The Virtue of Versatility for Guitarists ( And All Musicians )
By Dan Gillies
On a hot , Saturday afternoon in Liverpool in 1957 , a fateful meeting shook the earth with great hooks and a rock ‘ n ’ roll fervour not felt since Elvis . As the legend goes , a young Paul McCartney came to watch a slightly older John Lennon perform with his band , The Quarrymen . The two titans met after the show and exchanged licks – Paul showing John he was quite the aspiring musician . Thus , arguably the world ’ s greatest band was born , and the music timeline slightly altered , forever .
I mention this story because one intriguing detail regarding McCartney ’ s musicianship is that he was a six-string player first ; having sold his nickel-plated trumpet for a Framus Zenith acoustic just before he met Lennon . Although McCartney eventually – and reluctantly – became The Beatles ’ bass player in 1961 , his abilities as a guitarist never left him . As we all know , McCartney wrote iconic guitar parts for songs like “ Blackbird ” and “ Yesterday ,” as well as electric lines in tunes like “ Drive My Car ” and “ Helter Skelter .” If these weren ’ t enough , he showcased his piano skills on hits like “ Let It Be ” and “ Hey Jude .” The point is , McCartney ’ s versatility was a force for The Beatles ( he even played drums when Ringo wasn ’ t around !). He wasn ’ t tied down to one particular instrument , and therefore , was free to write as he was inspired . This is also true of George Harrison and his sitar , and Lennon ’ s own keyboard skills ( such as the mellotron keyboard heard on “ Strawberry Fields Forever ”).
Likewise , at this time records by The Who , The Stones , and even The Beach Boys ( namely Pet Sounds , thanks to Brian Wilson ’ s genius ) were also employing versatility . Bands like Led Zeppelin followed suit , with Jimmy Page taking on a production role and experimenting with instrumentation . One thinks of the mandolin tune “ The Battle of Evermore ,” which Page apparently wrote in one sitting with John Paul Jones ’ mandolin .
Moving briefly to New York in ’ 72 , we find a talented Motown artist recording a hot , new single called “ Superstition .” As if we needed a reminder just how cool Stevie Wonder is , he laid down all tracks : drums , clavinet , Moog bass ( everything except the horns ). Wonder ’ s versatility made him a legend .
Fast forward to the mid ‘ 90s when Nirvana ’ s drummer , following Kurt Cobain ’ s death , individually recorded a multitrack demo , complete with guitar parts – fuelling a vision for a new rock band that he would lead : the Foo Fighters . Now , Dave Grohl is a rock icon both as both a drummer and guitarist .
Versatility Is the Goal Anyone who has played in a jazz group will tell you ; horn and woodwind players are versatile . An alto sax can play soprano sax , a clarinet can switch to tenor sax , who can then pick up the flute , and the list goes on . It ’ s relatively natural for these players to make the transition , as fingerings can be very similar ( i . e . flute / sax fingerings ).
As guitarists , we can learn to stretch our wings in a similar way . After all , we are “ string players .” Our ancestors include the harp , the oud , the lute , and the ancient lyre . We should become versatile within the “ strings family .” We should transition our guitar skills to other string instruments . It ’ s all transferable .
Down to Brass Tacks Have you been drawn to another string instrument ? Let ’ s start simple . If you ’ re into folk , bluegrass , or country , try picking up a banjo or a mandolin . Both have a fingerboard , frets , strings , and are tuned logically for guitarists . Sure , you ’ ll need to get used to fingerpicks if you want to play the banjo , but if you play fingerstyle guitar , it ’ s a natural transition . As for the mandolin , you get to bring out your fluent , tremolo picking ( calling all shredders !). Maybe this is too much of a jump ; if so , try picking up the electric bass . If you ’ re a classical guitarist , the transition is smooth , due to the similar rest strokes and 1-2-4 fret-hand spacing . Sometimes , transitioning from classical guitar to the electric guitar is enough of a move . If you ’ re feeling really brave , try learning bow technique on either a cello or upright bass . Finally , all guitarists should make time to sit at a keyboard and learn to play pop tunes .
You will have to make slight modifications in technique and approach to any string instrument you ’ re attempting . However , we already do this when we move from lead lines on the electric to fingerstyle on an acoustic . Different tunings mean different chord and scale shapes . However , most string instruments are tuned in intervals of thirds , fourths , or fifths , which gives way to familiar shapes . When approaching a new instrument , start by playing a major scale horizontally , then vertically . Figure out how to play basic major and minor triads . Learn a popular tune ( TAB is the same principle all around !). Finally , if you can read notation , take a dive into a different clef . It ’ s not scary .
Final Thoughts Not only is the language of music transferable , but the human approach to arranging pitches on strings is , too . This can be a natural process . You may not attain virtuosic skills on instruments other than your primary one ; however , you ’ ll get more opportunities – gigs , studio work , etc . – with a versatile résumé . You ’ ll be the player showing up to a gig with a mandolin , just in case . You ’ ll be able to fill in for a pro bassist when opportunity strikes . This just may be the creative key to your next stage of musical development . This may be how you write your greatest song .
Dan Gillies is a freelance musician , music director , music teacher , and guitar instructor who makes his home in Fort McMurray , AB . Check out his record on iTunes and connect with Dan on social media and at www . dangilliesmusic . com .
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