Thursday, September 12, 2013

Songs Always Win

Songs always win, and every musician on planet Earth needs to recognize that fact. Some of you are probably saying "I have no idea what the heck that even means, Doug," so let me explain.

There are geeks for every instrument and every means of delivery of music. You can find them online...guitar geeks who seemingly worship certain top-of-the-line instruments, vintage amp geeks who will tell you that only vintage tube amplifiers will give guitar players the "tone" that sings to people's souls, and it can go on and on. In the end, though, songs always win. It doesn't matter if it's played on a damn-near-worthless beginners instrument through a truly worthless P.A., a great song will catch people's attention. A forgettable song through the finest equipment ever assembled won't really mean a thing to the people who hear it. You see, great music is great because it causes an emotional and sometimes visceral reaction in those who hear it. Think about it, has a song ever made you cry, and you're not even sure why? Has a song ever made you feel great, even though you had no real reason to feel so great? I'm willing to bet both of those have happened to every person reading this. Songs and skill, while not mutually exclusive, can create far different types of music.

It Doesn't Require A $110,000 Guitar Like This One

As I have grown as a person and as a musician I have come to appreciate the blues artists who built the foundation of rock music. Guitars are an African instrument. Blues, rock, and jazz are all related, and they all come from the African people who were brought to America as slaves. Essentially, a great number of us, myself certainly included, are simply white guys playing black people's music. Even country music is known as the "white man's blues," so there is no denying where the roots of modern music lie. I only bring this up because I want you all to think about what kind of instruments slaves and freedmen had access to. Most of the blues artists whom we credit with inventing American blues and the roots of rock and roll could not afford fine instruments from the best luthiers. The truth is, the foundation of modern music was built by people playing instruments that were serviceable at best. Sure, almost everything was built better back in the day, but most of the bluesmen who created blues and rock were dirt poor, and the crappiest budget guitar of today is often comparable to what those guys were playing. It didn't matter that their instruments were pretty lousy because they could play them well enough to deliver their songs. Songs are what matters. Lead Belly didn't shred up the neck, but he meant it when he sang.

Style and Sincerity Mean More Than Shredding
Let's jump to modern artists. William Elliott Whitmore has admitted in interviews that he is no great guitar or banjo player. He knows that his true talent lies in writing memorable and moving songs. Tim Barry is exactly the same. Lucero is one of the greatest bands of this or any generation, but when you start looking at their catalog you realize that everything they've ever recorded is based on only a few basic chord progressions. Ben Nichols writes great songs, and the rest of the band plays those simple progressions in memorable ways. Great songs are great even if they are so simple a beginner could play them.

Great Songs, Not Transcendental Guitar Playing
On the other end of the song-skill spectrum would be someone like Yngwie Malmsteen. A monstrously skilled guitarist who only appeals, for the most part, to guitar nerds. Yngwie, outside of his less-than-embraceable attitude, simply doesn't create songs that most people can latch onto and appreciate. His skill is so great that he has built a fantastic career, but he will never have mass appeal. I don't mean to imply that Lucero and W.E.W. are not skilled, because they certainly are, but, rather, I am saying that skill playing an instrument and skilled songwriting are not always tied completely together. Style plays a role, lyrics play a role, and melody plays a role as well. Again, though, songs will always win over pure skill.

Unreal Talent, Also Kind of a Douche, Also Boring After About 5 Minutes

Why am I writing about this? I suppose it's a way for me to formally acknowledge that I recognize I am no great instrumentalist. I could practice every day for the next year and guys like Ed Savoy and Robbie Eastman, and, let's be honest, every guitar player I've ever worked with, would still probably be better than me at playing the guitar. For me, it's about songs. Some of the best songs ever written use three chords or less. I am not a big Beatles fan, but they and their producers understood that songs win, and nearly every band that has come after them owes them a bit of a debt of gratitude for that. The truth is that I love singing and playing, and I still believe that I am capable of creating great songs.

Songs and Meaning Every Word For The Win
There is and will always be a place for people who are truly gifted at the technical aspects of playing an instrument. Very rarely, a person like Eddie Van Halen will come along who pushes technical playing into new territory while still embracing the art of creating a memorable song. In the end, though, people, whether their ears are sophisticated from years of dissecting various forms of music or relatively simple from listening to whatever the thing-of-the-moment pop is shoved down their throats, will always be drawn to great songs. I make music because I want to make great songs that move people, that help people understand their world and experiences or at least understand they are not alone.

Songs always win. What I mean when I say that is that songs matter more than skill. Songs matter more than a superbly built instrument or the perfect amplifier. For most of us, the hook brings you back, the melody draws you in, and the words mean something to you long before the technical aspects of playing ever cross your mind. Hopefully I can write some more songs that move people, and even if I can't I will never stop trying.

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