When it comes to guitar playing, there seem to be two main camps that most of us fall into: those that value chops and technically-based music and those who prefer more simple, earthier, played-from-the-heart styles. There always seems to be some friction between the two, with the chops guys looking at the feel fellows as the musical equal of a knuckle-dragging caveman and the feel folks viewing the sweep pickers as soulless, over-practicing robots. There are valid points to each argument and a great deal of us probably live somewhere between the two extremes and have records in our collections of both types. While music is an art form, which means it is open to interpretation and there is no way to clearly win this kind of debate, I, your ever-loving Gear-Vault scribe, will try to lay out a few talking points from each side and leave the final verdict for each of you to arrive at for yourselves, although this is Fight Club and I may inject my own opinions here and there to keep things lively. Now, off we go!
1 – “Music Must Be Technical To Be Good.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. If the 80’s taught us anything, it’s that just because someone plays a lot of notes doesn’t mean they can create memorable music. There were plenty of songs from that era that amounted to a mediocre tune wrapped around a flashy guitar solo. The decade began with Eddie Van Halen, who had chops to burn but also knew every Clapton solo note-for-note and ended with C.C. Deville, who I have never heard any guitarist cite as an influence.
2 – “Chops Are Bad.”
This is just as untrue as #1. This is the view usually spouted by the Nirvana-wannabes who see no use in tuning up, knowing theory, or singing on key. This attitude proved equally disastrous for rock music and led to the talent drought known as the 1990’s. Not only was this bad for the state of guitar playing, but listen to what it did to the singer’s art. These days, as long as you can scream or grunt in a Cookie Monster-esque style, you can be a rock star vocalist. Lame and limp.
3 – “I Play For The Song, Dude.”
What this normally means, in the worst case, is “I can only play power chords.” When this statement is actually true, it applies to guys like Mike Campbell, Tom Petty’s lead player, who always plays tasty and memorable parts that compliment the song at hand without overpower the singer or the composition.
4 – “Guitar Solos Are Self-Indulgent and Useless.”
This is often the punk attitude and is found also being spouted by many singer/songwriter types who can’t comprehend that anything might be needed in a song besides their acoustic guitar strumming and over-wrought lyrics. Solos can lead to wankery in the wrong hands, true, but when deployed correctly they become a sort of song-within-the-song and add much to the overall vibe. Listen to Neal Schon’s outro solo on “Who’s Crying Now” for an example. Even “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has a solo in it, for Pete’s sake, and a melodic one, at that.
5 – “It’s The Song That Matters.”
Now, this one is actually true. The whole chops vs. feel debate really is about fitting the song. If you really are a technical player then write your songs to showcase that, but make them real compositions, not just vehicles for your fingers to show off. If your true nature is more primitive, then be the best caveman this side of a Geico commercial. The real goal is to leave people with a memorable song, no matter the approach. What it comes down to is “can you pull it off?”
What really matters, in our game, anyway, is reaching the audience, getting through to them, by any means necessary. The guitar is no more than a tool to be used to express who we really are and what we carry in our hearts. Some people think in long sentences and flurries of notes; some think in more Zen-like simplicity. The trick is to figure out which type you are and then be that to the best of your talent. If you can do that, it won’t matter how many notes you do or don’t play.