When you’re young and working on yer ‘chops’ there is a tendency to roll one’s eyes when you hear a musician of a certain age start talking saying things like ‘less is more’ or ‘now I play with more taste.’ There is an unspoken feeling that all that sort of talk is a cop out and that what the guy is really saying is either:
a) My technique is hosed.
b) I could never play as well as you young whippersnappers.
Young guys often refuse to accept the idea that it really is a choice; that as one ages, one’s ideas about what constitutes good playing change. Note count no longer seems quite as important as it once was.
In my case, I admit to being guilty of a little of both a) and b). I don’t play as well as I used to–largely due to arthritis. And then there are techniques that came into common practice after got into ‘the biz’ and never concentrated on–an example would be sweep picking; I use it, but it’s not a core part of my playing.
But the thing is this: it’s not a complete cop out. My tastes did change. Or rather, they didn’t so much change as I became more particular. I came to America at the height of the fusion craze. I loved that stuff. But by the time I learned to play it well, it was already passÃ©. Why? Well, take one of my heroes, John McLaughlin. The early Mahavishnu albums were fantastic. Now? Frankly, when John plays nowadays, it often sounds more like a magician’s trick to me than ‘music’.
Part of what I think happens is that one’s good ideas are used up early. They’re like the low hanging fruit, or the Texas oil that bubbles to the surface without much effort. I call this ‘The Beatles Iceberg Illusion’ (TBBI.) They put out 5-6 albums in their first 3 years. And most of them were fantastic. But what people don’t see is that they worked out much of that stuff for about five years before they hit it big.
As one produces, there are still good ideas to be had, but ya gotta dig a lot deeper. And most guys–even the best guys, usually don’t do that. We all tend to keep going back to the same well of licks. And we get tired of it, no matter how much we dig the guy. Back to John Mc and his magic trick. It’s a fabulous trick, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still the same trick that he performs night after night. I hear the same riffs over and over that I still love from Birds Of Fire. So I listen to Birds Of Fire.
When I hear players, I want to hear either:
a) Something really fresh or
b) A really meaningful idea
I don’t gravitate towards the same spectacular execution of stuff I’ve heard before. ‘Execution’ just doesn’t matter to me as much now because I’ve been there. And done that. But I submit that what I care about now is not much different than what I really cared about then — I want to be ‘wowed’. Now what does that may be a bit different than what wowed me then, but nevertheless the idea is the same: show me a new way to express the same feelings that all people have had since people started beating on rocks and calling it Soul Train.
Why are so few artists able to grow beyond their initial chops? Why do they seem to be welded to one vibe for their entire career (or if they do try to break out, why is it done so poorly?)
Well, that’s a rant for another day!