Minimalism (Yep…Again)

I love minimalism. Simplicity communicates; white noise makes people shut it off. Well, that and Keanu Reeves…he can also make you shut it off. Whether he’s on the television, radio, or whatever. Except for the this radio program. (Okay, okay. That was the worst excuse I’ve ever made for tossing in a ‘make-fun-of-this-lamo-actor’ bit. But I just realized that it’s been like, 8 posts since I’ve given you a picture of an actor making a fool of him or herself. And that is unsatisfactory. So I give you:

Keanu confused

My staple…when I have no one to make fun of, I can always count on the emotionless Keanu Reeves. See, most bad actors give some great photos of themselves, well, acting poorly. Crazy face contortions, over-the-top emotions, and the like. But Keanu…well, his acting is bad for other reasons. His acting is bad because there is none. He thinks he’s acting, but he’s not. See the confusion in the above picture? Ya. That’s Keanu in everything. Everything.

So here’s the best thing you will ever here. This is a local radio show that has actors and musicians call in each morning. Kind of. And it is stupendous.

Keanu Reeves’ Call

Anyway (and I really hope you listened to that), I was watching my U2 Slane Castle dvd the other day…hard to remember which day precisely, as this is a daily occurrence for me, and I was absolutely struck, once again, by the incredibly wonderful sonic results they get by playing nothing. Here’s a clip from the Slane show, where they do a stripped down section in the middle. And watch specifically (well, watch the whole thing…especially if you want your life changed), at about 1:30. Watch how nothing happens, and nobody plays barely anything. They just let the musical notes that are, fill up their own space.

That kills me how good ‘nothing’ just sounded. Give me a good melody, solid rhythm, and a tasteful harmonic structure underneath, and that is all you ever need. The best part is when, at 1:30, they do all almost go out completely, and no one thinks, ‘Oh cool. Space! Time for my solo.’ Because, especially in church, us guitarists are usually the worst at this. We think we’re being minimalists by waiting on the chord progression, but watching like a hawk for the split second that nothing else is going on, and then ripping a huge face melt, or throwing in a little train whistle bend, and then being proud of ourselves for our minimalistic approach. That is not minimalism; that’s poaching. Minimalism does what is best for the song as a whole, not ‘what’s best for me to be able to solo but still look like a nice guy by not stepping on everybody else’s toes.’ It’s not about taking turns filling up the space. Sometimes the space needs to be filled by absolutely nothing. Just let it be.

Splendid. (Not Keanu, though.)
Karl.

14 thoughts on “Minimalism (Yep…Again)

  1. perfect placement of rests/silence in music … very cool! a lot of people are very good technically but not everyone is good musically. it all goes back to melody and phrasing.

  2. I think that it’s easy to go to extremes in either direction. It’s good to keep in mind for the minimalists that we are guitar players and not keyboard players (No disrespect for the key men. Or the minimalists.). On the oposite side, it’s not the number of notes played but the appropriate notes correctly chosen.

    When chosing what to play, it’s always a good idea to listen (Not only to the other musicians but to Holy Spirit.). Something that as musicians I think we are all guilty of not doing properly before playing. Sometimes, a two note fill is all you need and other times a fret burner is necessary to build a portion of the song to new levels.

    We have the pleasure as Christian musicians playing for the Lord of the Universe to have a musical guide in the Holy Spirit. I find that the less of me that I try to put into the music and the more of him that I allow through, the more successful that I am at supplying what the music needs.

    So….Basically what Rhoy said. ;)

  3. Sal–Awesome. Totally.

    Rhoy–great stuff. I totally agree that it’s what you can do ‘musically’ that counts. :)

    Mark–great points, also. It’s about what the song calls for, rather than what we ‘want’ to play necessarily. It just always seems that for me, 90% of the time that’s something lesser than what I would have originally played had I not thought about it for a split second first. And you’re right…ultimately it comes down to listening to God, and doing our best to glorify Him.

    And lol at the Keanu thing. He is fantastic at being Keanu. hehehe

  4. hmmm… i think i tend to be a minimalist out of defult due to my lack of general fret-burningness. Which means I am very grateful that minimalistic playing + delay + a little bit of dirt = a beautiful sound.

  5. I probably overkill at times, but I believe in both minimalism and outbursts of virtuosity.

    I am conscious of trying to leave space in the song and playing tastefully, but because I can burn (I’m really not trying to brag), my goal is to try and make play the most challenging and creative guitar part that I can for the song that is still tasteful and fits the song.

