"If the band is grooving, you as a soloist can play just a few notes and the spaces are music in themselves!"
I was at the NAMM show recently, a massive trade show for musical products. If you've ever been into Guitar Center and witnessed that infernal noise made by guitarists and bass players 'trying out' instruments, then the NAMM show is that x 50,000. It can be hell, yet a necessary evil if you are in the business.
I spent some time walking around and of course made my way to many of the guitar and amp booths, after all it's always good to keep up with anything new and groundbreaking. I came across a few professional guitar players who had been hired to demonstrate guitars, and as good as these players were technically, there was always one aspect of their playing that stood out to me. I find this is the case with any guitar player that is not communicating. They play too much. Tons and tons of notes, in rapid succession, all brilliantly executed. But what is really being said? How can you enjoy music when you feel like you are having your teeth drilled?
Guitar players are notorious for doing this, simply because they can. If they were horn players things would be very different. You simply have to take a breath. Guitar players technically don't have to do this, so they don't, and as a result their music is compromised.
The first time I was aware of this was several years ago when I started using a digital vocoder. In order for the notes to be heard on my guitar, I would have to mouth something into the microphone to trigger them. Then of course you get to shape the sound with syllables and so on. I was in a rehearsal and my sax player said to me, "Chris you play different when you use that thing, because you have to take a breath". Perhaps that was a kind way of saying I sucked, but the talkbox thing was cool. It certainly struck a chord anyway. So from then on, and it took a while to really sink in, but I tried to really focus on phrasing. And not just as a guitar player, but compositionally, if my music doesn't breathe, I'm just not interested.
As jazz guitarists, there is a terrible tendency for us to play a lot of notes, firstly because the genre historically has given us permission to do so, and second, archtop jazz guitars don't generally lend themselves to sustaining notes, so in order to 'get over', guitarists fall into the trap of overplaying.
There are of course compromising situations which affect the way we play and it is important to be aware of these at the time. First, if you are taking a solo and the band behind you is not being particularly supportive, i.e.; playing busily and not listening to you, then this very often makes a player play more notes because they are fighting to speak, as it were. But if the band is just grooving, you as a soloist can play just a few notes and the spaces are music in themselves!
Another compromising situation might be a borrowed or rented amp that just won't sound the way you want it to. Perhaps a boomy hall. All these things can and will put your head into a different space, often unconsciously.
So first, we need to get out of our heads, or get out of our own way, so to speak, in order to make the best music.
And then we need to really focus on playing beautiful phrases that tell little stories. And I have found there are a couple of ways that you can drill this kind of thinking into your own playing, so it becomes subconscious. First, and the most traditional idea, is to adopt a 'question & answer' stance. You simply play a phrase, almost like stating a question, leaving the end of the phrase open ended somehow, then take a breath and answer it, making it a little more final in response. As time goes on, this will feel more and more natural.
Something that I have been doing recently which really got me to think about phrasing and spaces is by setting a nice vocal or hall reverb on my amp. I would then play a phrase and really listen to the reverb at the end of the last note in the phrase, and let the reverb die away before I would play another phrase. I found that much of the musicality was really in that reverb space. I do that now when I play with the band in a live setting, and if the band is overplaying, I usually can't heard those reverb trail-offs. It has almost become second nature now, I am always listening for those reverb spaces.
Finally, another way to practice is to hold your breath for a while, play a phrase and when you naturally want to let the air out of your lungs, end your phrase. Try to connect your own breathing with the phrases you play on the guitar.
There are of course plenty of examples of great players overplaying too. But intensity also has its place, and I can think of a few masters who can get quite intense, yet in a next breath, play the most beautiful passionate phrase. Pat Metheny immediately springs to mind.
Personally, if I listen to music that doesn't breathe, I find it difficult to. Do you?