An Explanation for the Guitar Face

It’s a subject of quiet tittering and amusement.  When guitar players play their solos, they contort and twist their faces, gurning in unconscious ways, so that they look, frankly, ridiculous.  What is it about playing music that connects to the facial muscles in such a seemingly bizarre way?  Surely the essence of looking cool, as a guitar player, is to not pull those faces and to express their passion and pain through their notes alone.  So you would think.

I haven’t found a lot about this on the internet, but I have noticed from observation that the best musicians don’t just play from their fingers.  They involve their whole body in movement, sympathetic with the rhythm and emotion of the piece they are playing.  They let their bodies respond freely to the musical thoughts they are thinking and the sounds they are creating.  All the virtuosi are involved in a subtle, free dance with their instruments, while they play.

I think that there is a deep and important connection between how our entire body responds to music and how the music we create sounds.  If, as a guitar player, you permit yourself to let your body move as you play, allowing the dance to evolve of its own accord, you will find that the fluidity with which you play and the ability to make an emotional connection with your audience is actually dramatically enhanced.  Try it for yourself.  Letting yourself dance with your instrument, as you play, lets you make better music.

My guess is this.  If you do not permit that flowing body movement to occur, while you play, yet you are playing with intensity and emotional verve, the only thing that can happen is that your facial muscles autonomically respond to the musical expression.  In other words, suppressing the movement of your body causes your face to do all the work of responding to the music.  Guitar faces are the result of suppressed body movement, in my view.

That is not to say that your face should be immobile.  Absolutely not.  I feel that if you let your entire body respond to the music you are playing, face included, that is the route to producing the most lithe, agile, graceful, emotionally impactful music possible.  Every other sort of self-conscious containment reflects back into the music you make, turning it into something safer, stilted, more self-conscious and ultimately sterile.  For your music to have potency, you need to allow its expression to envelop and wash over your entire body, making every hair tingle, so that the sounds you create will have a similar effect on your listener.  You’re almost like a test pilot for your audience.  If it makes your own body move, then it has a high likelihood of making somebody else’s body move and therefore, you have succeeded in loading your sound waves with a message that other people’s empathic senses will allow them to interpret as conveyed emotion.

Dancing with your instrument, as you play it, is the best way to create an emotional conduit between your own creative faculties, which are producing the notes, and the audience that is experiencing your music.  Attempts to constrain that dance result in audible differences that your audience can sense as a reduction in the affective content of the music.  It sounds passionless.  It sounds passionless, because it is passionless.  The audience can see that you’re holding back.  What they want you to do is let it all hang out.

If you think about air guitar players, who don’t play guitar at all, but rather mime to recorded guitar tracks with elaborate and exaggerated theatrical gestures, what they are doing is adding to the emotional impact of other people’s playing, by the visual added extras that they convey to the audience.  The dance adds to the music to produce a more satisfying emotional experience.  I guess it’s why we like to dance while we listen to music and why dance is something that you will happily watch accompanied by music (e.g. ballet), but question more critically, when there is only silence.

The brain somehow connects the sight of the air guitar player, the notes coming out of the sound system and the emotional content of the piece.  The air guitar player’s movements are not actually affecting the sound waves at all, as they would be if the actual guitar player was dancing with his instrument, it’s just adding up inside the brains of the audience to being something more than the experience of listening to recorded music alone, but something less than a freely, fluidly moving live player.  Is it any wonder that we so enjoy live music?

So as absurd as the guitar face appears, it serves a real purpose, I think.  It allows the player to load his playing with emotional content and for that emotion to therefore affect the actual sounds produced, adding nuance, subtlety and grace.  In so doing it allows for that affective content to have maximal impact on the listener.   Music is best when it is a whole mind and body experience and to experience it that way, the music has to be imparted with the passion and emotional content needed in the first place and the audience has to allow it to flow into themselves with equal openness.

Dancing with your instrument, while you play it, is exposing your inherent vulnerability and therefore it makes you attractive to others and more able to be connected with, by empathic, vulnerable audience members.

Sounds silly, I know, but try it.  If you are a player, allow your body to move in sympathy with your music.  If you are an audience member, allow the music to affect you with equal fluidity and grace.  I promise you will be amazed.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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21 Responses to An Explanation for the Guitar Face

  1. I disagree with your theory entirely. Here is my anecdotal evidence.

    1) Tony Iommi, a phenomenal guitarist, is a blank slate when he plays. Face totally devoid of emotion, body like a statue. The only visible movment is often below the elbow, mainly below the wrist.

    2) Guitar face is far more common among blues guitarists than it is in any other type of guitarist. Is playing the blues inherently harder than any othe genre? Does it require more concentration? Do the performance expecations of blues make moving ones body less likely? To all these things I think a fair person would answer no. John Mayer is the epitome of the stupid guitar face. And it is absolutely no conincidence that he fancies himself a bluesman. Any good metal shredder is playing things far more complex than he is, but most of them do not feel the need to make a guitar face.

