Do you remember your first gigging experience; the first time you left the bedroom or practice space and went and played music to an audience with other people? My first gig was in Wallingford, Connecticut in the basement of a Baptist church with a Christian rock group my buddies and I had formed. My dad lent me his Mesa/Boogie DC-3 combo and I felt like John Petrucci standing in front of my amp. Armed with shaggy hair, a pair of Converses, and a sunburst telecaster, I had the most fun I had ever had in my life up to that moment and immediately knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
My years coming up and my years as a professional have both taught valuable lessons over time, the most important of which was to LISTEN. It’s tough to learn how to do this by yourself; the best way to learn how to listen effectively is to play with other people as much as possible. An experienced musician will talk about listening, but not a lot of people have broken down what people are actually listening for or listening to. I decided to write about a few things that I listen for when I’m on a gig and what the real world applications and payoffs of listening are.
First and foremost, pay attention to and always cater to whatever the lead melodic voice in the ensemble is. Odds are, that’s a singer, unless you’re playing instrumental music. You want whatever you’re playing as a rhythm player to make the singer feel comfortable and you want to make sure your fills or hooks compliment and intertwine with the singer as opposed to stomping all over the vocal part. If you’re singing background vocals, pay attention to the contour and dynamics of the vocal line and how the words are phrased. Are you enunciating the word the same way? Do you and the singer both start and stop words the same way?
Unless you’re Steve Vai reading this, you’re going to spend your gigs as a guitarist playing a pretty hefty dose of rhythm guitar. If you are Steve Vai reading this, sup? The drummer and bass player will be your best friends in this endeavor. There’s a specific phenomenon with playing as a rhythm section that I listen for and that phenomenon is the absence of sound in a groove. These small gaps in between the notes are tiny but should be all over the place if the group is really grooving. The gaps come from everyone interpreting and listening to specific rhythms, note lengths, and articulations. Note that these gaps also include the group interpreting rests the same way. The absence of sound is just as important to rhythm as the presence of sound. If you’re playing with people who are all listening and paying attention, grooves will lock in faster and the music will feel better.
There’s also a harmonic element to playing rhythm guitar. Do any notes from the singer or lead instruments clash with any of the notes in your chord? Are you playing voicings that compliment the other players who are playing chords? This could be another guitar player, keyboard player, or the occasional ambitious and enthusiastic bassist. Sometimes sections of music call for really beefed up unison chords and grooves, but in a lot of situations, you want to live in a different sonic area than the other people playing chords in the group. This is where knowledge of triad inversions, color tones, and 7ths can come in handy in creating really interesting and lush voicings that sit in their own space and compliment both the sonic texture and the harmony. Sometimes, only one or two notes of a chord are needed. Simple voicings leave room for the other players in the ensemble to fill out the remaining harmonic space to create a sound that’s full but balanced. Be sure that any non-triad tones don’t clash with the melody line or with any voicing that other chord players are doing.
When you find yourself responsible for playing a lead line, whether it’s a solo, melody, or hook, be listening to the groove you’re playing over and make sure that you lock into the tempo that the ensemble is establishing. From there, you can interpret the rhythm of your line to be right on the beat, slightly in front of it, or slightly behind it. It’s hard to do that without paying attention to the collective interpretation of the rhythm to use as a point of reference. When I’m improvising a solo, I listen for responses from the ensemble. Maybe the drummer is really digging in on the rhythm of a lick I played. If I hear that, it makes me think “Ok, this guy (or girl, shoutout to my lady drummers) is reacting to what I’m doing. What will he do if I repeat the rhythm again?”. This same concept can also apply to harmony; maybe a comping instrument heard the mode you were using and plays a chord within that same mode. Maybe the bass player hears you play a lick that’s outside of the key and responds with a fill that mimics the contour of what you did. If you start playing with your ears open, eventually it will take longer to read this sentence than it will take you to react to hearing someone try to communicate with you musically.
Those are a few things that are specific to my interpretation of the role of a guitarist that I listen for when I’m playing. When you’re playing with a new group of people for the first time or doing a new tune for the first time with players you’re familiar with, I try to frame the things that I hear in perspective to the form of the tune and that type of listening is applicable to any musician. Maybe in the verse, the rhythm section is pushing the turnaround. I make a mental note of that and try to recall it as the turnaround comes around on the next verse. Maybe there was a walk up to the 4 chord from the 1 chord I heard the bassist do. I make a mental note of where it was and when the chord change comes, I play something that compliments what the bassist is doing. Listening and reacting to when things happen in relation to the form of the tune can make a musical situation that’s be happening on the fly sound rehearsed.
I think that listening for these types of things open up what people refer to as a musical conversation. It’s a term you hear a lot to describe jazz improvisation, but I think a bunch of kids playing in their garage trying to bang out a punk song are having just as important of a conversation. Connecting with people musically via conversation is a great way to establish instant real world connections with the players you’re playing with. Players who listen like playing with other players who listen and they remember who they like to play with. Let’s say you really connected with the bass player from the gig the other week because you were both listening and had some great spontaneous moments. If he’s on a gig and the band leader needs someone who plays your instrument and asks who to hire, he’s going to recommend the players he that he really enjoyed playing with, which is hopefully you. What a payoff! You play well and listen to the players around you and it turns into more opportunities to make music together.
If you’re interested working on this skill but don’t have a band, I would recommend going out to your local blues jam. Blues jams are a fairly judgement free space where expression and stylistic nuance that comes through listening are celebrated and encouraged. It’s a great place for a player who’s coming up and pursuing a career in music, the hobbyist who wants to get out of the basement, and the pro who’s coming to watch his buddy in the house band to all cross paths and try to make something happen over the span of three tunes. It’s also a great place to listen to players and steal licks. You’d be surprised how much mileage you can get out of a stolen blues lick. Before you question the ethics of stealing licks, realize that a blues lick you hear was probably a lick that the player you’re listening to stole from someone else.
I’ll leave off with a great story about this. I’m a big Jimmy Page fan and the early Zeppelin stuff helped me tread water in heavy metal and blues at the same time before I discovered Chess Records dug into blues on it’s own. I went to a jam once and sat in with my buddies who were in the house band. I played my Jimmy Page lick over the 5 of the blues tune and I felt real proud of myself for playing this lick. They finish the set and the jam part of the night starts. The first group of jammers gets up and starts getting their bearings on a blues. The first guitar player takes a solo and plays the Jimmy Page lick that I stole in the exact same spot where I played it. The Universe is pretty funny that way sometimes.