Jazz Guitar Thoughts by Chris Standring

How To Seriously Improve Your Guitar Playing

There are bedroom guitar players and there are live performers. There doesn't seem to be anything in between. The minute you walk on to a stage (whether you get paid or not) you are a professional. You are in the business of entertaining and displaying your wares, so to speak. And if you really want to seriously get your guitar playing together it is the latter you need to strive for in my opinion. I am not suggesting you 'turn pro', you know attempt to do this thing full time, that is a whole other set of issues itself, but in order for your guitar playing to really get to where it needs to get to, you simply have to play in a live performance setting, preferably in a public forum. Ideally with other musicians you can interact with.

You can spend a lifetime reading books, studying your musical heroes, playing along to music minus one records, but none of this will ultimately give you the full picture. In order to be a true well rounded musician, you have to have real world experience. I'll try to explain why...

When I was just starting out in the profession as a fresh untainted fish in the vast sea of the London music business, I had to get myself known in order to find work. So I set about to answer ads in music papers. Now, after studying classical guitar at the London College of Music, I came out of a 3 year course with a facility to sight-read. Or should I say the beginnings of sight-reading ability, as jazz and pop music written on paper is a whole other world, as I was about to find out. I remember having to sight-read a piece of jazz music with a dance band at an audition. There were about 10 guitar players going for this gig. I must have been about 23 years old. The musical director said "I kind of like what you did Chris but you didn't really cut it mate! There are other guys here that have what I need". Ouch!!! That hurt. But I was young. It was actually good to hear. So I went back to my music library, pulled out a ton of violin music and practiced reading in different positions on the fretboard. Not to mention learning how to grab chords on sight in different fret positions.

Another time, I went down to audition for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, a band known to be extremely taxing musically, and a training ground for London session players. I sat in the guitar chair with my Gibson 335 on my lap, ready to play. The director called a chart, I placed it on the stand and he counted it off. He counted it off around 250 BPM. Frighteningly fast! Well, it was all I could do to get my eyes to follow the music, measure by measure, much less play the music that was written within those bars! I didn't even touch my guitar that rehearsal. I simply placed it back in its case and went home. Ouch again! That was a hard knock! I gave myself exactly a year to get it together. I went back to my practicing with a vengeance. A year later I joined the band for about a year and a half.

Another for instance; about 13 years ago I was playing with a jazz singer in a trio situation with an eminent LA drummer and acoustic bassist. I hadn't done much trio playing, if any at the time, but I was looking forward to playing. At the end of one of the songs I completely messed up the ending. In fact I would go further, I hadn't really worked on any song endings. Didn't really have that together at all. The drummer scowled at me, particularly because I threw him off, as I was not definite in how I wanted to end the song (because I didn't know myself!). He was furious when I made him look bad. He said to me "Dude, you've got to dictate these endings, you're the one playing the chords!". He was right. I was crushed! I went home, sulked for a week (maybe two). Then I went back to my practice room. I was not to be defeated.....

These are the hard knocks you simply have to get in your music life to dictate what you need to work on to get your total musicianship together! You just cannot expect to perfect your instrument without real world experience. You can't get that experience any other way. I can recount tons of times that this sort of thing has happened, and there are still things today that I learn on a weekly basis at live gigs, telling me what I need to work on. The difference today of course is that it's me who is being critical of myself, rather than other bandmates and musical directors telling me I suck!

And the neccessity of performing live is true of any musical genre you choose. Interacting with other musicians is an art in itself. I know technically great players who can't play with others. Does this make them great musicians? I'm not so sure. But they sure can get round the instrument. But if they were to do any amount of live ensemble playing they would have one or two knocks coming, and if they are smart they would work on those issues. Otherwise it's back to solo guitar playing in the back of their local restaurant. (A noble and valid thing to do, let me also say).

There are many issues that come up in a real live playing situation that just don't come up in a bedroom practice session. Time, time-feel, supportive ensemble playing, projection of sound and tone, and most of all a sense of energy and commitment within a performance that is extremely different, and is very difficult to even put into words frankly. You just need to experience it, and that experience will improve your playing tenfold.

So get out there and do some gigs. I know it is hard to make that happen sometimes, but if you cannot make it happen then start a rehearsal band with a few others and play through repertoire. Get together with other guitarists and play through tunes, take solos and take turns being supportive. As you improve, take the plunge and take yourself to the next level.

And by recommending you do all this I am by no means suggesting you put away your books, records and Jamie Abersold play alongs. Absolutely not. This is something of course you should continue to do. But it is only 50% of your musical makeup. I promise you, by performing live you will improve yourself as a guitar player, but most of all as a musician, and at the end of the day this is what we all need to aspire to.

Go to it and have fun!

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Bill Frisell Charlie Christian Django Reinhardt George Benson George Van Eps Grant Green Jim Hall John Mclaughlin Joe Pass John Scofield Kenny Burrell Larry Carlton Lee Ritenour Pat Martino Pat Metheny Tal Farlow Wes Montgomery