Ladies and gentlemen, this is it: the home stretch - the final article in the Teach Yourself Guitar series. It's been a long journey, over which I can chart my own advancement as an article writer, and, I'm hoping, you can chart your own advancement from a beginner to a competent and capable guitarist. Nevertheless, it's not quite over yet.
This time around it's time to focus on playing with others. So far, we've been aiming for steady, step-by-step development. If you've taken everything a piece at a time then, by the time you reach this point, you'll likely find that you have become a well-balanced guitarist. If you've been learning on your own as well, then you're probably at a similar level of musicianship. This will be useful considering what comes next.
You will be tempted to compare yourself to other musicians when you first begin to play with them. This is a useless pursuit. People advance at different speeds depending on the person. Some practise more than others. Some, including a few that I know or have known, spend years playing only the minor pentatonic scale. One of them only plays in E, another only played in A. I'm sure you see my point. You're your own musician; do things in your own way.
Anyway, it's time to get started on making music as a group. I'll be looking at both jam sessions and being part of a band. If you're ready then we shall begin.
Teach Yourself Guitar by Tom Colohue
Part Eight: Playing With OthersThe Benefits Of Playing With Others
Playing on your own is marvellous practise for playing on your own. However, when you're playing alone, the only person you have to keep time with is yourself. You play at your own pace, keeping rhythm for yourself. Your composition ideas are always something you've already worked on - you can't surprise yourself. Your influences show through in your playing. Also, you can't make the same music on your own as you can with other people.
Having other people there provides extra ideas. At times these ideas can be very different to what you'd usually try, but this is a good thing. Experimentation and improvisation are important aspects of any sort of music. The more varied and different your ideas become, the more varied and different your songs will become and, ultimately, your sound. At the same time, other musicians push you to improve your own playing. Your skills have an audience with other people around who can tell you what they like and what they do not. Another guitarist can push you to attain the same level of technical play that they have reached.
Other musicians are also likely to be more harsh and judgmental of your abilities than you are yourself. If you're out of time, they will tell you so because they need you to fit in with them. On your own you only need to follow yourself. In a group you need to work with and follow every single musician in that room.
Then there's the theoretical aspect. Being with others gives you a chance to play around with how different notes go together when they're being played by different instruments. You'll also be able to see how a different instrument, such as a bass guitar or a single cymbal, can make a world of difference to a simple guitar riff that sounded incredible when played on your own. If you want to play solos, play them with the other musicians providing the backing for them. The difference is astronomical. A good lead guitarist knows exactly what his rhythm guitarist is doing at all times, because one change of chord can make a solo go from awesome to terrible.
Jam sessions are an easy-going and relaxed way to do all of the above. You can collect a few friends together who play instruments and just see what comes out. You'll all need some small knowledge of theory so that you're all playing within the same key at least, but otherwise you're free to explore the boundaries and consider new and exciting ways to play. The best part about jam sessions is that you're not trying to work towards a set goal, so you can just have fun.
The downside to jam sessions is also that you're not trying to work towards a set goal. Due to this, jam sessions are not the best way to enhance your personal development. The easy-going atmosphere gives less of a push to you for improvement. It also gives you less of a need to impress. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, it provides less pressure on you as a musician. On the other, it gives you less of an urge to play at your absolute highest potential.
When playing seriously, it's easy to push yourself too hard. If you get some friends together for a little jam session, there's very little push unless you're a fairly ambitious person to begin with. You can get together, play some music and just have an all-around good time. Of course, this is dependant on the assumption that you have enough musically gifted friends to jam with. Personally I have trouble with that. However, once you begin to enter the realm of the musician, you will find plenty of people who you wouldn't normally meet.
A good idea is to have a few songs ready as a group before you actually jam. This basically means that you should talk to the people you wish to play music with and decide on a few songs that you can play. A lot of musicians can build up a very strong rapport, which will work wonderfully when playing together, but it only comes with practise. Learn some songs that others like and have them learn some that you life. That way, if the ideas aren't flowing well, you always have a good few backup options that you can use.
Working With Another Guitarist
Bands with two guitarists have become more and more popular as time has gone on. Nowadays, it is a popular misconception that heavy music requires two guitarists. It is also a popular misconception that one guitarist must be allocated the role of rhythm and the other must be allocated the role of lead. This is in no way necessary. As long as you, as a guitarist, know what you're doing then you'll be fine.
Being two guitarists in a band requires an in-depth knowledge of both your own and your partner's playing technique. It is a lot harder than it seems because you need to know what both of you are doing at all times. If you are both trying to improvise, things can get insanely hectic. This is why people can fall into the pattern of having one guitarist for rhythmic work, such as chords, and another for lead work, such as solos. Often this method is extremely effective, though the rhythm guitarist is often undervalued.
