Lesson 4: Revisiting Your Instrument

Already in this Artist Development course, we have looked at some of the hard-to-do things like work out who you are as an artist, pitch your newly-defined act and get a handle on what makes creativity successful.

Yet still, I have deliberately kept you from laying a note down. If you don’t know why you are playing a note, then you should not be playing that note. That may sound rather Zen but it is not too far from advice I have heard & read many times from old ugly dudes of many disciplines.

Zen Painting
It is the play of space & line that makes this such a powerful piece

You can try to win the fight by swinging arms & legs wildly or you can step up and deliver a shocking punch to the gut. That’s what good Rock & Roll does.

What’s Your Flava?

So how do you do that with a guitar, flute, software synth..? Especially in the case of the software synth you can’t whack someone with it so you need to work out how to punch people in the guts using sound alone. Here are your possible options:

  1. Play it loud
  2. Play it fast 
  3. Use lots of notes 
  4. Pretend to be emotive 
  5. Play it with feeling

Now it should be clear that while there can be a little bit of advantage in the first three options, they are a very limited strategy and the same ones that every other fool is using. So you are best using something else lest your music sounds like everyone else’s.

#4 with the fake emotive thing is popular right now but it is terrible art (no matter how cool or “modern” you think it is). It is a noose and one you best not use lest you get caught in the inevitable swing against it. There is a reason that classic songs like Creedence’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine” or Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight” still work so well and that it because they feel real.

Some dude called steve Humphrey (sic) said:

I am a metalhead but I love this and some of his other songs, not to mention the Jimmy Kimmel stuff. He is very passionate and I am drawn to musicians, bands, and people in general like that. One of my favorite songs ever! Right up there with The Angel of Death and The Four Horsemen.

This comment was on a Josh Groban video. Josh may not be very Metal at all but he impresses lower-case steve because he performs the songs with passion. That passion is real and not the fashionable faux breathy thing that has queered the charts for the last 10 years (and clearly hasn’t impressed steve).

Where Is The Love

George Benson

First thing is to decide what your main instrument is – is it voice, guitar, synth, drums, bass..? That list is endless but you need to specialize in the thing where you can deliver the best emotional punch.

The answer may be obvious to some of you but you can also fool yourself. I have met several aspiring artists who think their salvation lies in Production when in actual fact their real point of difference or gut-punch lies in singing or even writing lyrics. What I can say is that what afears you the most may actually be where your best talent lies.

George Benson is commonly known as a guitarist – and a darned fine one with a feel that is rarely rivaled – but his singing is what lobbed him into the charts across the 80’s. Interestingly, Benson’s singing is somewhat similar to his guitar playing as he took to singing via scatting along with his playing. There is a lesson here: you can take a skill you have in one area and let it flow into another.

So why not let all the skills you currently have flow into one core, or key, expression?

Frankie Say

By now you should have a decision on what your core instrument is (even if that is writing lyrics) and be starting to pour your soul into that.

What I want you to do right now is to reassess how you play. Put aside any ideas of volume, speed, gobs of stacked or tumbling notes, fake expressions etc to focus only how your message can be most simply expressed in the sound of you through your instrument.

This is not really about notes, scales, or any easy to annotate theory. This is about how you use your passion to motivate the instrument in your hands (or at the end of your mouse) into expressing the unique you. It is about timing, phrasing, and delivery.

Sinatra looking the way he sounds

Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest singers ever. He didn’t have the greatest set of pipes on him but he did have a superb ability to deliver his songs in a way that is immensely engaging and even better uniquely Sinatra (even after people tried to copy him – and fail). Frank used time like a master. He knew exactly when to hold off a word.

Put aside ideas of what should be and let what is shine through. You may have invested in ideas about how you are a certain set of tropes and be forcing your music into that. Let that go. Those ideas may be right but they may also be very wrong. You can’t know till you start to test.

Best way to test is to use the scientific method and try it several ways to see what happens.

Blow By Blow

I will attempt to provide some advice based on types of instruments. Obviously, I don’t play or engage in all of these instruments so this isn’t a how to play tutorial but more of a how-to express tutorial

Singing: is first as it is the most saleable way to get an audience. Don’t believe me, how many instrumentals climb the charts? Not many at all. The human voice is a thing we are keyed into so you can use or abuse that privilege. Faux singing, as has been so common in the last decade or so, is an atrocity. You know the thing, where people sing in a breathy falsetto whilst trying to sound pained. Ghastly. I was beside a singer half of yesterday who did that in every song. He sounded very unreal. Not cool, fantasy unreal but hard to listen to unreal. If he would relax into his natural voice he’d sound better and get more applause and coins tossed in the case.

