MISTAKES AND OPEN STRINGS - OH, HOW THEY ROCK
by Mike Keneally
Guitar Player January 1994
Do you really think Jimmy Page meant to hit that lone D string at the end of "Rock And Roll"? And is it not one of the coolest moments in the history of recorded soundwaves?
So why are we so bummed when we make mistakes? We don't want to appear less than flawless. Well, wise up. Anyone in the audience who expects a guitarist to deliver a blemish-free performance every time out is a soulless twit. This is not to suggest that there isn't a home in our hearts for an immaculately rendered display of everything in its place and perfectly so (e.g., hear Adrian Legg and weep), but merely to posit the blasphemous notion that maybe things really were kind of better in the old days, back when guitarists were allowed to make mistakes onstage, back when there was some improvising going on. When McLaughlin was burrowing deep into himself, when Steve Howe was imploding like a maniac, they were reaching for something that can't be attained by rote repetition of precisely learned hits, and they made mistakes like nobody's business. Did you mind?
I recently did a gig with Z (formerly the Dweezil Zappa band). During my one solo of the night, my shining moment, I played the most abominable note imaginable, a flat 2nd or something. Rather than covering by sliding up a fret and making believe it was jazz, I milked the S.O.B. Two days later Dweezil and Ahmet showed up at rehearsal raving about it after watching the tape of the show. It would have been a listenable little solo without the howler, but that note increased its entertainment value twentyfold. It's okay and correct to feel a certain responsibility for the audience's well-being and attention span when you launch into a solo. What is unfair, to both you and the audience, is the belief that the only way to honor that responsibility is by playing it safe. You owe it to your listeners to at least peel the edge of the envelope a little. Music loves to be messed around with. Mess around with it.
Until this year, I'd only tried to master Frank Zappa's "The Black Page Number One" on keyboard, but in February there was a Frank tribute at Lincoln Center that featured a large tuned percussion section, which would have made my keyboard part sonically obsolete. In bearing down to really make it work on guitar, I discovered some stuff that made it a lot more playable and musical as well. Ex.1 is a passage that always gave me hemorrhoids whenever I attempted it on guitar, because the fingering I was attempting (Ex.2) requires at least reasonable facility at sweep picking, which I hugely do not possess. What I hit upon this year was Ex.3, which utilizes a hammer-on and a pull-off, and two open strings. This gives both your hands valuable "breathing" time and allows the phrase to flow in a natural and interestingly syncopated fashion. If you've got some musical passages that are giving you trouble, examine them note by note and see if you can use open strings to help you in the same way. If you wish to examine "The Black Page" further, parts are available from Barfko Swill (call 818-PUMPKIN or write Box 9418, North Hollywood, CA 91616).
Mike Keneally is the once and future pet guitarist of the Zappa family. His solo debut, hat, is available on Guitar/Immune Records.
©1994 Guitar Player Magazine