When I first picked up a guitar I was inundated with a tirade of lessons covering chords and picks and tabular notation, with no connection to the music I was hearing on the radio. Consequently I kept skipping my guitar lessons. Later, when I picked it up again and began connecting what I’d learnt to the music I loved it felt great but like i was attaching chords to the existing structure, rather than feeling the music. Simple arithmetic. After a while I found I was focusing my attention deeper onto the guitar and discovering more expression in either the way the strings were picked, or the emphasis and timing of each note. But when did it all become natural?
Placing the fingers on the fretboard in the right place took a massive leap in mind control. Similarly, getting my other hand to obey my mind and pluck the correct string at the right time took an equal amount of concentration. But after a while the shapes and spaces became second nature, without the need for thought, after which feel and expression became available to me and I was able to develop my own style.
Then I began recognising my style in other people’s playing. Although I had listened predominantly to rock music, like Deep Purple and The Who, my own style was evidently akin to that of Neil Young, which came as a bit of a surprise!
From there, and at the age of 15, I began composing in my own vernacular instead of mimicking what I’d heard on the radio.
My method for writing a song was wait for inspiration, which never took long in the life of a teenager. No questions, no reference to anything else, though steeped in the musical history I’d absorbed since childhood. This came naturally, but I’m not convinced it was true improvisation, even though I had no idea where that new chord came from?
At some point though the line between finding inspiration and creating free expression became too blurred to distinguish. What is the difference? I think the former deals with creative structuring, while the latter absolves itself of rules, freeing it to literally anything, anywhere, and it’s the unexpected success of the result that has the edge if you’re point scoring.
You have to accept it, like magic, and move on to the emotion, but as a musician, when does this event happen? When do you know you’ve reached that point?
When you stop caring about what is going to happen.
Sometimes I can’t play anything wrong. No matter where I send my fingers it works. I’m not even looking! Not thinking. Not really there playing, just floating, listening.
That ability might have always lurked in the background, requiring time or experience to release it, yet, like magic, who cares, let it come, enjoy. It’s a gift, I hope available to everyone. Try it. Keep trying it.