A few months back, my good friend Chae was foaming at the mouth about the White Stripes’ recent “One Note Concert” where the band played (literally) one chord in every Province of Canada. I’ll admit that at first hearing of this, I scoffed; I wondered at the silliness of having an entire sound system set up, mics in place and sound check dialed in. The drums, the amps, the pedal board and backup instruments all ready to go. I was astonished. “For one note? Wow.”
The more I thought about it, the more I was confronted by increasingly compelling questions such as: “If I could only play one chord what would it be?” and “What combination of notes would convey what I feel, what I’m trying to say?” Even more damning was the last question to come to mind: “Could I play that chord with conviction?”
I paced back and forth, my internal landscape awash with musical existentialism. I was confronted by pages of guitarists that are instantly recognizable. Musicians that have a tone, a flair, a particular way they use the tool that causes our ears to perk up and our lips to curl.
Imagine a lineup of your favorite guitarists, all playing the same chord. Imagine walking down the line with your eyes closed. Can you tell who you’re hearing? No matter who’s in that lineup–EVH, Dimebag Darrell, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Brian Setzer, Eric Clapton, Brendon Small, The Edge, Robert Cray, Nels Cline, Buddy Holly–the answer is always yes. But why? Is it simply by virtue of using different equipment, or is it something less easily quantifiable? I thought of some of my favorites, about their tone and note choices, but more importantly their style:
Muddy Waters: Open-tuned and down-home dirty, Muddy wasn’t afraid to let his instinct lead him in new directions. Listening to old solo recordings, you can hear that his slide technique wasn’t always precise nor was his guitar always in tune, but he was always emotional and cut right to the quick of the listener. That man said a lot even when he wasn’t singing.
Bruce Springsteen: When he hits an E major, you know it’s him. He picks right next to the bridge saddles on his battered old Esquire and you can hear it. His tone is paradoxically warm and articulate for such a style, but it’s his sound; we know it when we hear it.
Malcolm Young: The rhythmic foundation of AC/DC, Malcom has a thick and percussive sound, with copious amounts of mids and highs that keeps the music driving. With his single-pickup Gretsch into walls of amps and extra-heavy strings, you could almost swear you’re hearing his guitar’s wood alone. Precise, on-beat and greasy, even Angus confesses that he can’t do what Malcolm does.
Nels Cline: Unbridled but showing an immense amount of chess-like forethought, Nels alternately whispers and shouts, with smooth, dark legato passages followed by an explosive wall of noise that not only enhances the already great songs of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but makes his solo work so damned impressive. When Nels takes a solo, it’s obvious; from fleet-fingered runs to caffeine-fueled glissando, when Nels goes off, it’s both transcendent and cathartic.
I even thought of David Gilmour, whose lead tone is an oft-discussed mystery. Still, his work with Pink Floyd refined his lead and rhythm work, and when you hear one note you know exactly who’s playing behind that Leslie swirl and delay. There are few guitarists that can entrance me the way DG can.
Any time I hear one of my favorite players, I know who it is. I’m a huge SRV fan, and even if you don’t like his music you can’t deny that there are hallmarks of his playing that make him instantly recognizable. Is it the ’59 Stratocaster, the Tube Screamer, his choice of amps or tuning to Eb? Maybe it’s his huge string gauges or the fact that he often held his pick backwards. Or maybe–just maybe–it has WAY more to do with how he played rather than what he played. There are photos of Stevie playing a Les Paul, and I’ll bet he still sounded like SRV. And it works in the opposite way, too; when we hear someone copping that Stevie tone, we still know it isn’t Stevie!
I went on and on like this, and after a short time I was reminded of something I read from an interview with Randall Smith of Mesa Engineering. “[His QC guy] only knows one chord and one note, but he plays them with more conviction than anyone I know.” That stuck with me, and made me think even harder about the relationship between chords and conviction.
When I was just learning guitar, I had a really tough time with chord changes. I’m fortunate now that I’m able to play well enough to receive compliments on my tone and style after shows and it means a lot to me. What always strikes me as funny is when someone tells me I’m “gifted.” I’m flattered and I accept it wholeheartedly, never invalidating that most humbling of compliments with a negative, “Oh, I suck” kind of response. The truth of the matter is that while music is indeed a gift, I had to work incredibly hard for it.
A confession: It took me three whole years to be able to change chords adequately. No kidding. My hands just would not do it. My teachers we patient, but always thought that I wasn’t doing my homework. Sometimes they were right, but in all seriousness, I just couldn’t maneuver around the ‘board. So, while I was learning all of those difficult chord changes, I’d take breaks and just play one chord at a time.
When it comes to exercising or having to do more mundane or even creative tasks, I like a certain level of distraction to be built-in. That has more to do with my “wiring” and myriad neuroses than it does with preferences, but all things being equal I like noise. It keeps me focused while allowing another part of my mind to wander and entertain its flights of fancy. As a young guitarist, I’d watch TV while performing my scales. So, there I’d be, watching Knight Rider or Star Trek: The Next Generation while strumming one note or chord throughout the entire episode.
After a short time, I noticed that, depending on how I strummed, I could get different sounds out of my acoustic guitar. Notes seemed more mellow towards the neck. If I picked right next to the bridge, the tone was thinner and more biting. I tried picking at the 12th fret and was greeted by harp-like bell overtones! I was shocked!
After that, experimenting with picking positions became a standard exercise in my practice routine. Whether I’m practicing alone or with a band one thing I’ll always do is pick a few chords in our progressions and really work on them. It could mean picking intensely near the bridge or right next to the fretting hand; other times I’ll bring in my favorite trick, holding a chord and letting one string open just to see what sounds great. Others, especially when using my ES-355 or Jazzmaster, I’ll hold the chord and pick behind the bridge for extra flavor. Because of this, there are days when, if you ask me how I’m doing, I can’t tell you but I can play it for you.
The point I’m trying to make is that the possibilities are endless, which is one of my favorite things about the electric guitar. I feel that even though you can master scales and modes and memorize every chord inversion there is, you can never truly master the instrument. There’s so much one can do with that instrument, either on its own or by augmenting your tone with a pedal or unorthodox amping technique, and there’s no measure by which we know we’re finished. It’s beautiful and endlessly enthralling. One of my many mottos: “Mistakes are never mistakes.” Failure is the great teacher, is she not?
Next time you practice, take some time to hear your playing for what it is. When’s the last time you really listened to yourself anyway? How about making a basic recording of yourself playing one chord over and over. Try playing it different each time and see if you can hear the difference. Think about phrasing, timing and all of that of course, but really listen to one chord.
Discover how changing the pick position- how you hold it or where you strum- can have myriad tonal consequences. Play that chord hard, then strum softly. Really think about your individual tone and how you’d like to sound. Do they match? Try just playing an E major root-position chord with as much gusto and conviction as you can muster, then make sure it translates to G, A, Bmi… any of ‘em! I promise you won’t be sorry!