Many years ago, someone came up to me after my band finished its set and told me: “You sounded great on that last song!”
I was shocked, because I had just limped through the roughest part of the set.
The song in question was Peg by Steely Dan, a song that to this day I can barely play. I knew the chords, but they didn’t sound good to me when I played them. And I hated soloing over the song–I couldn’t make the guitar sing over the chord changes.
So why did this audience member compliment me for a song that I didn’t really play on?
(Of course, he could have been bullshitting, but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume that he was being sincere.)
I received the compliment because I played only what I knew would sound good. I didn’t muck up the mix or distract my band mates with flubbed notes or overbearing chords. Instead, I employed the fundamental principle of good guitar playing:
Never play anything that sounds bad.
Most guitarists would agree with this principle, but as I’m sure you’ve noticed, many of us do not put it into practice. It’s too bad, because not playing is so much easier than playing!
I try to avoid sweeping generalizations, but when it comes to live musical performance, it’s always better to not play anything rather than to play something that you’re not good at or that doesn’t fit the song.
You may feel stupid not doing anything on stage while your band mates rock out, but looking awkward and checking your ego is a small price to pay for not ruining a performance with substandard guitar work.
Choosing when to play and when to sit back isn’t just good for the overall sound of the band, it can also help to showcase your playing. If you wait for just the right moment to add to the song, people will notice and enjoy.
When it came to Peg, the only thing I could play that sounded good was “popcorn rhythm” on the verses. Everything else that I tried was outside of my technical abilities or stylistic preferences, so I just stuck with what I knew how to play. For those of you not hip to popcorn rhythm, check out this video by one of my heroes, Skunk Baxter: