Playing with ‘Feeling’ vs. Playing with Technical Proficiency

Playing with ‘Feeling’ vs. Playing with Technical Proficiency

I just read a couple of Craigslist posts here in Austin about a certain currently-popular guitarist, the argument being about whether or not he’s a Blues guitarist or a Fusion guitarist, and about whether or not his playing has any ‘feel’ to it or if it’s purely technical in nature.

That got me to thinking about the relative merits of ‘feeling’ vs. technical proficiency in the context of playing a musical instrument. Now, bear in mind that I’m an old guy, and realize that the names I’m about to throw out here are not the currently best-known names in the biz…but if you’re any kind of student of your instrument (specifically, guitar and bass), you’ve heard these names, and probably heard a lot of their work as well.

Let’s take Eric Clapton...

He doesn’t read a note of music, or as far as I know, tablature. And I don’t think he ever had a formal guitar lesson in his life (I’ve read his autobiography, at least twice over). But he’s the kind of player who, if you play him the rhythm parts and give him the chord changes of a song, he’ll ‘hear in his head’ what his part should be, and it’ll come right out thru his hands. Who needs it written out when you have that kind of ability? Does he shred out a flurry of 64th notes in a solo? Sometimes. But his real strength is the ability to put more meaning into one note (or the space between any two notes) than all those metalhead shredders manage to do with 300 notes. Feeling vs. Technical Proficiency…in Clapton’s case, it’s a definite point in the ‘Feeling’ court.

Back in his day, Jimmy Page was considered one of the most technically proficient guitarists out there. But I found his playing to be so ‘inorganic’ and devoid of feeling that I just could never really consider him one of my favorites.

Jeff Beck, another really technical player, was always a bit of a paradox to me. One some pieces, his playing was sterile and much too mechanical for my liking. On others, notably the instrumental ballad-type pieces, he could almost reduce me to tears with the sheer emotionality of his playing. Search out and listen to ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Jeff Beck…you’ll hear what I mean.

Jimi Hendrix, well, what can you say about him? He struck a pretty decent balance, but often still landed on the ‘technical’ side of the equation.

One of my all-time favorites in terms of striking that balance was and is Leslie West. On the surface, most of his early work seemed just ‘in-your-face’, aggressive and loud. But listen closer, especially to the more ‘ballad-y’ Mountain songs like ‘Theme for an Imaginary Western’, and you’ll hear some raw emotion in his playing. His playing was never super-fast nor flashy, but it definitely carries a big stick as regards how it affects the listener.

David Gilmour….now, there’s another guy who achieves a great balance in his playing. He, along with keyboard player Rick Wright, is who put those ‘meaningful spaces’ in the music of Pink Floyd, and that very thing is what made their ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album probably the top-selling rock album in history.

But I have to come back to Clapton for what I believe is a great example….go put on Cream’s ‘Crossroads’, and then have ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ or ‘Layla’ cued-up right behind it. You’ll immediately hear what I’m talking about here…that ability to cross the line from one side to the other in the ‘Feeling vs. Technical Proficiency’ equation.

If you want to be the best player that you can, of course you have to learn the technical aspects of the instrument, but you also must learn how to truly express yourself with it. It’s one thing to spray out lightning-fast runs with machine-like precision, and quite another to be able to make the silence between any two notes have as much meaning as either of the notes adjacent to it. You have to make yourself felt, as well as to make yourself heard. Clapton is quoted as having said: "My driving philosophy about making music is that you can reduce it all down to one note if that note is played with the right kind of sincerity." I think that just about sums it up!