Records are good teachers, but records are hard to understand if you can’t see it done. So you end up doing something different. But that might be good…
– Ry Cooder in Fretboard Journal issue 32
This quote has been rattling around my head for a month or so now. As a guitar player who doesn’t know music theory, and doesn’t have the patience for tabs, I’ve learned about 90% of what I know about guitar from either listening, or from other guitar players showing me exactly how something is done (in person or on YouTube).
All these years of not understanding precisely how other guitar players were doing something forced me to make some near approximations, to do some reverse engineering. Sometimes I just couldn’t figure it out, and I moved on. Other times I got close, knew I wasn’t exactly there, but liked what I found and used it for a launching point to explore a different interpretation of the music.
I did this most recently (the last few years) with Joseph Spence, a Bahamian folk guitarist who I’d heard was a big influence on Cooder. As soon as I started listening to Spence play, I heard Cooder’s work in a whole new light. I realized how much he had been informed by Spence’s style. But it wasn’t exactly the same. Cooder’s work was, of course, more polished and controlled – Alan Lomax’s field recordings of Spence are rough as a cob; Spence’s guitar is out of tune and his voice sounds like a cement truck, and both of those things are beautiful, to my ears anyway – but the connection was clear.
So when I started trying to play like Spence, a lolling, halting style of finger picking, I wasn’t sounding exactly like him. But I had the general feeling, and I listened to him pretty heavily for a few weeks. If I played my arrangement of Oh, How I Love Jesus for you, and you listened to Spence’s version of the same song, you would understand where I got the idea, but if I played along with the record, it would be a bit of a mess. However, what I learned from listening to Spence and Cooder has colored the way I approach guitar, and now mandolin. It has worked it’s way into my overall voice as a musician.
There are some things in our work of which we need to get a good and proper foundational understanding, but there are other things that, when we learn to “play it wrong,” can yield interesting results.