Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Jimi Hendrix’s thumb positioning, Mark Knopfler’s picking technique, James Jameson’s one fingered bass playing, Kurt Cobain and Brian Johnson’s Vocals on pretty much everything they ever did: All of these have one thing in common. If a music teacher had caught them playing like that before they were famous they’d probably have beaten it out of them!
Some of the most famous and enduring songs of the last century were written and performed by people with what we might regard as imperfect, or even downright terrible, technique. You might think that, with some instruction on the proper technique, they might be able to play or sing more efficiently and achieve an even better standard of musicianship, but in a lot of cases those imperfections are what give the music the edge that makes it interesting. Let’s look at a few examples.
Jimi Hendrix: My favourite example here would be Little Wing. Throughout this song Hendrix plays the bass notes of the chords with this thumb, rather than keeping his thumb on the back of the neck and barring as would be conventional, in order to free up his other fingers to move around the frets and play all those lovely melodies you hear. Jimi had pretty big hands, and generally played a Fender Stratocaster which has a relatively small neck, so his unusual technique was probably a by-product of informal learning, mixed with doing what felt most comfortable for his hand position and size.
What’s interesting with this one is that it’s totally possible to play Little Wing using an index finger barre, but some of those phrases don’t come as naturally as they do with the thumb over the top and require more work to get right. So whilst it’s possible to play the song with ‘ideal’ technique, it probably could never have been written by someone using it, as they would have made different choices. He also adopts a cool ‘lazy’ sounding half-strummed-half-picked technique with the right hand, which manages to sound both sloppy and tight at the same time. It’s one of those things that’s hard to learn, because it needs to be felt and interpreted a little differently every time.
Also of note here is the way he speeds up and slows down at various points, creating tension by pushing and pulling against the listener’s expectations of what music ‘should’ do. This song was also a huge inspiration for John Frusciante’s playing in Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. He wanted to recreate the style of Hendrix’s playing on Little Wing in the verses and so used the same techniques and laid back feel, albeit somewhat more metronomically.
Brian Johnson: Back in Black was the first AC/DC song that really caught my attention. In particular it was the bizarre screechy-yet-gravelly vocals that made me sit up and listen. I’d never heard anyone sing with quiet that level of disregard for the state of their own vocal chords before! I can promise you that almost any singing teacher in the world who had a student turn up and sing like that would beg them to stop immediately and encourage them to smooth out their sound and protect their voice; but the sound that he gets from that technique is specifically perfect for that band. Aggressive songs require aggressive sounds! A singer with a smoother vocal sound over those driving guitars would be hugely out of place and would struggle to compete with the power the rest of the band generates. Likewise Brian Johnson trying to sing some Tom Jones covers would be pretty atrocious to listen to. It’s no surprise that he had to have surgery to remove some nodules in 2005, but I don’t think he or anyone else wishes he’d sung any differently back in the 70s.
John Mayer: John Mayer’s lead guitar technique is pretty flawless, but the fingerpicking technique he uses to play Neon is just odd. Rather than use a thumb and three/four fingers to pick the strings he exclusively uses his thumb and index finger. It’s hugely inefficient in a lot of ways, but it also enables him to put a really strong emphasis on unexpected notes in a way that, as with Little Wing, can be learned by playing with a conventional technique but would not necessarily come naturally to someone sitting down to write a song. On top of that he also frets some notes with his thumb in the Hendrixian style (go away squiggly red line that is SO a word). Again, if Mayer had played with a more conventional technique, we probably wouldn’t have Neon. Or we’d have the same words and the same chords, but none of the feel that really makes the song stand out.
Blackbird by The Beatles has a similar story. Paul McCartney’s technique on that song features a sort of half-pluck-half-strum with the index finger that he never used before or since. It just suited what he was writing at the time.
Django Reinhardt: As guitarists go Django is often one of the most revered. To listen to one of his recordings you would have no idea that he was doing almost all of his playing just using two fingers on his fretting hand. But, owing to an unfortunate incident with a candle, that’s exactly what he was forced to do. By choosing the arpeggios and chord shapes that best suited his physical limitations Django was able to write and play songs on two fingers that still regularly confound guitarists in possession of all their digits to this day.
Nirvana: The MTV unplugged performance is often cited as a lot of peoples’ favourite Nirvana album, or even favourite album full stop. Yet it’s a prime example of so many of the things we’ve talked about here. Kurt Cobain’s voice flips between lazy, nasal, hoarse and just plain out of tune, his guitar sounds like it hasn’t been tuned since he bought it, and there’s loose timing and sloppy playing from basically everyone. And yet the whole thing just works. Enough has already been written about this album so that it doesn’t need another review here thirty years too late, but there’s no doubting that there’s an intent to this performance that carries through, regardless, or even because, of the lack of perfection evident in this album.
Why didn’t they just play with good technique?
By trying to pursue uninterrupted perfection, you’ve potentially sacrificed some of your own musical intent in the process.
What you might notice about everyone I’ve mentioned so far is that there are no particularly recent examples. That’s not just because I’m old and out of touch (though I’m sure that’s part of it) but also because noticeable imperfections in current popular music are far more rare. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why that may be.
