I was reading an editorial in the latest Premier Guitar issue, where the author talked about providing plenty of “space” in your playing; that is, part of what makes a great song is what you don’t play. The premise is that it’s so easy to play a bunch of notes to the point where your ears just stop perceiving all the content that’s being played.
With respect to soloing, space is more commonly known as letting your solos “breath.” Blues greats like the “Kings” (Albert, Freddie, BB) are masters of letting their solos breath. But breathing also extends to playing through chord progressions as well. Generous palm-muting and what I call “blank” space draws listeners in as their minds fill in the blanks.
Here’s something to think about: You ever wonder why a casino has flashing lights, bells and other sounds going off, highly patterned carpets and walls, complicated ceiling patterns, etc.? It has been proven that the human mind can only deal with at most seven things at once. All that stuff in the casinos is meant to disorient people. In that state of disorientation, they lose track of time (there are also no clocks in a casino), and they also lose their will to keep from spending more money. So what does that have to do with letting your playing breath? If you barrage your listeners with just too much to deal with, you’re likely to lose them. Of course I haven’t done a scientific test with that, but it’s certainly plausible.
Now what about time? Well, of course, tempo is absolutely important, and playing “in the pocket” is what great players do. But “time” goes a bit beyond that, in that you also play stuff at the appropriate time. I’ve been around lots of players over the years, and many have killer technique, but there have also been many that just play the wrong thing at the wrong time. Where a single note or maybe a simple two-string chord would do, they’d strum a full chord; or where a song’s feel calls for a more flowing rhythmic attack, they use a staccato rhythm. I don’t know if this can be taught, as being able to choose what’s appropriate for a particular segment of music really requires listening and “feeling” the song.
For instance, I was playing with a guy once and we started playing a real smooth, moderate tempo song that called for either light, even strumming, or finger picking. Though the guy was in tune, he opted to use a “bluesette-style,” syncopated finger picking rhythm. It completely threw off the entire flavor of the song! Of course, I asked him to stop, but he looked at me, and puzzled, “I don’t understand. It sounds just fine to me.” I replied that it would sound fine if the melodic structure supported a syncopated rhythm, but it just didn’t work. I pointed out how the drums were setting a simple four-on-the-floor kind of rhythm; the bassist was using a fretless, and sliding in between notes. I was using flatpick and playing triads up on the neck. His part called for just a simple claw-hammer style. In this case, it was the guitar that was actually holding down the rhythm. He finally relented, but that’s a perfect example of playing what’s right at the right time.
Guitarists whom I have admired over the years who are always in the pocket and always playing the right thing at that right time include: Davey Johnstone (Elton John), Steve Cropper (Otis Redding), both Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Shenker of the Scorpions (especially Rudolf), Dominic Miller (Sting), and lest I forget, John Frusciante (Chili Peppers). There are lots more, but these guys popped into my head immediately.