    3) Why is there no piano face? Why no drums face, bass face, conga face, theremin face, banjo face, sitar face? Is guitar just the hardest instrument to play, period? Does it require a fundamentally different mindset or mind/body connection? Is it inherently more expressive, and therefore more emotional? I say no, no and no.

    I think all these things taken together quite clearly point to this being a learned thing. Other musicians don’t make this stupid face because they would be laughed at the same way that people like me laugh at guitar face. It’s not a “thing” that is expected/tolerated in other genres and those instruments, so they don’t do it.

    “Oh my god, I’m SUCH a good guitarist, man, wow I’m REALLY feeling the blues in this one! You know how you can tell I’m really into it? I’m making a stupid face.”

    I hate guitar face with a passion. Dancing is cool.

  2. nickgrmiller says:

    Interesting assessment, I enjoyed the perspective offered here

  3. Realista says:

    Just came here to disagree.


    Listen to any album of the best musicians around, you don’t see their faces, do you?, yet YOU STILL KNOW THEY MELODY PLAYED IS MEANINGFUL, it has feeling.

    If you play the best romantic solo ever with a poker face, PEOPLE SAY “You have no feeling”

    WTF is their problem?

    • Of course you don’t have to, but I get why some people do. People have a wide variety of ways of showing they are experiencing emotion, with their body language. Your point is perfectly valid. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Bob Beecher says:

    Science Daily has an article entitled “Why do we tap our feet to a musical beat.” It’s reporting on a study first reported in the “Journal of New Music Research.”

    “According to the theory, in order to perceive something, we must actively simulate the motion associated with the sensory impressions we are trying to process. So, when we listen to music, we tend to mentally simulate the body movements that we believe have gone into producing the sound. Thus, our experience of a sound entails a mental image of a body motion.”

    I contend that the opposite is also true. When you sing lyrics you’re creating a mental image which affects your motor response. And based on the motion theory of perception, you actually have to move your mouth to create the images in your mind and those images affect your motor response or playing.

    Think of it this way. You’re in a play and you’re suppose to walk on stage and start crying. Few people could do that even with some awful image from their childhood in their mind. On the other hand, an actor comes on stage full of facial expressions of anger or grief and then goes into a half crazy tirade about his grief, he might easily start crying or he might get out his guitar and do an incredible lead solo.

  5. hawaii dave says:

    If you study humans, you get to learn that children learn first, a sense of “self” at a young age, followed by a sense of others…small children watch other children and eventually learn that they themselves can be viewed/watched by others. The perception of self combined w the knowledge that you are being perceived by others causes a reaction unique to each of us. Some like being “seen” and some of us do not. Some of us like it so much that we grow up seeking careers in which we are the center of attention is some way, shape or form. About music. No one can prove how much they “feel” music. Cant happen. Cant be proven. Cant be measured. By no scientific means can any human prove how much or how little they feel music. But a musician will rarely tell you he hates the music they play. Not good for business. Clapton almost did, but settled by saying that he gets a bit tired of playing the same songs for 40 years. A musician wants the audience, whom he knows is watching their every move on stage, that they are into the music and feel the music emotionally. They can guarantee that the audience believes their “authenticity” with the funky face and physical gyrations, so they do, probably learned from years and years of watching other guitarists and then reacting to audience reaction and it becomes an accepted part of music over decades. Literally speaking, the music can be played just as well without the faces. The funky face is not the deciding factor that send a performance over the edge to greatness…it is the fingers. It could be embarrassing to be caught up in this, so I only see the most confident people ever saying their funky face is exaggerated to enhance audience experience. So it just gets accepted as part of music….but when the spotlight is upon you…and you know people are watching, expect humans to do strange things in order to be accepted.

  6. JT says:

    Gotta say, it’s not just guitar. You will see “the face” on any type of musician or athlete for that matter in moments of extreme concentration and focus.

  7. earndoggy says:

    I concur with a little bit of each. I do think it’s learned behavior because I’ve watched people make the exact same faces and some of the players are simply not good enough to lose themselves in the music, they’re too busy learning how to play but still feel the need to make those faces. On those folks, I agree with the commenter above who hates guitar faces. It’s stupid on them. Yet I do agree that when a person is carried away by emotion or is concentrating very tightly on something, facial expressions often happen that we are completely unaware of. Genuine guitar face is part of the experience, learned/fake guitar face is distracting and annoying. Like that weird curvy arm waving dipping and swaying that young piano players did for a while. It was seriously annoying.

  8. Grant Supak says:

    I know this is an old post, but I was practicing guitar drills and caught myself making weird faces… I couldn’t seem to find much info about it, but here’s my experience: It’s completely involuntary and happens when playing difficult, not particularly emotional parts. I’ve been playing almost 20 years and that’s never changed for me. It’s always when I’m playing something that requires heavy concentration. One of my best friends who got me started playing guitar always made faces as well during our shows when I was in high school. Just my two cents!

    • Those are very interesting observations. Thank you for sharing them. Could heavy concentration perhaps bring emotions to the fore, partially unconsciously? What do you feel when you concentrate? Thanks again for commenting.

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