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The Woodshed: Bound by the physics of your instrument

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JJ Rocks Article # 224:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 43, April, 2010
Have you ever wondered why most guitar solos sound different than a horn or a woodwind solo? Or what about the phrasing of a piano compared to a harmonica? And while Im on that note, what about the way the human voice phrases compared to a bass? Im not talking about the ranges of these instruments, only the way they approach improvisation and self expression, which by the way, are two different things. Improvisation can be created through the use of a collection of copied ideas found in your record collection. True self expression is only found within yourself through the interpretation of your influences. Either way, in many cases it all seems to be defined by your instrument, and not your ears.

Now its obvious that your chosen instrument has its own character and tone. But that should not mean that you are confined to its physics. The guitar for example has certain finger patterns that are easier than others (minor pentatonic scale is the most common). And guitar players seem to lean toward it as if it was old faithful. Thats why many rock and blues solos sound similar. The guitarist is usually attracted to an easy physical design when trying to solo, rather than trying to think melodically. Many harmonica players do the same thing.

The only harp players that I have heard who tend to be more melodic and creative are the ones that play Chromatic harps. Stevie Wonder is a great example of someone who escaped the mundane harmonica blues 101 syndrome. He defined a whole new level for this tiny instrument in popular music. And other players are doing it all the time. Its just a matter of studying the phrasing of other instruments (not just the tones) and reproducing them on your own axe. You will be amazed at the different places it takes you. And above all, you will have the feeling that you are communicating with a musician that expresses themselves through an entirely different sonic medium. Its like a whole new language.

My own personal goal is to study the human voice and try to play my guitar using the same character. This is a huge challenge because with a voice, even though the tones are there (tones are heard, notes are written), you still have to try to make it sound like musical speech. Each word in a set of lyrics has a particular rhythm in each sentence. It may be easy to cop the melody, but phrasing the words the way a singer does on your instrument is a completely different ballgame. Its obvious to any intelligent player out there that Im not referring to making my guitar sound like a human voice. You can use electronics for that. Im only trying to recreate the feel and emotions through close attention to the rhythmic cadences of the lyrics. Its a musical goal that I really want to achieve so Im taking my time. In a way music is like human language. Its not how many words you speak, but what you say and how you say it.

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