I was reading one of those glossy guitar magazines, the other day. My wife buys me one, every now and then, as a much appreciated gift. In this edition, there was an obituary, of sorts, for the late Rick Parfitt, of Status Quo. Quotes from previous interviews with the guitarist were interspersed in the valedictory article. One question asked him to distill the magic ingredient that made their seemingly simple music such a potent crowd pleaser. In trying to capture that particular lightning in a bottle, Parfitt observed that the key to it was to play those riffs with one hundred percent commitment. If you didn’t, he explained, the music would sound lame.
I thought that was a rather important insight. Even if your hands hurt and your fingers are bleeding, or your head is filled with distracting catastrophes, in order to make the music work, you have to play it like you mean it. You can’t phone it in. You have to be fully present in the moment, focused completely on just one thing: driving the song along and entertaining people enough, to make them forget about their woes and dance. It takes one hundred percent commitment to delivering the groove.
We learnt this in our teens, as a young covers band. This was Australia, in the nineteen seventies and pub rock was just being born. Our repertoire included many Status Quo numbers, which at the time, were still relatively contemporary songs. It was cool to play them well. It was disastrous, if you did so half-heartedly. An audience would party hard, along with you, if you delivered, but equally make their displeasure known, in the form of vociferous, ferocious heckling and thrown glassware projectiles, if you weren’t right on it. Playing authentically and with total commitment to the beat was both a form of self-preservation and a way to make yourself and everybody in the room feel good. That’s why you were there. To entertain. Nothing feels better.
This is also why AC/DC works, in my opinion. It’s solid. Relentless. The instruments are pounded ruthlessly, to create that solid engine of a rhythm section. The song and audience are propelled by a constant, driving, insistent, assertive pulse, which pervades every air molecule in the place. This is the very essence of Australian pub rock. The beat just never quits and you can’t ignore it. You’re compelled to move in time with it. Your very heartbeats fall into synchronism.
As a musician, you have to get into the zone and ignore distractions, to bring this feeling off. You have to be immersed in the flow. To me, this is where hired-gun session musicians sometimes fall down. They remain detached and aloof – technically flawless, but uninvolved in the soul of the music. They play it like it’s just another sheet full of notes. Rarely will they dig in and participate in the creation of the rawest, visceral communication, from musicians to audience. They play in a non-committal way. Too cool to get down and dirty.
Though we deny it, everything we do relies on human energy and effort producing the goods. Physical, kinetic movement. Muscles. It’s easy (and lazy) to think that entertaining people and motivating them to enjoy themselves is not work at all, but it takes effort, dedication and generosity. You’re using your human energy and your commitment to delivering the groove to unleash everybody else’s expressions of joy. You have to unlock their hearts. You have to fight for every heartbeat. It takes a lot of humanity to make it sound like a well-oiled machine.
It’s not at all easy, until you surrender yourself to this purpose. When you do, suddenly everything slots into place and you’re playing right in the pocket. If every member of your band does this, at the same time, then the magic happens. It’s not what you play, but how you play it. Putting something of yourself into it, holding nothing back, is how this is done. It’s all or nothing. Half way is nowhere.
Just because you’re not the drummer doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time. The groove consists of every contribution and only spot on is near enough. It has to motor. In fact, the other musicians should be consciously trying to make the drummer sound amazing. Tap your foot and move your body, to keep the beat. It’s a dance and you need to dance with it, even if you only nod your head in time.
It helps a lot to sing the melody in your head, just a few milliseconds before you play it and sticking to the melody, supporting it, honouring it and preserving it is very important. If you want to deviate from the melody, you’d better have a better melody to replace it. You’re there to recreate memories with melodies.
Don’t play what the piano player is playing. They’re the piano player, not you. Play something of your own, which complements what they’re playing. Playing in unison should be for effect and emphasis. You’re trying to lift the bandstand and the room.
Don’t listen to the musicians that are trying to accompany you – you need to lead! And try hard to accompany the lead instrument or voice, not swamp and overwhelm them. Don’t stand on their melodic toes and listen for where their line needs an answer or support.
To quote Jazz musician Thelonious Monk, “you’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?”. Always know. Hesitancy and uncertainty is immediately audible and destroys the groove. Play with verve and panache.
Discrimination is important. You’re always playing with light and shade. There has to be a lot of darkness, for the lighter, contrasting moments to shine. Notes can be as small as the sound of a pin dropping, or as big as the universe. What you choose to play depends on your musical imagination.
The inside of a tune (the bridge) us what makes the outside of a tune sound good. Crisp beginnings and endings make the band sound tight, “together” and polished. Don’t play everything all the time, or every time. Leave some space for the imagination to fill in the details. Sometimes, what you don’t play is as important as what you do. Always leave them wanting more.
Stay in shape, as a musician. If you only play at gigs, you may turn up to a gig out of shape and then you won’t be able to make it. When your commitment to playing wanes, so does your playing. On the other hand, when you’re swinging, swing some more. If you’re not playing right at the very edge, you’re taking up too much room.
If you write music that isn’t interesting enough to play, to get your band members to come to rehearsal, write more interesting music. Musicians should live to play it. Your responsibility is to write something worth playing. Exciting music. Getting gigs is easy if you stay on the scene, are part of it and you define it. Make the music that matters.
When the spotlight is shining on you, you’ve got it and you have to carry it. If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but it’s on you. You’ve got it. Do something entertaining with it. Then pass it on and let somebody else take it.
Whatever you think can’t be done, or can’t be played, somebody will always come along and do it, or play it. It might as well be you. Get it done. A genius is the one most like himself. Be open and authentic, when you play and play with the courage and vulnerability to fail. If you drop it, puck it back up again immediately. Don’t miss a beat. Commitment, not omitment.
That, I think, is how you play with commitment.