Major Keys: Why being a good guitarist isn’t always enough

In his latest column for Guitar.com, Aquabats guitarist Ian Fowles shares his thoughts on why all the sweep-picking in the world can’t compete with a solid song.

Ian Fowles

Image: Charley Gallay / Getty Images

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I’ve been playing guitar for about 30 years and touring professionally for almost 20, and I’ve noticed a few things along the way. Namely, that being a good guitar player isn’t always enough.

That might sound discouraging but, by the end of this column, you’ll see that it’s in fact the opposite. Every person’s skill as a guitarist is relative and is but a single factor of their overall ability to perform in the world. Skill is not necessarily indicative of potential, achievement, enjoyment or experience.

By all means, be as good a player as you can be. I’m not saying give up. I’m not saying don’t strive to be better. But rather, embrace who you are and what you can contribute, and let out the inner voice that is uniquely yours. That will shape your future as a guitarist.

The feelings and emotions behind the music are what really matters. Shredding is cool but songs are king. I love shredding in rock and metal, and grew up idolising all the guitarists who play that style. I tried to learn all their solos and gain that kind of dexterity and technical prowess.

But then my listening tastes evolved and I realised that all the sweep-picking in the world can’t compete with a solid song. I’m not saying the two can’t co-exist, in the same band or even the same song. But I find that ‘three chords and the truth’, whatever the genre, speaks to my heart and soul quicker and more completely than a 32nd note descending mixolydian scale.

Home alone

All this talk of playing live doesn’t mean I have anything against playing at home alone. It’s how everyone starts. I still do it every day because I love it. I have a guitar hanging on the wall so that I can quickly grab it anytime I walk past it and fiddle for a few minutes.

For some, that’s enough. Others have a drive (or an existential desire, deep in our soul) to play together with friends, to write and record our own songs, to go out and show them to the world. In many ways, when you stop and think about it, it’s a totally crazy yearning; to want to get up in front of a throng of strangers and bare your heart, to purposely leave yourself completely vulnerable, that’s nuts. Performing on stage or in front of a crowd is, as a species, one of our most common fears. Yet, those who have done it know just how rewarding it can be – the catharsis, the cheers, the salvation.

Then again, maybe you just wanted to incite a mosh pit. There’s merit in that too.

Ian Fowles
Image: Chelsea Lauren / WireImage

Up and at ’em

There are many guitarists who play alone but wish – secretly or otherwise – to play in a band. Some have legitimate reasons why they can’t do so. Others have a laundry list of excuses as to why they can’t do it or don’t do it anymore. Either way, there requires a certain confidence to put yourself out there in order to meet and collaborate with other players. If you’re thinking about making that jump into performing live, just do it. Suck it up. People will clap regardless of how good or bad you are – we’re conditioned to. Not many people will tell you to your face if they think you stink either.

And, most likely, it will stink. At least, at first. But you’ll get better. Even after you’ve been at it a while, though, there’ll be nights when even you think you stink – and that’s okay. Maybe that’s where KISS got it right: apply enough makeup and fireworks and no one will notice if you suck. (Disclaimer: I have seen KISS once and they absolutely did not stink that night.)

When you eventually take your guitar and amp out of the bedroom and into the practice space (garage, basement, backyard or anywhere else, for that matter), you’re entering a wider world. It’s a world in which the way you play is one of many factors – some within your control, most outside it – that will contribute to your success.

This experience isn’t going to look, feel, sound or smell like you thought it would. It will be better and, just as often, so much worse (especially the smell). When everything clicks, it will be magic, transcendent, otherworldly. When nothing clicks, it can be crushing.

Real love

The important thing is that you’ve invested something. It’s real now. You didn’t just post a picture of a perfectly pedicured pedalboard – you got up there and you played. In an era that has seen many gargantuan technological changes in the music industry and beyond, it’s a wonder that engaging in an act of physical performance for the entertainment of others is still a thing. But it is and, in my mind, always should be. It’s primal. It’s raw. It’s necessary.

There are some amazingly skilled guitarists in the world who’d love to be out there playing but, for whatever reason are not. I think about this a lot. Why aren’t they out there playing? Obviously, they’re capable. Are they just stubborn? Do they only want to play a certain style? Are they hard to get along with? Does nobody want to play with them?

There is no single answer – the list is endless. But my reason for pointing this out is to demonstrate why guitar playing may actually count for less than we are led to believe.

This might seem disheartening but it gives me hope – and it should you too. If you feel like you want to do it, go out and do it. The chances of blasting into the stratosphere and achieving guitar superstardom depend on luck, location, connections, timing, availability and myriad other random circumstances. But none of that matters.

Just get out and play. You may achieve ‘success’, whatever that is, but your guitar skills play a fraction of a part in this. You don’t have to be Slash. Just start playing live. Write a song. Give it a try. Do it now. Right now. Finish reading this and write a song. Don’t wait until you have the ‘right gear’. Don’t wait to be told you’re good enough. You don’t need anything or anyone’s approval. Just go. Make your music.

Find out why Fowles thinks you should consider buying cheap, used and classic effects pedals before deciding a boutique one.

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