    I know that one man’s tastefulness is another’s overkill, but in my mind Lincoln Brewster does a very good job at this. Within a worship leader context, that’s more or less what I aim for. And I don’t do it to show off or draw attention, but rather because I’ve been practicing for years and have grown to a point where I have accumulated a lot of chops and I don’t want that wasted. I really want to use that for God.

    Athletes don’t hold back skill. Why should guitarists (again, as long as it is tasteful)

  6. Greg, good points! (hehe Again.) I do agree that there’s nothing wrong with ‘burning’, as long as it fits the song. It’s just that for me, personally, I find that 9 times out of 10, my ear jumps to the more simplistic part rather than the face melt, even if they both ‘fit.’ For me, ‘skill’ means more a ‘mental skill’ of being able to hear what will make the song more beautiful, passionate, and compelling, rather than the ‘motor skills’ of how technical your hand can be.

    So, with your athletes example, I would say that one, I’m defining ‘skill’ a little differently…as in, the mental skill to know what best works musically, as opposed to the technical skill of what we think classically of ‘being a good instrumentalist.’ And two, I might also argue that athletes do hold back skill. You could argue that a pitcher’s greatest skill was his ability to throw 98 mph. But that gets old, and if he never held that skill back, he’d never achieve the greater good of winning 20+ games for his team, because the other team would find it old too, adjust and start hammering home runs. So he uses his ‘mental skill’ to be able to find what fits the situation. Which may be throwing a 68 mph change-up, or a slider, or it may be stepping off the rubber for a second to throw off the batter’s rhythm; which might be just the thing to help him get the batter out and win the game for his team, but no one would ever think of it as such, and the papers wouldn’t cheer him for his stepping off the rubber as they would for his 98 mph fastball that burned past the batter. In the same way, I think we as musicians do need to hold back ‘skill’ sometimes to use the greater ‘mental skill’ and figure out what the song needs, not necessarily what the most challenging part is. There’s been many a time when I’ve been just driving on a two note chord up on the neck, and every ounce of me is screaming that I need to do something more, but I have to stop, listen to the music, and realize that those two notes are just what the music needs at that given moment.

    And perhaps that’s just sour grapes from a guy who admittedly is definitely not the fastest guitarist in the world. lol :) And there’s definitely something to be said for a rippin’ Stevie Ray Vaughn solo or a technically profuse Larry Carlton solo. I dig those as well. But I believe the point should be the song and the music itself……and if simplicity will aid in that, if virtuosity as you said will aid in that, if creativity will aid in that, or if minimalism will aid in that, then great! But I don’t think that any of those things should be an end in themselves, unless you’re practicing without an audience or writing your own music for therapy.

    As for Lincoln Brewster, I’m not a fan, but not because of all the normal reasons that he’s ‘showy’ or not ‘worshipful’ or whatever. I think he’s a great person, who has more guitar-playing talent than I could ever hope to have. It’s just that his music doesn’t do anything for me. And I can’t help that. lol It just seems a little churchy for me, and never seems to grab me. However, it does seem to grab thousands of other people, so right on for that! :) Doesn’t really matter what grabs me if God’s using him to reach tons of other people.

    Bro, I’m totally diggin’ your comments on this blog right now, because you’re making me think, like, really hard!! hehe And I love that! You’ve got killer points, and I do appreciate your expressing them so eloquently. And I checked out your site, and it looks rad. If you don’t mind, I’ll link up to yours from this one.

    Oh, and one last thing. One of my favorite guitarists for the skill/taste balance is this Norwegian jazz guitarist, Terje Rypdal. Here’s a clip:

  7. Hey Karl,
    Glad to see you emphasizing the aspect of music, not just the spectacle of scale-blasting, mind-blowing , crush-your-eyeballs-into-the-back-of-your-skull guitar skills. Works for some, but not for me (espicially now that I’m getting athritis in my wrists… and I’m not that old… really). There’s an anticipation and groove in the simple stuff thats just unbeatable live! I’ve always included it, as it gives the audience a “happy break” that they can feel included on. The great thing is that you can do it with ANY song! P) Good work on the blog. Love it…. PTL!

  8. Right on! I totally agree. The simplicity 9 times out of 10 just grabs me so much more than a ripping solo, which I’ve heard over and over. But playing the right notes in the right places…that’s music; and that never gets old. Great comment, my friend! Cheers!

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