Guitar & Keyboards: are the staples of Rock. There is a reason players like Satriani & Malmsteen are successful but they are equally the very reasons they aren’t more successful. Too much and not enough. Both can play a storm but both tend to fail to allow space or to allow their instruments to speak with subtlety. This is something that Eric Clapton & Gary Moore are extremely good at. You can listen to “The Cream of Clapton” and at times wonder why the fuss. The fuss is that Clapton has a level of feel that Satriani & Malmsteen don’t. Why I don’t know but I would guess ego. Play as hard and fast as your style needs but no more, remember that music is shaping space, not filling it. Try picking instead of strumming – worked for that Knopfler dude. No matter what you do never forget that Melody is the reason & rhyme of your playing. Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” isn’t a poster song for Metal because of the chords, it is the melodic riff all the way.

Bass: is the easy to forget one. Bass underpins everything. Not because it is more important but because it picks up and drives the fundamental. Some bassists specialize in that alone and some become like Mick Karn or Pino Palladino and can take over lead roles. Whatever you do tho, remember that the bass shapes a lot of what a piece feels like so don’t overdo it at all.


Bill Bruford

Drums: are not the lead instrument. Drums are like Bass in that they help frame the piece. A great drummer knows this and instead of hammering away as hard and as fast as they can, helps to drive the phrasing of the piece. Drummers like Bill Bruford, Cozy Powell & Ian Paice sound lyrical when they play solos. Poor drummers sound like a lot of things being hit. Drumming is not a metronome but an expression of the piece through framing the rhythm.


Lyrics: words are the key to the song. Silly to have to say it but poorly executed wordplay is unsolvable once the listener hears it. Judas Priest’s “Redeemer of Souls” has a total clanger when in the ad lib of “Metalizer”, His Halfordness is found singing “Metalizer, metalizer…” OMG did you just do that! If it wasn’t for the otherwise skill of Priest, they would have killed themselves. Words have power so work your couplets and wordplay well. Andrew Eldrich of Sisters of Mercy may not be an easy guy but his wordplay is super good.

Songwriting & Arranging: words are covered above so this is about the broader strokes of making sure a song has a beginning, middle, variation & end and that all flows so well that people get to the end and want to do it again. You can use the formulas AABAQZf23 all you like and they can work wonders but only if they fit your needs. Otherwise, break the rules and be surprising. Just don’t be so wildly confusing that people get lost and leave.

Mixing: is NOT A SONGWRITING SKILL and cannot happen till all the parts are down. Mixing is only & ever about finding the balance that allows each of the instrument and vocal parts to speak freely. The moment you find yourself obsessing over mixing, you are off-track. It is very, very, very rare for a track or album to die because the mix wasn’t full 4K quality (to mix a metaphor). But many a project has been scuppered by mixing upside down (drums & bass on top of vocals). If you find the mix stage is taken up by people saying turn up the bass then lock the studio doors or even better hire a balance master and trust them.

Riders of the DAW: are all those people (like me) to whom the DAW has become the weapon of choice. That is great as it offers the ability to make music with little to no playing skill but it also raises a host of traps like mixing before writing or even mixing instead of writing. Still, try to work out what your real core skill is. It may well be songwriting, arranging, mixing, or my core of Synthesist. Play from that and only use the bare minimum of what you need in other skillsets to deliver your piece. Just because your DAW lets you slice & dice things, doesn’t mean that it is musically useful. Avoid starting from the idea of using DAW tools to stumble on things that sound clever and trying to jam them into a piece. Have your ideas and then use the tools sparingly to deliver those ideas. If you want to goof around wildly then do that in down-time. What you learn at that time you can rope in when you have a use for that thing.

Homework: make a solo piece using your core instrument. Don’t let this take long at all. Best if you can let this flow out as close to real-time as possible with as few edits & processing as you can (note can and want may be very different). If you are deciding that lyrics are your key then you may need to roll in a second skill but use only as much as you need and no more i.e. you sing your words. This doesn’t mean adding guitars, drums, & the VST Symphony Orchestra. You singing them words out there naked and shiny is it. Same goes if you are a guitarist, you don’t need a drum machine or blast beats. You need to show how you can use a few notes to frame space in a way that grabs the listener.

Action: post this piece online using something like Soundcloud and link it in the comments below.

No matter when you meet this course, please feel free to participate actively in the Homework & Action sections at the bottom of each page. Even if this article is old, I am still listening.

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