One of my mentors in guitar and music was an elderly African American man named Patrick who used to come and listen to me play at my restaurant gig. I would go talk to him during breaks or right before I’d go on; or sometimes, on days off, I’d see him at the bar and we’d have long chats about music and gear.
Patrick was a guy in his 70’s who’d seen it all musically. He was jazz player ‘who did a lot of session and tour work with the likes of Miles Davis, the Marsalis brothers, and many other big names. If you saw the movie, “That Thing You Do,” Patrick reminded me of the character Del Paxton. He was a font of musical knowledge and though he never taught me any technique, our conversations had a profound effect on how I approached the guitar and frankly, how I approached playing music in general.
One of our conversations centered around rhythm and expressiveness when doing a lead. “Rhythm is everything; especially with playing guitar, which is a rhythm instrument. But even doing leads, you got to be in the pocket with the rhythm.”
After he said that I looked at him a little quizzically. I inherently knew what he was talking about, but I was curious to find out what he really meant, so he continued, “You gotta be able to feel and anticipate pulse of the song. Most musicians don’t get that. I’ve played with some of the best musicians in the world, but the best of the best have rhythm when they play. They can feel the rhythm of the song and create a rhythm in their solos that fit the song. Some dudes, they know all the scales and modes, but they sound like shit because they just throw a bunch of notes together to say, ‘See how fast I can play?'”
Playing the devil’s advocate, I challenged him and said, “But some might say that in the rock and roll world, part of playing a solo is to show your chops. What you say might be applicable to jazz, but I’m not so sure about rock.” I did say that with a little smirk, so he knew that I didn’t believe that.
Patrick just chuckled, knowing I was bullshitting him and said, “Listen, man, Miles Davis could do more with one note than a lotta guys would do with a hundred. And it don’t matter the style of music. If you’re playing the wrong rhythm no one’s gonna like what you’re playing.”
“But is just a single note rhythmic?” I asked.
“Damn right, if it fits in with the song. It could be four whole notes tied together for four bars! I know you get that. You’re just trying to piss me off,” he retorted.
I laughed and said that I did get it. We conversed about a lot of other stuff after that, but he managed to circle back to the original topic saying, “That whole rhythm thing when you’re soloing… The best players are economical. They play just enough notes to get their point across. It could be a bunch of 64th notes at times. But what they play fits in with the rhythm of the song.”
That conversation is one of those vivid memories that has been forever etched into my memory because it actually made me feel good about my solos. I only know a few tricks and I’m definitely not a speed demon on the fretboard. But that conversation made me aware that what was truly important was being vigilant about playing within the context of the rhythm of a song.
Melody, of course, is extremely important. But melody without a sense of rhythm or played against the rhythm – at least to me – doesn’t sound all that good.