What Does a Guitarist Do?

What does a guitarist do?

This is a question I most often ask myself around nine in the morning. I’ve dropped Sai and Ayo and Kaira at school and made my way back home in the traffic (we don’t have traffic to school as we’re driving out of town against the slow flow, but I have traffic back, as though the way back to ‘work’ is uphill and requires effort).

Some mornings I take Salvador. He sits in the back of the car looking alert in his pitch black German Shepherd outfit, ears up. He starts to squeak if we pass the forest, which we must do on the way to school, and which I do, more slowly, on the way back. We often wonder if he knows the forest by smell (the windows are sometimes closed) or by sight, or by GPS. Either way he knows and his energy lifts.

So on the days that Salvador accompanies us, we head back into the flow of townwards traffic once everyone has been left at school, but we cheat slightly: after about ten minutes of slow moving we take a sudden left, and we’re at the base of the forest. From here we abandon the car and dive into a small path taking us through the trees. This path intersects the larger ones carrying a few morning walkers and joggers, and so if we do meet somebody it is only for a few seconds.

We go straight up. At first it’s hard, immense body resistance. The body just wants to go straight, but this path is steep. But after about thirty minutes we break through the tree-line and we’re on a contour path three quarters of the way up the mountain. The city is below, in sight with a low roar of traffic, and the mountain rises above us like Han Shan’s peaks, missing only the poems posted on the rock face.

Here again we are faced with a choice. Left or right. Both have implications, both bring resistance. Left means a long trip along and then down, only to be faced with an unwelcome coda, uphill , often unwelcome at the end of a walk. Right is shorter but with a much steeper descent, even treacherous in some weather. Both take us back down to streams and, in good weather, to pools that are large enough to submerge in. Often we have been in already, on the way up, so that we still hold the memory of crisp coolness, other times the pools await to wash away the walk.

As I walk I find things becoming much more clear. The traffic had emphasised lists of tasks, forgotten correspondence, tickets to be booked, worries, questions. The mountain and the thick trees, and most important the physical exertion and movement unaided through space, highlights the problem, brings me closer to the thing itself, the morning dilemma: what does a guitarist do?

Quite often the walk dissolves into a palpable knowing, hard to describe, yet crystal clear. What I find interesting is the complete lack of guilt. Everyone else is in traffic. Often this dissonance is compared with my own financial difficulties, which seem deserved when I consider that I’m up a mountain when everyone else is working. So, in these moments, this question would rise again: what does a guitarist do? If I’m worried about money, guilty that I am not working right now as I should be, what is it that I should hurry down the mountain, join the traffic and get on and do?

There are two possible strains here. One would be to work on finding the place to put the music, the other is to work on the music itself. In other words, admin or practice.

But I’ve found, through long experience, that neither of these has much to do with outcomes. Let’s start with practice because it leads to playing, and let’s ignore admin because I think what we will find in practice will apply to admin, and anyway, we can always give admin to somebody else.

I’ve found over years of experimenting, that the only positive outcome of practice before a concert is to quell the thought “I must practice in order to be able to play well.” Marvelously I have found that if you get rid of the thought, you remove the need for practice. I mean here practice as a way of preparation. This is distinct from playing, exploring, experimenting, and learning, which is how I prefer to spend my time with the guitar.

I have found there is very little connection between the amount of time I played yesterday and preceding days, and the quality of the concert. There is a much greater relationship between the amount of ideas I impose on the concert and my (dis)ability to deliver. If I come with a plan, perhaps a set of pieces, or an idea of the type of playing my audience would like to hear, I am usually in conflict, and when I’m in conflict my body reacts, stiffens, slows, and things don’t go as well as they should.

If I’m not in conflict, if I think very little about the concert and walk on stage almost with a feeling that I was walking through a door to see what was there and found a stage, a chair, a microphone and an audience, then I can sit on the chair, place the instrument on my lap and hear the first sound of the strings resonating through the microphone, bouncing off the walls, into ears, into my ears, into the audience's ears, and feel the resonance of that sound into me and back into them. If this happens the concert goes well. Nothing can stop this, nothing can improve on this or harm it.

Then it is possible to play and to play well. And the interesting thing is it doesn’t matter what I play as long as I play the right thing. The right thing is what is right for all the factors now, from my hands to the guitar to the sound to the feeling of what would most move me to play. So many factors, but thankfully it is very easy to choose the right thing to play. It just comes into your head and then you play. No need to argue or second guess, it is alway the right thing, and when it is wrong it dissolves and another thing appears and you follow that.

Yesterday’s practice on the guitar cannot help this. Only yesterday’s walk in the mountains has even a fighting chance of gaining traction. The hours spent playing Bach have no meaning. The new piece I was learning is forgotten. All that is left is the quiet feeling of moving in the mountain wondering what it is that a guitarist does. But the mountain is gone too, I don’t even give it credit, it simply feels that everything is as it should be and playing concerts is the easiest thing in the world.

Derek Gripper