"An artist becomes a truly great artist when he or she is thinking about their own music and how to make it unique. The struggle for an identifiable and distinctive voice becomes the number one goal."
I was invited to a masterclass recently at USC featuring guitarist Robben Ford. I was particularly keen to go as Robben was quite an influence on me as a growing musician back in the early 80s. Besides that, it is always nice to hang out with the USC professors, they are all great players in their own right, and always fun to hang out with.
I was expecting to see Robben play more and talk about his approach to playing but there was very little. Mostly he answered questions, and there were plenty of those. He began with quite a disclaimer in that he didn't have any formal training, was completely self taught and improved slowly by beating the s**t out of the guitar! Something I think we all relate to.
He talked about his time with Miles Davis and his start with the Yellowjackets and how he got his first record deal, but then he mentioned something that struck a chord with me (if you pardon the pun!). He talked about the time when it was important to show everyone what he could do on the guitar and the need to get that out of his system. Then, when he was with Miles Davis, it was at a time when he was negotiating his first record deal with Warner Brothers and an opportunity to really start his solo career, something that became a factor in his leaving Miles' band.
Robben then went on to say that that first record with Warners ("Talk To Your Daughter") was a landmark record for him as it took him to a different level as an artist. No longer was it important for him to proove his abilities, but it became important to step up to the next level as a complete artist and find out who he really was.
He then went on to say that what really 'gets him off' was working on his own music, and making it feel good and groove and swing hard. His focus is always on the song itself, what it needs and how to go about serving it.
Then he went on to say that musicians for the most part aren't interested in the notes another musician is playing, but how those notes are being played. Musicians want to hear other players feel the phrase and make it groove hard. That is what the interaction thing is all about.
I should just clarify that I think what Robben is implying here is that musicians should already have a good vocabulary before they take this on board. I'm sure he wouldn't advocate playing all wrong notes. There is certainly a lot of truth in what he says though.
I'm always interested in how an artist arrives at being a truly great artist. Clearly talent is usually there from the beginning but there is always a point where an artist truly becomes great and I think it is around the time that that artist decides it is time to be completely himself or herself. The days of needing to impress others has to go away, the time spent on copying other players' licks and lines needs to be put in perspective.
In essence, and this is only my opinion, an artist becomes a truly great artist when he or she is thinking about their own music and how to make it unique. The struggle for an identifiable and distinctive voice becomes the number one goal. John Scofield once said "We are all limited by our own vocabulary, it's what we do with that limited vocabulary that matters". Wise words indeed. And no one plays with a more unique approach than Scofield. He has clearly taken an approach, honed it and made it truly his.
Great artistry is all well and good but of course we all need to walk before we can run. All those years of practice, learning vocabulary, learning how to swing, learning how to accompany, to read, must not go ignored. But there is something that happens when you decide to be a leader of a group and make the decision to be the 'voice' within that group. It usually opens up a new musical outlook.
Finally, and something Robben reiterated again and again throughout his seminar, was the need to 'jump in at the deep end'. He said, "no matter how much preparation one does, nothing can beat the experience of live playing. It's sink or swim", as he recalled his first two nerve-shattering nights with Miles Davis. "You just have to do it!" he says. "Jump off the deep end once in a while".