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Take Me to the River

Hello Troubadourians! At the end of last month’s column I admonished you to play smoothly, and that there is no substitute for smooth. So, what does that mean in terms of your playing? The obvious is to play so that your music flows from note to note and phrase to phrase. This applies to rhythm playing as well as lead playing. In fact, it is essential for a rhythm player to be smooth. The rhythm is the river on which everything else flows. You usually want that river to carry you along with the current like you’re floating on an inner tube down a cool river under the shade trees in the summertime. Do you feel it yet? Maybe you can see it in your mind’s eye: the sun filtering through the leaves, the reflections dancing in the ripples on the surface. The sounds and smells of the water and the peace that surrounds you, yet there is a power there in the water. Relentless and unstoppable, fully committed to the force of gravity, it flows wherever it wants to, wherever it can, and you realize that you wish your music had the same power. Now, take a breath.

Everything begins with smooth; dynamics, vibrato, groove, feel, and even your tone is affected a great deal by how smoothly you play. Don’t believe me? Then try this: play a song you know well, one that you don’t even have to think about, and just let it flow out of you. Listen to the tone of your instrument. There is richness to the tone because you aren’t fighting the flow; you’re smooth. Now, play the same song but this time, make everything you do as rigid as possible. In addition to feeling stiff from a time perspective, it will sound stiff and cold, too. It’s like the sun doesn’t shine on your tone anymore. So let’s get a little deeper into this thought. Now that you’ve experimented with the differences between smooth and not-smooth, you can begin to use this to your advantage. If, by nature, you flow smoothly, your intentional stops will sound more dramatic and you’ll have greater control over how you present the emotions of the songs you play. We’re still talking about your rhythm playing but this is a good point to transition to thinking about how being smooth works with your melodic or lead playing.

So far everything we’ve discussed about rhythm playing applies to lead playing, perhaps even more dramatically. Like a voice, a lead instrument is literally singing to the listening audience. Not with words but with all of the melody and emotion that the player is able to infuse into the song. This is where it all comes together, everything we’ve been discussing about tone, our hands, and how we address the strings, now makes sense and we can “speak” to an audience through our instrument. With all of the nuance that an accomplished orator can deliver through words and language, we can deliver through time and tone, attack and release. See, the thing about smooth that it’s not always the same speed but it is always the same tempo. A little more here, a little less there, just like floating down the river, there is an ebb and flow to your notes but always in time. Just like the eddies in the river can move around and against the current, they are still carried along at the same flow as the all of rest of the river.

Sometimes, no matter how deep, calm, and relaxing the river is, every once in a while we have an overwhelming desire go white-water rafting. This seemingly goes against the entire concept of playing smooth, but even on the raging rapids it’s the smooth that keeps you from falling out of the boat. Go ahead and indulge the need to thrash around if the song and the energy require it, but stay smooth and you won’t sound splashy. The temptation is to get sloppy when you’re hanging on for dear life as the rocks and waves threaten to drown everything you’re trying to play. But if you stay smooth, even crazy stuff speaks clearly. And that’s what we’re all about: communicating our emotions through notes, tones, touch, and, of course, smooth.

I’ve made a lot of river analogies in this column, maybe too many, so if your taste isn’t attuned to rivers there are other smooth things that you might relate to. Such as melted chocolate, black velvet, and the finish on a fine guitar. But whatever you choose as your example of ultimate smoothness, remember that it’s the expression of smooth that is important, not what you’re visualizing in your mind. Smooth is the lubricant for music and emotion, the expression of ideas that transcend words. I admire and envy gifted vocalists, those special folks who can sing a lyric and melody better than the writer ever imagined and they do so without hesitation or self-consciousness. They can “live” a song as though they were right there, right now, and they take you with them into that world and space. I have no hope of being able to sing like that, not in three lifetimes, so my choice is to try to take you there with my guitar. It is my voice, my muse, my identity, so I have to put as much into my music through my guitar as a vocalist puts into their music through their voice. Vocalists have the advantage of words to help them express themselves. They can make you think while they make you feel, but I strive to make those who listen to my playing do more than feel. I’m having a conversation with them and I hope I can get them to think about what I’m saying through my guitar. At worst, I’ve entertained them and kept the flavor and emotion of the song flowing smoothly from verse to verse. Some singers can transcend the song. Hopefully I can, on occasion, do the same with my guitar. As long as I’m smooth, I have a chance….

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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