Attack Any Musical Challenge Like a Superhero
THE ABILITY TO approach your instrument without fear is something that can occur over time. The longer you play, the more fearless you become. But while experience plays a huge part in not being thrown by musical challenges, it’s not the only factor in being fearless. Confidence also comes from a long-term saturation of music in your life.
For example, I was recently asked to play a solo on a record a friend was producing. His only stipulation was that the solo had to be performed on his 1966 Gibson Trini Lopez model and through a vintage Magnatone amp. We dialed in a killer crunchy tone—strangely enough using the Magnatone’s HiFi channel— and I sat down behind the board to “carve.” Unfortunately, the Trini was almost unplayable. The frets were so low as to be non-existent, which made bending almost impossible. The action and trussrod needed some urgent TLC, but I didn’t have any Allen wrenches or screwdrivers with me to make adjustments.
Here I am “struggling” with that ’66 Gibson Trini Lopez. The Trini refused to let me do my thing, but I found a way to outsmart it.
As the guitar wouldn’t allow me to employ the traditional blues-rock bends and soulful R&B licks that were my first choice on the song, I took a different mindset. I asked myself, “What can I do with these tools?”
I decided to throw myself into the fire, and think like a primitive guitar player from an era gone by—a time before strings came in assorted gauges and whn amps had instrument and microphone inputs. I played a solo that was perhaps sloppy and careless by modern standards—and it certainly didn’t sound like me—but, in the end, it served the tune. In this case, having tactical and conceptual knowledge of early electric guitarists was the key to success.
You can also wipe out fear of the unknown by diving right into it. I’ve played slide guitar for many years in the studio, but, in the confines of a control room, you can experiment, and, with multiple passes, eventually get the intonation spot on. But playing electric slide for an entire live gig was a daunting prospect for me. I decided to just do it. By the second set, I was going places I’d never been before and seeing open tunings in a new light. That one gig wiped out any trepidation and fear.
Finally, you can prep for tackling any musical situation without fear by stretching yourself while practicing. I go through periods where I play “Giant Steps” every day for a few weeks. John Coltrane’s insane 16-bar tune is overwhelming and mind expanding, and it definitely sharpens your improvising skills. One day, while on the road in Australia, I was asked to sit in with a jazz quartet at a pub. It was obvious the sax player wanted to “cut” me as the band launched into “Giant Steps.” I’m proud to say I stepped up to the plate that night and pulled it off. Never has a pint tasted so good as after that zero-to-60- in-2.5-seconds demonstration of insanity!