How to Be You in Time: Notes on “Originality”

Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time
It’s easy
— Lennon & McCartney

I don’t write music. Other than a few things I composed in music school because I had to, I have no original music to my name and never had the interest. My discipline on the guitar has always been learning songs. There are already so many great ones, worthy of close study — who needs mine?

The term “cover songs” has a negative connotation. It’s what wedding bands do, or weekend warriors, people ostensibly not creative enough to write their own music. But to me, figuring out how to perform “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees or “Last Dance” by Donna Summer completely by myself is something I’ve always seen as a creative opportunity. And building my cover repertoire for solo guitar and voice in this way has yielded results that I believe only I could have gotten. I play other people’s music and only other people’s music, and yet I’ve learned over a long time how to sound, I hope, like me and only me.

Rather than a songwriter, I’m a songlearner. I became one before I really understood what it was. As a kid I memorized entire soundtracks to musicals. I memorized “Rapper’s Delight” (extended cut). I bought Circus and Creem magazines and memorized the Top 40 lyrics printed inside (you certainly couldn’t Google them). I took up guitar at 14 and in high school I joined a band. We learned song after song after song: “Purple Haze” and “Brown Sugar” and “You Really Got Me” and “Love Me Two Times” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” “Proud Mary” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Rebel Yell” and “Life During Wartime” and “Next to You” and “Just Like Heaven” and “China Girl” and “Is She Really Going Out with Him.”

Learning songs off of records became a passion, and I was good at it. I copied tough guitar solos, trying to catch every inflection of Glenn Tilbrook on Squeeze’s “Another Nail in My Heart” or Elliot Easton on The Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” We made a home four-track recording of the latter after learning it on a day’s notice, I can’t recall why. We were out a keyboardist and so Derek Bermel, now a GRAMMY-nominated classical composer, who was a year ahead of us in high school and leader of another cover band, agreed very graciously to help us out. (Hi, Derek!) He nailed the indispensable keyboard part of course, and said about my solo, “That’s a really good overnight job.”

I was getting positive feedback and began to realize I was pursuing real musical goals, not just screwing around in a basement with friends (although that too). And it wasn’t all about showoff guitar solos: I was learning about song form and arrangement, rhythmic nuance, the art of getting a good sound individually and together: all kinds of things that were as much a part of my music education as any formal institutionalized path.

Years later the master guitarist Peter Bernstein, my New School classmate, told me that every song you learn is a music lesson. He specifically cited the whole-tone harmonic move in “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You” (:20 and :51 in this clip). Learning how to approach that chord might be a musical revelation. Or at the very least, a look at how to problem-solve in a way that makes you a better, more individual player. The fact that you didn’t write the song is beside the point.

Logically enough for a songlearner, I became an accompanist for singer-songwriters and cabaret artists and so forth — in short, a busy member of other people’s bands. Learning songs, often by ear, in any style or genre, was something I saw as a valid mode of creative engagement, completely apart from the goal of being “original.” Over a period of time, one hopes, the originality will begin to reveal itself.

If you consider an album like What’s It All About, Pat Metheny’s 2011 collection of solo acoustic covers, he’s doing the same thing in a sense: treating the close study of great pop songs as a serious enough endeavor to take the focus off his writing entirely for the moment, and thereby reveal a facet of his musicianship that we hadn’t really heard before. To me that record was validation to keep going, to “get under the hood” of great songs, as Pat likes to say, and come up with something insightful and unique.

But as I worked toward this goal in earnest, I discovered that something was getting in my way: my guitar pick.

I recently stopped playing with a pick. At this point the exceptions are few, one of them being Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” which has to be played with a pick, there’s no other way and it just sounds better. Anyway, the point goes beyond picking or any other matter of interest to guitar geeks. What happened is I finally figured out I was “doing it wrong,” and while that realization could have been completely deflating, it turned out to be a long-overdue liberation.

First, just a bit of guitar geekery to set the stage.

