Play it wrong

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.

Thanks, Robin

I remember being a kid at my grandparents’ house watching Robin Williams do his whirlwind standup on TV, and hearing in the gale one obscure historical reference after another. I don’t remember the bit he was doing because the trance of his fury was broken when it hit me how much history and breadth of knowledge he had to command to pull those references at just the right time.

It wasn’t that he knew how to make the Roman Empire funny, it was that he knew how to drop a fact about the Roman Empire into an unexpected context and make people howl. When I was a kid, I was laughing as much at his cadence and physicality as I was at most of the jokes, because I didn’t get a lot of his references. But I aspired to understand them.

I couldn’t tell you another word he said that night because I was too transfixed by the door he had just opened for me. If I wanted to be funny, I had to know things, boring things. From then on I had to start looking things up. I had to start paying attention.

As I sit here thinking about this now, I look at the habits I have formed as a result of that realization. Nine out of ten jokes I write for Twitter, or short stories I post here, have spent days, weeks getting polished and researched. I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia looking up historical figures and events, calling my friends who are doctors and Biblical scholars to fact check jokes about medical conditions and theology. Pursuing comedy sent me down a path to becoming a student, and though my family first made me want to be funny, that studious path began one night in my teens watching Robin Williams at my grandparents’ house.

I am grieved at his passing, and still deeper by the way he went. I don’t fight depression, but I am well acquainted with anxiety and fear, which can be just as debilitating at times, so I can at least begin to appreciate how dark it can get. Jesus has been my strength and has quieted me countless times, as well as my dear wife and church community.

Also, pills help.

But let me plead with you to hear the importance of being known in community. Find a healthy community of people you can trust, people who love you no matter what you take to them. Believe it or not, churches can be great at this. Many are not. In fact, some churches might be a big source of your troubles, but they’re not all that way. When you find one where the people walk with the limp of their brokenness rather than the swagger of their pride, grab a pew, introduce yourself, and tell them what you are going through. Because when you do, and they move closer instead of retreating, you will have some powerful medicine indeed. You will also have a great picture of God’s unflappable love.

Huh? Oh, did I start preaching there for a minute? These things happen.

It’s also worth noting that these steps are not steps toward getting cured of depression or anxiety. It doesn’t work that way. There is a rat’s nest of factors for any given person, so if you want to help someone you love, don’t expect to give comfort to them with something you read on a coffee cup in the Christian bookstore, but do expect to stick around, and expect to repeat yourself. And if you are looking for help, you will find it. While sharing your struggles in loving community will not miraculously cure you, struggling alone is not an option.

A reminder to forget about originality

I have a tension with my influences, as many people do. I want to play like Ry Cooder, but I don’t want to be in a Ry Cooder cover band. I want to write like Kurt Vonnegut, but I don’t want to be Guy Who Thinks He’s Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.

It’s necessary, though, this wrestling match, and you need only read an interview with one of your heroes to confirm that they are doing a kind of removed impression of their heroes. We all have to log a season of copying that to which we aspire before we have the muscle memory necessary to experiment with it, and thereby find our voice.

This isn’t news, but it’s the kind of truth that bears repeating.

TK Smith is a craftsman. From what little I’ve read about him, he seems like the type of guy who’d sooner machine the parts for a loom than go out and buy a pair of jeans. He’s most well known for building beautiful electric guitars.

TK names Paul Bigsby as a major influence. My knowledge of Bigsby was, until recently, limited only to the iconic Bigsby Tailpiece, or as I like to call it, the Gentleman’s Whammy Bar. I also had a vague recollection of a Bigsby style headstock design (imagine a Stratocaster headstock with a thyroid problem) but no image in my mind of what the rest of the guitar looked like, so TK’s designs seemed entirely singular when I first saw them in Nick Rossi’s piece in Fretboard Journal #32.

So I Googled Bigsby. “Oh, I see. He’s making Bigsby replica guitars,” I said. And for a few judgmental seconds I was less impressed. Why? Because at the moment, not knowing where to look, I could see more of his influence than his own voice. The more I thought about it the more I felt like a jerk. I don’t judge any of the acoustic luthiers or major manufacturers I respect who are essentially making what, to the uninitiated, are imperceptible changes to the set of Martin dreadnought plans hanging in their shop. That shape is so ubiquitous its origins are camouflaged. Everyone else is just making “guitars,” this guy’s obviously making Bigsbys.

This exposes my ignorance. The only reason my Originality Meter buzzed (someone please take a hammer to that thing) is because far fewer people have tried to copy Bigsby than have tried to copy Martin. So a guy like Smith decides that torch is worth picking up taking a few more miles, iterating along the way, and I temporarily discount it? Horse gas.

Rossi captures the nut:

Recent developments in the shop include both major and minor refinements to his ever-increasing personal guitar design. Smith can now lay claim to both fret-marker shapes and a Smith Special headstock design. Again, the influences are apparent if one knows where to look, but the lines have grown organically into something he may proudly call his own.

A Smith Special headstock

It can take decades to develop your own voice, whatever it is you’re making. Get the idea of originality out of your head. It’s vain, and it will poison you faster than it will drive you better things. Just keep showing up every day and grinding it out. Eventually, when you quit obsessing about how much you want to sound like Vonnegut without sounding like Vonnegut, you’ll realize you sound like you.

Hemmingway on Mastery and Influences

Brain Pickings has a great article quoting some of Hemingway’s tips on writing from his book, Death in the Afternoon. Below are a few passages that are great advice for makers of all kinds.

On learning and mastery:

There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.

On influences and finding your voice:

Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.