Playing Guitar vs. Playing in a Band

As guitar players we all have some sort of musical goals. Whether it be to continually improve, master a certain style, or just amuse oneself. Usually this goal is attached somehow to getting better at playing the guitar. But how many people have as their goal to play guitar well in a band? This might sound rather odd at at first, but playing your guitar well versus playing your guitar well in a band — or with people — can be two very different things.

You’ve seen them on YouTube: Bedroom shredders that can tear it up playing along to a jam track, or just soloing. You probably also know players that can pull off tons of recognizable riffs and mimic their favorite artist down to every bend. These people will get labeled by their friends as “very good guitar players.” But have you ever tried to jam with any of these people? Sometimes considerable technical skill does not translate into cohesive musical thoughts.

In reality, most of us likely spend the majority of our playing time by ourselves. Between work, chores and other obligations, most playing or practice time is generally solo. The skill building of practicing guitar is often a solitary pursuit, but the skill (and joy) of playing music is best enjoyed in the company of other like-minded musicians.

I’ve found that what I know about my playing, my tone, and even how I tweak my gear often goes out the window once I’m playing with others. The interaction of volume, other instruments, the drummer, and a host of other factors has a profound effect on how I actually play and sound. A famous Field Marshall once said that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Much the same can be said about playing guitar solo versus with a band. Until you are in the heat of battle, you’ll never know what really works and what doesn’t

Technique, and musical theory are all important and help us all become more literate at playing the guitar. And so is understanding your gear, and developing your tone. But things such as phrasing and timing — the parts of playing that turn notes into music — are learned best in the company of others. I’ve heard lots of guitar players play “through” a band, trying like mad to jam their preconceived ideas and notes into a song regardless of the outcome. But music is made when players make the most of the space made available to them, and use the band as a platform for their musical inspiration.

Another thing playing live or with a band will do is make you simplify your gear. Unless you have a roadie, lugging around a huge pedal board, outboard gear, and tons of cables is not only inconvenient, but also begging for technical difficulties. After a few gigs, you’ll be trying to figure out what not to take, and refining you setup down to the essential elements. I think part of the obsession over pedals is driven primarily by home players looking for something new and different to experiment with. I firmly believe that good gear and cables matter, but often subtle nuances get blown away by the drummer or the noise level of a crowded bar (it’s why I don’t worry about noiseless pickups. What?). As I said, I love gear, and good gear sounds better than crappy stuff.  But music is ultimately an emotional event that if done well is more than the sum of its parts. A crew chief for a racing team said something to the effect that: If I need .2 seconds per lap I work on the car, if I need 2 seconds per lap I work on the driver.

Any guitar playing is better than not playing. But unless your goal is to play solo guitar or do strictly multi-track recording, try and find a jam session or some other format that gets you out there with other players. There is nothing that can simulate playing with a living, breathing band, and making it work takes a combination of technique, patience, and most of all listening. No matter what your style of music or long term goals, it will make you a better player.

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