The 4 Universal Keys to Being Great

twangjeff

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I have put a lot of thought into this over the course of my years playing music. There are so many different styles of music and different kinds of players. What makes a player GREAT?

Here is what I have come up with. I feel like this is universal across genres and instruments.

1.) Time: If you can't groove, you can't play. Not much more to say here.

2.) Intonation/ Tuning: So many guitarists take this as a given, but then when you hear bands live... so many guitar players play out of tune... so is it really that simple? Let's think about bends... what if guitar players approached their bends being in tune the way a cellist approached intonation?

3.) Tone: If it doesn't sound good it isn't good. This is more than gear. Its knowing where to voice things on the neck so they breathe. Guitar players get accused of being all about gear, but in my experience, horn players spend a ton of time focusing on their tone. So do singers, so does everybody.

4.) Voice Leading: This applies to chords and to soloing. Styles come and go, but 99% of the time if there is good voice leading, it will sound pleasing. In my opinion, this is the biggest way to separate intermediate from advanced players. It really doesn't have anything to do with genre either... Jimmy Page, great voice leading. Brent Mason, great voice leading. John Mayer, great voice leading. Jim Hall, great voice leading.

My theory is this... if you can become better than average in all 4 of these areas, you can be a GREAT player.
 

Killing Floor

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That's funny. I remember a guitarist, I'll call him Schmeal Schmaza to protect the innocent, came to our office for some endorsee biz stuff and did a little showcase in the conference room playing 2 guitars at the same time. For a while it was really cool, all the opposing arpeggios and hammers. But then I left thinking, imagine being in a band with someone who's totally detached from the musicality of the song and not even hearing the other musicians.
 

Edgar Allan Presley

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That's a pretty good list, but I think time is the only one on there that's universal. But even time may not be. Jimmy Page didn't have such great time (that's why I'm not so sure he is one of the greats, but that's another topic).

Great players have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else, but their strengths are strong enough to overcome their weaknesses. There are players I think are great who are pretty shaky on multiple technical fronts but the "force" of their playing is great enough to overcome. And there are players who nail everything but have no "force," no duende, no apparent humanity in their playing, and I've got no use for it.

I play fiddle as much as guitar, and a great fiddler has to have great time but not perfect timing, which means their playing needs to have rhythmic thrust, but it doesn't have to be precisely on the beat to make people want to dance. You hear classical violinists trying to play a fiddle tune with perfect intonation and timing and nothing at all compelling, dangerous, or fun about it.

There are guitarists who have been playing for 8 weeks that I'd listen to over Yngwe Malmsteen, if they bring a sense of discovery, surprise, duende, or other immeasurable attributes to the music. That's why I'm skeptical of any universal recipe for musical greatness.
 

memorex

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People don't remember great players as a rule, they remember instantly recognizable singers, even when they're not good singers. Mick Jagger is a case in point.
 

loopfinding

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2.) Intonation/ Tuning: So many guitarists take this as a given, but then when you hear bands live... so many guitar players play out of tune... so is it really that simple? Let's think about bends... what if guitar players approached their bends being in tune the way a cellist approached intonation?

3.) Tone: If it doesn't sound good it isn't good. This is more than gear. Its knowing where to voice things on the neck so they breathe. Guitar players get accused of being all about gear, but in my experience, horn players spend a ton of time focusing on their tone. So do singers, so does everybody.

But side note, I do take issues with these.

With regards to intonation, they generally do. That’s why it can sound sterile and perfect, especially with the shredders. Blues derived idioms have so much microtonal nuance. They should be copying horn players and vocalists, not classical musicians. Besides, guys like trane and Jackie McLean were out of tune and sounded awesome.

With regards to tone, well, in the sense of phrasing and note choice, sure, it goes back to what I said before. As far as frequency content, that’s way subjective. A lot of tones are pretty crappy in isolation (or only good in isolation), and a lot of “bad tones” with reckless abandon are good.
 
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JL_LI

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There’s nothing universal about greatness. And most importantly, we can’t bestow the connotation of greatness on ourselves. Greatness is a standing conferred by others.

So what does greatness entail? At the least, it implies originality of thought and action. It implies ability significantly above the norm. Greatness can be recognized but not copied. Greatness moves people, if not to act, at least to consider. Musical greats include Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Dylan, Hendricks. There are plenty of near misses and more dismal failures than one can imagine. But there’s no list of things to do to be great. At most, lists produce competence, and thinking of lists as goals stifles the originality necessary for greatness.
 
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matrix

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I think that list is really well thought out. The universal importance of voice leading is insightful, and I think correct. I am not sure it is enough for “great” though. Maybe being “great” in the context of a local hero that people will probably like to hear Wednesday nights at the pub. (”Man, Bob from accounting is a really great guitarist!”)

If we are thinking “great” on a global, historical scale … well everything on your list still applies, but more special sauce is needed.

My own 0.02 on what all the greats have in common was that after technical competence, they found a way to be really and truly themselves on the instrument. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bird, Roy Buchanan, Tony Rice, Django … each one found a way to be really and fully themself on the instrument. You may or may not like them…but they achieved themselves in an deep way, and carved their name in the list of the greats.
 

matrix

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I had a feeling that there would be some colorful responses to this thread, but I never imagined that people would be coming out to defend playing out of tune and off the beat.
Fair point. But I am still getting over the comment that there are players out there who are greater after 8 months than what Yngwie Malmsteen has accomplished in his career
 

dlew919

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Mark e smith said something along the lines of ‘if you’re going to play out of tune, do it right’
People don't remember great players as a rule, they remember instantly recognizable singers, even when they're not good singers. Mick Jagger is a case in point.
They remember great songs. The Stones throw everything we think we know out the window. None of them, save Charlie are 'great'. But put them together and they’re magic.
 
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fender4life

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If i pick up a guitar and just noodle, often as not i play crappy. The reason is not just a lack of a metronome. I agree u really need something to play to, but not just clicks to keep time. You need music. I can pick up a guitar like i said and play crappy if i'm just noodling, but when i play a bar or 2 of rhythm on a looper i literally almost always play well. The point is that for ME at least and probably for most, the best practice is playing music. Noodling i find often counterproductive because your brain subconsciously is being trained at whatever you play, and if you play crappy boring patterns and such which is easy to do noodling, you're training yourself to rely on patterns rather then where and how to use those patterns. And with a looper u are forced to play something with good musical phrasing because if you don't you will know it, where as when u noodle you really don't. You have no road to follow so you don't know if u r steering correctly.

Thats me like i said, but i believe it is true for most or at least many players. The invention of loopers was a great tool and no doubt has been at least in part one of the reasons that the state of guitar playing today has advanced so quickly. If u don't have one, download some backing tracks. But loopers are great because you can play to any kind of rhythm you can dream up and play for 10 seconds. If you wanna be a shredder then other methods that put more emphasis on playing fast then musical phrasing might be more beneficial, but phrasing is such an important part of being a great musical player and loopers will work wonders in short order to improve your timing and phrasing and note choices, all the necessary things u need to be a great musician on guitar. Whenever i feel stagnant i spend time looping and before i know it i'm playing at or near my best.
 




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