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Playing Lead Guitar - By Not Playing

Have you ever awakened from an afternoon slumber in a daze, and, as the fog clears you stare at the clock and suddenly realize you're late for an important appointment? You jump up from the couch and, bouncing off the walls, heart racing, you slap on some clothes and blaze out of the door, fire up the engine and scream down the road - only to realize after a few miles that you forgot your wallet, your checkbook, and whatever else you really had to take to the appointment. You make a U turn and head back home...

How much further would you have gotten if you'd only slowed down and given yourself a chance to think...and breathe?

Playing lead guitar is a lot like that. Some players have a fixation on speed. Playing runs and scales faster than a speeding bullet. Blazing across the fret board in a display of warp drive acrobatics. Frantically melding one note to the next in a series of rapid fire explosions.

I have to admit, that I've seen some of these players flying across the neck and stare in awe, amazed that human fingers can actually move that fast.

But if you take the time to listen...really listen to them play, in the context of the music, what are they really "saying".

I sometimes wait for them to stop, and make a U turn, like in the story above, and realize that they forgot something really important. Something they vitally needed but, in their haste to the finish line, was totally overlooked. In the frenzy to dazzle the listener, they forgot one major point - they forgot to make "music". They neglected to "say" something, to actually express an emotion, with the notes.

It has been said, and I am paraphrasing here, that music is defined by the "spaces" in between the notes. If that's true, then it stands to reason that, if there are no spaces in between the notes, then music is "not" being made.

Guitarists who are speed demons can be impressive to watch, but after a while, a little goes a long way. A drink that's better taken in sips, than gulps.

Don't get me wrong, there is a time and place for speed in regards to playing guitar. An occasional blast of some speed licks interspersed throughout an otherwise melodic lead, can make a nice contrast. And I will be the first to admit guilt that there are occasions, when the adrenaline is running high in front of a packed house, that I have been known to resort to a flurry of blinding licks, to work the crowd into a frenzy.

It's times like this, however, that I have to pull back, and give myself, and my solos, room to "breathe". I have to make myself remember when playing leads, to sometimes "not" play lead. To stop, and allow the spaces to soak in.

Look back over history and think about the guitar playing icons. The heroes we grew up listening to. Play back in your mind some of the solos these guys played and try to count how many of them played guitar from the "speed demon" perspective.

Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopler, Chet Atkins - and the list goes on. All of these guys had the ability to rip it, to play blazing speed licks, and they occasionally did. But very sparingly. Only when the song called for it, only when it fit into the context of the "music". Think about someone like B.B. King. Here's a guy who almost never played a speed lick, maybe he can't. But yet, he's one of the most famous guitarists of our time. B.B. can "say" more with one note, than most of us will our whole lives!

I once saw a video on YouTube of a "fastest guitar player" competition. The guy on the video, who I'm assuming was the winner, was shown playing a "flight of the bumble bees" type progression along with a metronome, Each time he finished playing at one speed, they would increase the BPM's and he would do it again. This went on for quite some time until he reached mach speed and played so fast that his fingers were a blur. Of course, my jaw was hanging open in amazement. I can't even think that fast, let alone make my fingers move that fast!

But the truth is, that this guy had spent who knows how many countless hours, days, weeks and months practicing this one speed progression over and over until he could play it in his sleep. And as impressive as it was to watch, at the end of the day, it was really nothing more than a blindingly fast display of robotic motor skills, that had very little to do with anything musical.

Yes, I know you can detect a note of jealousy in my voice, in the knowledge that I will never even conceive how to play guitar that fast. But, in the long run, for me there is nothing more satisfying than playing a tasteful run, and pausing to let the emotion build, before moving on. Playing solos with "feel", and with emotion, are what's going to set you apart from other players. Not speed. Remember, "speed kills". It kills the "feel", the emotion, and the ability to truly "say" something heartfelt with your guitar. So next time you find yourself pelting out a series machine gun licks, try stopping and making a U turn. Breathe new life and new meaning into solos by giving them "room to breathe".

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