Tuning, Practice and Precision: The Turning Point in the 80s

Photo Credits: Chethan Ram

Photo Credits: Chethan Ram

“With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument;
Not as a lordly conqueror who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.”

The Guitarist Tunes Up’ by Frances Conford (1886-1960)

I’ve always loved this poem. Today though, it reminds me of some of the changes that have happened over the years.

When I started playing the guitar in Calcutta in the 60s, I knew of just one seller of the instrument in the city, a shop called Reynolds (I don’t know if they’re related to the one in Bangalore). ‘Box’ guitars cost Rs.75 and were made of plywood, with necks probably made of the ends of discarded tea chests. You were guaranteed that the necks would warp. The only solution was to loosen the strings each time you were through with playing it. Tuning and detuning the guitar thus became an integral part of the act of playing itself. You would detune it in various ways, experimenting with different detuned combinations, until you’d had enough and were ready to put the instrument to sleep. Tuning up was also a ritual in itself – first thing in the morning, of course (at 16, if you love the guitar, you’re not just in love; you’re obsessed. You pick up your guitar before your toothbrush). You tune up one string at a time, play that string alone, listen to its timbre and nuances, experiment with it, often running up from the lowest notes to the highest ones imbedded in the non-cutaway body. Then on to the next string. Of course we used mechanical devices – I used to be the proud owner of a pitch pipe. But the process was entirely aural.

A natural fall-out of this was that bands tuned their instruments on stage. Without today’s electronic tuners, there was no way you could tune a solidbody electric until it was plugged into an amp (off-stage amps don’t exist in India even today, O Tempora! O Mores!). Most of us walked onstage with loosened strings and started from scratch in front of the audience. Anyone who’s seen the movie Woodstock will remember Richie Havens tuning his guitar on stage. He’d just changed strings and hadn’t had time to tune up off-stage. But it wasn’t considered odd; to us, in fact, it was part of his performance.

I remember going to a concert by the Bangalore band Human Bondage in the early 70s. More than the vastly superior musicianship, what struck me was that before the curtain went up there was just this one, single note from an already-tuned guitar. Then the stage opened and the first song started right away. All of us were amazed. Of course, the fact that they were playing, “f**kin FENDERS, man! A Mustang into a Silverface!” made a difference; but I swore I would never tune my guitar onstage again.

So much changed with the advent of the plug-in tuner in the 80s. Today, I know guitarists who’ve been playing for over 40 years, who can’t tune up anymore without it (all of us who’ve been playing that long have probably lost it, anyway). But tuning is now a silent activity. Nobody hears it, not even the player. What used to be most important part of preparing your instrument before playing is now done visually.

Have we lost an important part of the process of communication between instrument and player? I think so. Most musicians today see communication as happening only between player and audience. There is no communing with one’s instrument. In its stead, there is ‘practice’.

I think the 80s was also when the concept of a ‘practice regimen’ among rock guitarists came into existence fully. While some musicians may have dabbled in it earlier, nothing is known for instance about the guitar practising schedules of Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield or any of the luminaries of the 60s. I don’t think they had any. No interviewer asked them about it. It wasn’t considered important. (The only noteworthy story about practice from that era is the unconfirmed one where the vicar of the parish of Ewhurst in Surrey, UK, on a visit to one of his parishioners’ homes, sees a guitar on the wall and asks the owner to play for the church. When the owner agrees, the vicar suggests that he practice for a few months first. It is only years later that he realises that the man who came to his tiny church to play hymns such as ‘Amazing Grace’ with amazing grace, was named Eric.)

Although I don’t place myself in that hallowed group, in my teens and much of my 20s I obsessed over the guitar, playing for 6-8 hours a day (wrecked my studies and dropped out of college, too). But you ‘played’. You never ‘practised’. There were no distant goals; you merely immersed yourself in the delight of playing the instrument, in the now-ness of the experience and that is what Conford describes so beautifully.

Years ago, I made my only attempt at learning from a teacher. I quit after 2 lessons because he wanted me to practice the exercises he gave me, while I was only willing to play them if they were part of a song or at least a musical-sounding snippet. I met him later and he asked me if I was practicing. I said I wasn’t, but I was playing a lot at home. So he says, “That’s what I meant by practice.” I don’t think he got the idea.

Playing, individually or as a band, outside of performances is essential of course; but intensive, repetitive practice produces chronic competence. It’s a bit like adding a Compressor to your talent – you will never do badly; but you’ll rarely rise above yourself either. A certain amount of the serendipity that can and ought to occur while playing – onstage or off it – can be lost, because much too much is rehearsed and preplanned. Magical moments become fewer.

You may not agree with me; but do go back to Conford’s description of the relationship between the player and the instrument. Do you see digital dexterity as an objective of the foreplay? Producing forth a cleanly arpeggiated Ab Augmented or D# Demented was not the point – that would be a natural by-product of the intense relationship.

Another change that has happened is, I believe, a product of the 80s’ shred guitar trend. Shred guitar was not only about playing at extremely high speeds; its corollary was maniacally mechanical precision. Any note that is off the key or even marginally off the beat is considered wrong today. Friends who cut their teeth on 80s music often fail to understand why older musicians leave in notes that were clearly off the scale or the beat in newer work. “Why didn’t they go back and change it? After all, it was a studio recording!” Ah well. There used to be a higher god than correctness – stream of consciousness, for instance.

You can find fine examples of variable time and chord changes in almost any of John Lee Hooker’s work. The legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson’s recordings of the 1930s demonstrate a totally different definition of tonality from ours today. Check out his ‘Crossroads Blues’ on YouTube.

As one learns more and more about music, the definitions of right and wrong notes tend to get increasingly blurred. Who then, is the final arbiter of the bum note? Just as each of us has her/his own, unique style comprising choice of notes and manner of playing them, we also have completely individual ways in which we make ‘mistakes’. Aren’t we the sum total of all that? The point isn’t that one should or shouldn’t make mistakes or leave them in, in recordings. The point is that there is a choice, provided you accept that mistakes are natural. Unlike the factory-processed leather we usually come across, hand-tooled leather will always have a few marks left by the implements used. As Eric Blackstead said of the flaws in the Woodstock recordings he produced: “Consider them like scars in fine leather; proof of authenticity…”

Vinoo Matthew

Vinoo Matthew

Vinoo has been playing music for longer than anyone ought to, and has played rock, jazz, blues, fusion and music that no one listens to. He plays/has played bass with the Rex Rozario Quintet, Aftermath, River, Gerard Machado Network, Ministry of Blues, Cantonment Jazz Terminus, Chronic Blues Band, Bangalore Jazz & Abstract Music Club, etc. ad nauseum. He also plays lead guitar with the underground group, the Sarjapur Blues Band, proving Frank Zappa’s statement: "All bass players are failed lead guitarists."

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