To this day, the paramount example in my mind of stratospheric-level skill with a guitar pick is Passion, Grace & Fire, the 1983 acoustic trio album by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucía. Yes, Paco played with fingers and no pick, in the flamenco/classical style, bringing a rich timbral contrast to the trio. Al and John, meanwhile, were so explosive and dead-on accurate with the pick that it seemed utterly impossible. And listening to them, I fell prey to the destructive notion that if I couldn’t play like that, I couldn’t really play.

Alas, my right-hand picking was always underdeveloped, and only in hindsight can I truly appreciate how it hindered me. To be clear, I’m talking mainly about jazz improvisation, the art of building fluid, swinging single-note lines informed by deep harmonic knowledge, something that is now pretty far removed from what I do on the guitar. But back then, when I wasn’t backing singers and playing in pop bands, I wanted to play real bebop. I wanted to immerse myself in that language of the masters and master it myself — once again, being “original” was a secondary goal if at all.

Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin are not beboppers, but they did provide a model of being able to execute absolutely anything they wanted on the guitar, free from technical obstacles. The effect was stunning. Much later I encountered other guitarists, including Adam Rogers, Jonathan Kreisberg, Ben Eunson and Guggenheim Fellow Rez Abbasi to name a few, with right-hand technique that was simply extraordinary. But here’s the thing: they all did it differently. The messy truth is that there is no “correct” way to pick with your right hand. Various approaches have proven successful, and as long as the results are musical, no one’s going to argue.

What I knew, however, was that I could not pick the way I wanted to, and therefore couldn’t execute musical ideas at the level I wanted to. I carried too much tension in my elbow and shoulder, I didn’t have the right wrist motion, probably a litany of other flaws. Efforts to fix these things ultimately came to naught.

I even took several lessons with Isaac Darche in Brooklyn, specifically addressing the issue of right-hand picking and nothing else. I had heard Isaac play and could tell he had some of the best right-hand chops I’d ever come across. I also read that he specialized in correcting poor right-hand technique. So here it was, my last shot at decisively improving my own. (In this clip you can see how Isaac’s wrist barely moves at all, even or especially during the fastest passages.)

Isaac’s lessons were excellent — clear, patient, highly targeted and efficient. But in the end I could not replicate the angle of attack and fluid motion that was the secret to his fantastically clean and rapid picking. It’s all down to anatomy and the workings of the brain.

At this point I was playing acoustic guitar exclusively and singing as well (grist for a whole separate essay). Trying to burn uptempo choruses on “Airegin” was the furthest thing from my practice agenda. In my teens I had taken about four years of classical guitar, so finding my own homespun version of fingerstyle felt pretty natural, and I gained much more rhythmic control and flexibility that way. When the time came to play single-note melodies and passages with thumb and fingers, I radically simplified my approach to phrasing and tone production, which is what I should have done from the start.

The guitar is also of course a blues instrument, something that should have informed my jazz playing far more, but a quality I’m now able to access way more readily playing acoustic covers. The late Al Defino, my private teacher at Berklee from ’86 to ’87, tried to get this into my skull when he heard me playing all these disjointed run-on phrases: “Have you checked out Grant Green?” No. “There’s a feel you need to cop from him.” Probably the best playing advice I ever got. Took way too long for me to act on it.

The more I played, the more my mature sound began to emerge. No longer would I wrestle with this piece of plastic awkwardly coming between me and the instrument.

Ironically, if I play jazz today I’m sort of better at it, precisely because I can’t play fast. I have to think more musically. But in fact I stopped forcing myself to play jazz at all. To find my voice on guitar I had to close the book on being a bebopper and start playing the guitar.

There’s a view among jazz guitarists that is so common it’s become a cliché: we don’t really even like the guitar, we want to be able to play lines like a saxophonist or trumpeter. I once heard a highly accomplished guitarist at a clinic call the guitar “the lamest instrument in jazz besides the trombone.” He went on to dismiss Pat Martino as “Herbie Hancock without his left hand.” I myself indulged in some guitar-bashing to Peter Bernstein one day, and he had no patience for it. “You’ve got to love the guitar, man,” he replied. The instrument has properties unlike any other, he insisted. Use them. Especially as an acoustic player I’ve taken that to heart.

