsibility to develop your own voice.
At least, you should recognize that the ability to be uniquely yourself can help your work stand out. Many songwriters sound alike for two reasons: one, they listen mostly to each other, following the same model. And two, they learn the same basic vocabulary and then stop there. But odds are, you do have your own musical perspective. Everything you ever do in music is filtered through everything you’ve ever heard. Whether you know it or not, you’ve developed a musical sensibility over your lifetime that’s uniquely yours.
So how does this relate to the guitar?
Your musical tastes and perspective define a vocabulary.
This is the musical language you use as a player and writer. You want to have both a technical and creative command of this language: a sense of the musical possibilities of a song or situation, and the skill to execute them on your instrument. So your study and practice should be pointed in that direction.
There’s a basic technical facility that every player ought to have to form chords and melodic patterns. It comes primarily from finger independence and control, so your practice ought to include some kind of exercises to develop that coordination. It doesn’t take much effort if you focus: in fact, five minutes of concentrated practice on virtually any controlled finger move can have more immediate impact than an hour of scales. Of course, the more you play, the better. But recognize that even a little work makes a big difference if you do it regularly.
The key is learning to use your vocabulary.
I make sure my students learn the primary major and minor chords in open position and as barre forms. Everyone also learns the major and minor scales in open position and as moveable shapes. These are basic building blocks in almost every popular style, and are a convenient way to map out the locations of notes and chords on the guitar neck. But the way you use them can be very different from one person to another. And what you learn beyond that basic vocabulary is absolutely determined by the musical direction you choose.
One great way to explore this is to use music you like as a model. The idea is not to copy anything directly, but to learn how that basic vocabulary of sounds in the music that speaks to you. Use this exploration as a creative tool: using the song as a blueprint, write something new that uses the same basic vocabulary. This way you can learn and classify the sounds and patterns. Break them down to their essentials and then put them back together in a different way. This is what all creative musicians do in one way or another. We filter our influences through our unique musical sensibility to create something new. The most gifted people do this effortlessly, but it’s also a process you can apply consciously. When this exploration drives what you practice on the guitar, it can lead you to your own way of writing AND playing, one that sounds like you and no one else.