"What do you really want to say musically? Play a phrase and damn well mean it! Every note from beginning to end!"
Back in the early 80s I went to the London College Of Music to study classical guitar for three years. I studied exclusively with a wonderful guitarist named Robert Brightmore who is now teaching at the Guildhall School Of Music in London. Bob was not only a great teacher but a mentor to me and I looked forward to my weekly lessons with him. However, he understood my dedication to the instrument and no matter how much I practiced during the week, he would never ever have me resting on my laurels. He always wanted to push me harder. I remember him saying to me many times, "Play strong Chris, play strong!". Those words are still embedded in my skull today and they may well have been some of the most powerful words he could have uttered.
But it took a while for me to really know what he was talking about. Indeed I don't think I really got it until my final term at the music school when I had to do a recital for my Fellowship diploma. Right before I went on to perform he said "Play strong Chris!". And so I did.
Classical guitar is a tough instrument. It's just you and the guitar. Nothing in between. It's an acoustic instrument, and if you are playing in a hall you have to project that sound to the back of the room. You have to play strong. There's no amp to help you. But strong doesn't mean loud. It has to do with articulation, commitment to the music and command of your instrument, even in quiet passages. It really has to do with a solid technique, in a perfect world, so you can focus on the music, not muscle mechanisms. Playing strong most of all I think means communicating the music as if you are a great master. Playing strong means that the audience is comfortable listening to you. Comfortable in that they can relax and be taken on a musical journey. Not uncomfortable, worrying if you are going to 'make' the next phrase.
Of course now I am ensconced in the jazz world, my classical guitar playing has taken a long hiatus. But everything I learned about playing strong has been adopted to my jazz guitar playing, and I still think about it often. Not only do I want to play strong, but when I listen to other musicians I want to hear that command, strength, confidence and surety in their playing. I want to be comfortable listening to others play so I can enjoy their musical journey.
It starts with technique. But as I mentioned it's not about dazzling chops. Technique is a means to an end. If you can't say what you want to say musically, then examine whether your technique needs improvement. But I like to focus on the word 'articulation', because to me that describes what we are trying to achieve a little better.
So how do we learn to play strong? In the classical world, slow but sure practice is key. Learning to project sound, focusing on right hand attack, using different areas of the sound hole etc. In the jazz world, we first of all need to have a vocabulary in order to have something to say. That and a good picking technique is a great start. And we need to learn to play with good 'time'.
But once you have got those essentials I believe that one has to really focus on every phrase being equally as important as every other phrase. In other words, stop noodling and get to the point! What are you trying to say? What do you really want to say? Play a phrase and damn well mean it! Every note from beginning to end. Think of that improvised phrase as being preconceived. It has a beginning, middle and ending, and in a perfect world we've chosen some good notes too. So play a phrase and dig in, like it means something to you and you need it to mean something to the listener. Now do that with every single phrase you play during your solo. When you play the melody (or head of the tune), do the same. Play it lyrically, put some heart and soul into it. Dig in. Mean it. Play strong!
Because I realize now that those two words only really meant anything to me quite some time after they were originally uttered, I understand that they need to sink in, in their own time. First things first. We need to get the basics before we can be masters of our instruments. But understanding where you are headed musically is important too, and if you are ready to take this next master stroke, then pick up your guitar and play music right off the bat. No messing about. Get to the point. Don't be timid.