As guitar players, we often find ourselves
resorting to the same old ingrained licks
and habits we’ve had for years. But recently, I had an experience that got me thinking in a whole new way. It also got me
listening to music differently when in the
studio, thanks to some interesting insight
and advice from a friend.
Just Close Your Eyes
I’m lucky enough to still jam once in a while
with buds I’ve played with since the eighth
grade. Its pure fun—no rules, just play what
you feel. At a recent outside gig, it started
to rain, so we took cover in a shed. The
lightning outside was quite bad and there
was no electricity, so I found my way over
to a couch in the pitch black. On the couch
was some kind of guitar, which I pushed
aside so I could sit.
After 20 minutes of non-stop storm, I laid
the guitar across my lap—it was so dark I
couldn’t even tell what it was. It had F-holes
and was tuned to an unfamiliar, odd tuning.
I strummed the open strings and it was a
chord. Hmm, I thought, this is cool. I felt my
way around the neck, took out a pick (we
can always find those in our pockets no matter how dark) and played a little.
Within minutes, all four of us in the room
had found some sort of instrument, be it
a chair or a one-string bucket bass (
seriously). We were jamming in the dark, with
a wicked lightning storm providing only an
occasional flash of light. I had no idea what
I was playing and was inventing chords on
the spot. Once I found a pattern and a figure that worked, I would stretch out to feel
something different and build from there.
The jam went on for a good hour and a half
until we decided to make a break for it. I
put the guitar down and we felt our way
out of the shed.
I still don’t know what the tuning was or
what kind of guitar I was playing (and
haven’t yet asked). It was incredibly liberating and refreshing to not know what I was
doing—relying purely on instinct, sound and
rhythm to make music.
Sometime later, I was talking with Grammy
award-winning engineer and producer Dave
Isaac about his experiences as a kid, and an
experience he had working with Stevie Wonder.
“I spent most of my early years lying on
the floor, on my back with my eyes closed,
with my head between speakers listening to
music,” he noted. “I was seeing the artists
and musicians in my mind, not knowing that
it was preparing me for something greater
later on in life. I didn’t know that I was training my ears to not only block out the outside world and really focus on the music, but
to be perceptive of distractions in mixes.”
We were jamming, in
the dark, with a wicked
lightning storm provid-
ing only an occasional
flash of light. I had no
idea what I was play-
ing, and was inventing
chords on the spot.
Isaac continued, “I was training myself
to see what was perfect in the music. By
perfect, I mean to listen to the music in a
way that you hear it all as one, yet you’re
listening to individual performances, hearing a melody and the way that it’s passed
off from one instrument to the next, hearing
every nuance and dynamic of the vocalist or
musician—perfectly focused to get the true
meaning of the music… to truly be touched
by the music, as if you were listening to
Mozart or Stevie Wonder play before you.”
Isaac got to realize the dream of seeing
Wonder play before him.
“One night I was called by Stevie to engineer a vocal session with him,” he told me.
“I normally wouldn’t be nervous because
I’ve worked with many popular artists over
the years, but this was the guy that really
made me close my eyes in the first place.
To see him when I was a kid, a blind singer
that sang the way he did, I just wanted to
close my eyes and see what he heard in his
headphones at Motown. So I would close
my eyes and imagine that I was him. Now
to one day come full circle was mind blowing! Stevie has a way to make you instantly
comfortable. He’s kind of a jokester, which
relaxed me enough to remember what the
night truly was all about, which was to now
share that experience with the man himself.
So I turned out the lights and closed my
eyes to get a brief look into what Stevie was
hearing. I made sure that nothing was in his
way or distracting him in regards to level
and panning, in his headphones or in the
speakers. He did the vocal and afterwards
we sat, joked, ate donuts and drank coffee
until 6 am. Life was good!”
So next time you’re stuck in a rut and not
“feeling it,” close your eyes and reach for
something a little deeper. It’s in there—you
just might not see it.
Rich is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked
with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie . A
life-long guitarist, he’s also the auther of Pro Tools Surround
Sound Mixing and composes for such networks as Discovery
Channel, Nickelodeon and National Geographic.