Attending the New School as I did in the late ’80s, there was a stark duality among the students. There were jazz virtuosos like Peter, Jesse Davis, Larry Goldings and Spike Wilner, who championed a renewed straightahead jazz ideal at a time of “Young Lions” ascendancy. Rubbing elbows with them were John Popper and Brendan Hill of Blues Traveler, Eric Schenkman and Aaron Comess of the Spin Doctors, and Simone and Amedeo Pace of Blonde Redhead, among others. Keyboardist Russ Irwin, who later joined Aerosmith, was there too. About 10 years later, Robert Glasper and a new cohort equally rooted in jazz and hip-hop walked the New School corridors (in a much nicer new building). And shortly before Glasper’s Blue Note breakthrough in 2005 came that of Norah Jones. The idea of jazz and other genres not only coexisting but cross-pollinating gained fuller acceptance, to the point where it’s now a given. In the ’80s, not as much.

The ’80s were closer to the era when jazz was displaced by rock and pop as a dominant cultural force, and the resentment in some quarters was still fresh. There was the faculty member who, walking past a rehearsal room with a band playing some funk or fusion, angrily spat out: “That rock shit!!” Or the jazz industry lecturer who mocked The Clash for supposedly being dunces on their instruments (never mind that The Clash changed music and inspired the devotion of millions — including my band, which used to play “Complete Control” as a finale). Or the veteran bebop pianist who recounted his days accompanying Bob Dylan — on organ I think — by miming falling asleep at the keyboard (imagine the real, actual stories he could have shared instead). There was a belief, far from universal but certainly present, that jazz and rock were opposing forces, that playing rock or pop was dumbing yourself down, selling out, fighting for the other side.

No doubt, this stuff gave me hangups. It made me more hesitant as a player. I knew that the highest jazz ideal of all was being authentically yourself, but what did that mean in my case? Perhaps I was on the road there and couldn’t see it yet? Deep down I viewed not excelling at jazz as synonymous with failure. It took years to get at the root of these self-sabotaging notions and jettison them once and for all.

There’s one memory I still treasure, possibly my most successful moment playing jazz ever. It was in the late ’90s at a jam session on West 41st Street, at a little dive called the Savoy Lounge. The jam sessions as I recall were on Thursday nights starting around 1am, sometimes closer to 2am. Maybe it’d be empty, maybe packed. Maybe you’d get to play, maybe not. The house band was tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama, bassist Joel Forbes and drummer Clifford Barbaro, the trio that later went by the moniker Bop Juice.

Some nights were bad, some were so-so, and a couple were pretty transcendent. One time by sheer luck I got to play quartet with Ralph and the rhythm section, holding my own as he called “Yardbird Suite” and then rhythm changes in A-flat, not too fast. It was all in my relative comfort zone and I could tell from Ralph’s demeanor that he was digging it.

But even better was the time when a singer closed out the night by calling “Body and Soul” in A-flat (the original key is D-flat). “Don’t fuck it up,” she warned before counting it off. I said to myself, with little time to waste, “Self, how are we doing this?” Well, you can’t go wrong hanging out on a B-flat minor chord and vamping until the vocal starts. And that would also be a good time to ad lib some slow solo licks to set the mood. Luckily everyone on the bandstand was thinking the same thing because before we knew it we were in on the downbeat. And there, in my mind, was Al Defino, whispering those two oh-so-important words: Grant Green. So I played “Body and Soul” like Grant Green would, really simple, a little raw, just blues licks in the key to start out. Phew, success, it was a vibe, and the tune turned out great.

We closed the place, I walked with my guitar out onto 41st, made a right and stopped on 9th Avenue to look for a cab. And as I stood there, toward me came Joel Forbes rolling his bass, about to cross to the other side. Here’s a guy who I’m sure had seen me fall on my face musically more than once, and didn’t seem like the type to offer effusive praise in any case. Maybe he’d walk by me and just say, “Later,” or maybe nothing? But that night was the closest I’d ever come to playing the way I do now. I didn’t play like a middling jazz student, I played like a musician. Joel walked by me, smiled, and said, “That was really nice.”

Writer, guitarist and music educator based in Athens, GA.