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Why Musicians Speak Cryptically

Cryptically. Yup, that’s a word.

When I was a young teen, I’d read interviews given by seasoned musicians and was often left wondering precisely what the hell they were talking about a great deal of the time. Folks like Eric Clapton would refer to getting ‘lost’ or ‘out there’ and I wondered if it wasn’t some vague drug reference.

I began playing guitar at seventeen, and was, for much of the time, sorely aware of how poor my playing was. I was super-conscious of every little hiccup, always thinking about what I was doing, and as a result often made major mistakes, sometimes even forgetting the words to my own tunes.

By the age of twenty-nine, I was beginning to feel the urge to follow another path and leave all of my influences behind. This did not happen overnight, but began to make itself apparent only when I ceased to care about what these influences were doing anymore.  I began to play with rhythms and chord voicings which appealed to me, rather than spending time attempting to figure out what someone else was doing. Later still, I began to feel that words and vocals were somewhat unnecessary. I would sometimes ‘hear’ nice melodies in my head, but there were no particular vowels or consonants that would seem to fit, so I would stumble through a the process of picking these melodies out. This was at once awkward and time consuming. Having had no formal training in music, I decided to learn all of the major and minor scales, bit by bit.

I practiced for an hour a day for over a year, seemingly getting nowhere, although I could easily tell that I was gaining in dexterity. I absolutely could not remember all of the minutia.

One day while another guitar player friend was over, my son Sterling walked into the studio and asked me to figure out a song for him. It was She Talks To Angels by the Black Crowes. He handed me the CD and I plopped it in and hit play and picked up my acoustic guitar.

“Oh well, there’s your problem, the guy is in an alternate tuning.” I reached up and re-tuned first one string and then another, still engaging in the subject at hand with my friend, and absent-mindedly began to play the song, “Here, just do this.” I told him, showing him the fingerings.

It was at this point that my son motions toward me, looks at my friend and says, “How the hell did he do that?” to which my friend responds, “I have no idea.”

I looked at them both. “Do what?” I asked. I didn’t know what they were referring to.

“Have you never played that song before?” my friend inquired. I responded that I had not, that I’d only heard it at various times, but did not listen to the Black Crowes. He just looked at my son and shrugged.

Some days later, I was listening to an Aimee Mann CD when something I’d never heard caught my ear. I grabbed my Tele, plugged it in and began to fiddle around as my mind wandered aimlessly. I don’t know how much time had passed, but after some amount, I ‘woke up’ to what I was doing. Then it hit me. I’d been sitting there playing my ass off without even thinking about it. This was light years away from where my journey had begun.

After so many years, I finally came to understand what others were referring to when they’d talk about going into that ‘place’ in their mind. I call it the Zone, and it’s a completely sober experience. It’s a place in between your ears that doesn’t have eyes, or conscious thought. It is akin to driving down the expressway and then ‘waking up’ after having driven several miles. We’ve all done it. It’s kind of dangerous and thrilling all at once, but somehow or the other, we have maneuvered an automobile at a given speed between two lines without really being able to recall precisely how much time has passed.

This is the Zone. When one enters this place while playing guitar, one is not consciously thinking of what one is doing, the fingers develop a mind of their own. This is where the best stuff happens.

Here’s the best tip: Always be recording when you’re playing. It’s like taking photos while you’re on vacation, believe me. You want to have this on tape in order to prove that you really went there. You won’t regret it.

If you’ve never visited the Zone, there’s always a first time.

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About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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