As guitarists you are there to add flavour to the piece, so jazz it up a little. If you want to stand out, then break the rules a little and don't play how everybody else plays. Trading roles can be an effective way to do this, as can harmonised lead work and harmonised rhythm work. You don't have to do one thing all the time while your partner varies through all sorts of different and fantastic musical talents. Spend some time together, so that you can each become comfortable with the other as both a person and a player. Find out their strengths so that you can strengthen them. Find out their weaknesses so that you can cover them. Hopefully, they will be doing the same for you.
One particularly important part of being a guitarist is also knowing when you should not be playing your instrument. This is especially important when working with another guitarist. It can be easy to overload a song with fancy play and heavy chords when, in reality, a listener is just going to get bored quickly. Dramatic tension requires changes, builds in tension and some subtlety. Don't be afraid to take a step back when it comes to playing a song. It might well be that the music will benefit from it.
A final misconception is the idea that the lead guitarist role shows more technical ability. This is not true at all. Either role, if done well, demands incredible talent, theoretical knowledge and technical capability. Guitarists who know each other's abilities and traits well can gel together perfectly to creat some incredible music. Unfortunately, it is generally the lead guitarist who gets the praise for it all.
Songwriting As A Unit
If you've been following this guide, you've likely written some music by yourself and for yourself. Continue to do so; it's very beneficial to your playing. However, as a band, things are going to be a little different. You're not writing for yourself. You're also not writing purely for your own advancement. Instead, you're writing with the purpose of performing this music. You're writing to entertain a crowd, so the rules are different.
First off, you're writing for multiple instruments. As such, all of these instruments need to work together to complement each other both rhythmically and theoretically. You can't go off and do your own thing unless everybody is aware that you're going to do that. There's going to be a lot of experimentation, trying different things over the same things in order to achieve the best result. Be prepared and understanding. Don't expect everybody to play what you tell them to and certainly don't expect everybody to be capable of playing what you expect from them. Be relaxed.
Musicians know their instruments. If you're solely a guitarist, then you're not likely to know how drums are tuning or the differences between types of cymbal. Let the drummer provide the drums. Let the other guitarist provide his or her own style and do your own bit. At the same time, it's important to be open to suggestions. Consider the juxtaposition of the song and then just throw out some ideas. Most importantly, be sure that you're all playing in the same key.
As a band, your first commitment should be the song when you are songwriting. This means that no one musician should come across as the most important, nor should they be stealing all the best bits. This also means that, unless they've written the entire song themselves, nobody should be telling you exactly what to play. You should welcome suggestions, but you should be doing the work yourself.
Some bands stick to having certain songwriters. This can prove affective, but that isn't really writing as a unit. Being a primary songwriter requires an in-depth knowledge of all the instruments that they are planning to feature in the song. Of course, the downside of having a particular songwriter or two is that they can only draw on their own influences and experiences when writing lyrics and songs. However, this can work to a band's favour, as it would give them a clear and distinctive style. Nevertheless, this would be the style of the songwriter rather than the musicians who perform.
Once you've written a song or two, it's important that you keep them fresh in your mind and your muscle memory. You can and should practise them on your own, but sometimes that's not enough. To practise your cues, changes and fills, you need to have other musicians with you providing their own instruments. Songs can be difficult, especially when they're only just finished, so go through them plenty of times.
By the end of this, when you have them all perfectly cemented as a band, you're probably going to severely dislike your own music. That's okay. In fact, it's quite typical. Write another and see if you can get hold of that one quicker. Even if you can do it perfectly every time, other members of your band might find themselves struggling. It's important that you give them as much help as they need. You want your band to be a capable and cohesive unit. Don't rush ahead of people.
Find some place where you can all gather and play, then gather often and play hard. Nothing will push improvement on you like working on music with other musicians. Ideas will be constantly flowing, as will your urge to play. You'll want to have music ready to show the group and you'll also want to play better than any one of them. With all of this, how could you fail to improve?
This brings us to the end of this article and, more importantly, the end of this series. I'm going to stop here because, honestly, I'm not much further on myself. I hope you've learned a lot, or even a small amount. I've definitely enjoyed writing it. A full conclusion blog to the series will appear on my profile somewhere in the near future. In it, I shall be exposing the user I wrote all of these articles for.
In the meantime take care; I'll miss doing this, and everybody who reads it too. Thank you.
Tom Colohue Ultimate-Guitar.com 2009