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The Tao Of Playing
The art of improvisation has long been a thoroughly discussed subject. Some say it can be taught, others not. Personally I think that whereas technique and theory can be taught, true improvisation must be self-taught.
Any solo will reflect not only the knowledge and experience of the player but also the spirit of that player. If they have that certain indefinable something, call it talent, flair, personality, what you will, it will shine through their playing. That can't be taught, obviously.
So what about the rest of us? What about those of us who are not Jimi Hendrixes or Wes Montgomerys? Do we give up? Or do we continue in our own small way making the best of what we've got - all of which is rather sad, let's face it!
After many years of playing and teaching, I'd say this. If you love doing something, you just do it. You do it because you want to, not because somebody else can do it better. You don't bother to envy those who play better and more creatively than you, you appreciate and admire their playing and, if possible, learn from them. That is probably true with any human endeavour, not just music.
Therefore, in regard to playing guitar, I'd say the first thing is to want to do it for its own sake, not to be like someone else however great. Love to do it, that's first, then your efforts are really not an effort because all your interest and energy are moving together, unaffected by personal considerations. You're not thinking 'I'm not so good as so-and-so'. Don't forget there are plenty of people who aren't as good as you are!
That doesn't mean, of course, that you're not aware of the brilliance of other players. It certainly doesn't mean you don't want to emulate them or their playing. On the contrary, it's a great motivator. Most of the great players started out by having heroes, thinking 'That's where it's at!' and transcribing their solos and wanting to play like them. But then, of course, they developed their own style.
If you think about it, every great player is totally unlike any other. Joe Pass is not like Wes Montgomery or Tal Farlow. Tony Rice is quite different to Doc Watson or Clarence White. Gary Moore isnt Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton - and therein, I think, lies the secret. You may learn from others but you have to be yourself.
It also means you have to work at it. When you read interviews of great players, you'll never hear one of them claim it all just drifted out of the sky. They worked at it constantly, hour after hour, day after day. They learned by playing, practising, learning on and off the job, till their fingers were raw. I remember reading somewhere how the great bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements rolled around the floor in frustration when he was learning to play.
The one thing they all have in common is that they really listened. They listened to all kinds of music and all kinds of instruments, not just their own. Many of the old guitarists learnt by copying records. No slowing stuff down! I don't think we realise the immense value of watching and listening. One learns that way, probably much more than by having one's head stuck in a book - which doesn't mean we shouldn't read books. They watched, learned, remembered, and carried it with them till it became part of themselves. They absorbed what they saw because they were intensely interested, because they really wanted to do it.
I think probably that's the bottom line, this overriding desire to really want to do it. After that, the rest follows, the work takes place, and one's own style inevitably begins to form.
I think we wonder sometimes too about the creative process. Theres certainly an unknown element to it but I'm not sure it's quite as mysterious as we might think. If we really work at something we gather knowledge and experience. If you're involved in something completely then, inevitably, something begins to grow. You make discoveries, find new ways of playing things, get new ideas. That's how Newton discovered gravity, how Einstein worked out Relativity and how Charlie Parker invented Bebop!
To get back to improvisation, I think we tend to approach it mechanically. At least, that's so from what I've observed. We think if we learn all our scales and apply them to chords that we're improvising. Well, in a sense we are, but that's not what I'd call improvisation. To me, real improvisation comes from the heart. If you have a song in you, it'll appear when you improvise. Of course you need to know the techniques and the notes, maybe the theory to some extent, but that's not the real criteria. Nor does it come necessarily from the experience and knowledge you've gathered. All that is necessary and goes into a solo, but the real thing comes from the love of what you're doing. If you love to play, it'll flow; you won't be able to help it.
So that's the Tao of playing. Love what you do. Watch, listen and learn. Live and breathe it, and out of that new things will grow... then, one day, you too may be a great player. Not rich and famous perhaps, but a great player nevertheless!