While this may seem like a topic more suited for a glossy newsstand magazine than for a music blog it is an important subject for guitar players. There are four ways to approach your playing that will help make you the accompanist of choice for other musicians. The primary way is to exercise restraint in what you play. The second way is to exercise restraint. The third thing is play judiciously and sparingly. Or, put another way, exercise restraint. Finally, listen intently to the music you are accompanying while you are exercising restraint.
I belong to a couple of songwriting groups and I enjoy the opportunity to listen and learn from others’ creative efforts. With one group we meet in two different places and two different situations. Once a month we meet in a club, set up a PA and everybody gets to play a couple of their songs and get some feedback. In this situation there are people who will ask me to accompany them and I enjoy the opportunity.
The second meeting of the month takes place in someone’s home where we will sit around and take turns playing a song, either an original or a cover tune that has been an influence or inspiration. We talk about our writing methods and how songs and performers have influenced us. I seldom play along with anyone else in these meetings. Why? Because a lot of other people do and many of them play competing lead lines throughout the song. Regardless of what the singer is doing or any dynamic changes they are trying to employ, regardless of what anyone else is doing these people are just flailing away impervious to what’s going on around them. I just don’t want to contribute to the cacophony and make it any harder on the singer.
I know that this playing bothers people because they have told me so. Plus, I know this bothers me when I am playing. This is at its worst when someone is playing a new song that no one else has heard before. They can’t possibly know for certain where the song is going or what it is going to do next. That doesn’t seem to matter.
Now everyone in this group is polite and non-confrontational, at least when they’re not playing guitar, so nobody gets called out. As a result, the madness continues.
The object lesson here is to strive to never play all you are capable of. Understand that the most important thing is the song and the singer. Strumming or picking one chord per measure with an unexpected voicing may be the perfect accompaniment. Playing two half notes during a two measure break might be just right. Of course you may play them on the fourth beat of the first measure and the second upbeat of the next, but that might just be a better way to add flavoring than a two measure string of eighth notes.
If you are listening carefully to the song, you’ll know which is the better choice. That restraint, that consideration for the true focal point of the performance is what will make others ask you to play along with them.