1) The availability of resources. There’s a really interesting video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_HrC5N2cKQ where Rick Beato and Rhett Shull discuss whether the internet has made learning an instrument easier or harder since ‘their day.’ One of the interesting points they make is that, pre-internet, you only had sporadic resources to go off when learning a song. You might have a teacher, you might have a book, or a video that could show you some or all of how to play certain things. The one constant you had to rely on was the record. So, for many musicians, the way they learnt to play was by listening to the song obsessively and taking your best guess at how the chords and phrases were played. This lead a lot of people to ‘wrong’ results that still got the job done, but allowed them to use their instrument in ways it hadn’t been used before. Conversely, lots of musicians will now search “how to fingerpick on guitar” or any number of specific enquiries. The algorithms created by sites like Youtube will inevitably lead them to the most popular and ‘liked’ results, meaning that more people will learn what the ‘perfect’ technique should look and sound like, leaving little room for experimentation.
2) Playing Live. Most popular music written before the turn of the century was written by bands who spent hours writing together, took their music on tour, and then were finally approached by an A&R man from a record label once they’d garnered enough attention that someone thought they might be worth gambling on. As a result, the main initial aim of most musicians was to perform an energetic live show that would create a buzz around the band, in the hopes that record executives would hear about them. When playing live, technique often comes second to ‘the performance.’ A sloppy band that plays with soul and energy can win a crowd over in a way that a technically perfect but uncharismatic band never could.
3) Creative Intent. With all of these songs and so many more, the musicians were primarily concerned with getting the song out. How they did it didn’t matter, they wanted to create something and whatever got the job done was good enough. Writing songs is almost a completely separate skill to actually learning your instrument. And it’s possible to be really good at one without being too great at the other.
So what’s changed and is it for the better?
There are a few reasons why music has moved towards a neater and less raw approach over the last few decades. As with all art, the decision about whether that is a good or bad thing is in the ear of the beholder, but studies have shown a trend towards music being less harmonically diverse, more repetitive and less memorable over time. https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/articles/fb84bf19-29c9-4ed3-b6b6-953e8a083334 , The Golden Age of Music, Defined in an NYU Psych Lab – Washington Square News (nyunews.com)
1) Technology. “Oh no! Not another rant about how the goddamn internet changed everything!” Well, yes we’ll get to that. But it’s not just the internet. One of the real biggies is the recording technology we all have available to us. If you’re a singing guitarist and you want to write a fully realised song, you no longer have to battle three or four other egos and compromise your vision to get the song finished. You can download a decent VST for Drums, bass, keys, horns, strings and whatever else you care to name, and then sit and program them to sound exactly like you want them to. They won’t make a mistake, they won’t chip in with their own ideas, they won’t sleep with the other plugins and they won’t demand a bigger cut of the royalties. But in going down this route you lose the imperfections that can spark more innovative ideas, and you lose the insight of other experienced musicians that might be able to help you out of creative roadblocks. What’s more, the sound samples for these plugins are recorded note-and-beat-perfect, by some of the best and cleanest sounding session players in the world. So now next to them your sloppy-but-cool technique will sound out of place and you’ll be forced to tidy up your playing to sound more like them. By trying to pursue uninterrupted perfection, you’ve potentially sacrificed some of your own musical intent in the process.
2) Simon Cowell. In 2001 Pop Idol set the tone for the modern music reality TV show. It took music and turned it into a dramatic competition. We were encouraged to cheer and vote for our favourites, we were told that we would see the birth of a new pop star plucked from obscurity, and told that that person could be any one of us if we had the ‘natural talent.’ We were also encouraged to laugh at the people who thought they could do it but were told they weren’t good enough. Each individual member of the British public became judge, jury and executioner on the musical ambitions of anybody who thought they might like to get up on stage and sing us a little song. We were told what is and is not good technique, what is and is not ‘marketable,’ and who is and is not worthy. But the truth is that’s not how music works. It’s not how anything works. In the history of great popular music the Susan Boyle’s are the rule, not the exception. Talent is usually not innate, it is learned through time and commitment, and is not affected by your image. People who, with a few years of experience might have made some interesting music, were told on one single fateful day that they would never amount to anything.
I once attended a masterclass with the great guitarist Robben Ford. And his answer to the question “how do I improve my playing” posed by one audience member was very telling. He said this.
“You have to get up on stage and suck, while nobody knows who you are. Nothing teaches you what you need to know than getting on stage in front of a hundred people and being terrible. I can’t do that anymore, because people walk away from the gig and say “man that Robben Ford has lost it,” but you have the opportunity right now to go stand on stage in a bar, suck, and learn from it.”
And that leads me on to my final point...
3) The goddamn internet. This isn’t a rant about Spotify, though there are gripes to be had there too, rather it’s an observation about the prevalence of cameras. What Robben Ford said above is kind of true. If you’re reading this, odds are almost nobody knows who you are, and if you want to play better you can go get on stage right now and start learning. Except now, everyone knows who everyone is. True practice, at any level, requires you to be able to switch yourself off from the possibility of playing a bad note, and focus on trying, failing and trying all over again.
In a world where everybody is recording all the time, that’s much harder to do. Your first terrible performance could go viral online, you could be laughed at like all the “no hopers” on X Factor, and you may feel like you never want to play again. It probably won’t happen, but the knowledge that that’s a possibility drives people to stay home and practice and record there instead. Safe in the only part of the world where everything can still be deleted. Those who have perfect technique can go out and sing and play free from that fear. So increasingly, these are the people we hear more from.
Ok that’s all nice and terrible. What can I do about it?
In some ways not a lot. Fighting the trends of popular culture is like trying to fart against a hurricane. Most of us don’t have the power to control the mob, and who are we to try? Maybe we’re in a hiatus period before some truly innovative and exciting music gets made that nobody saw coming. There are a few good rules to live by that may help you create more authentic music though.
1) Do what you want regardless of the quality of your output. It really isn’t a big deal if your tone is a little off, your voice a bit wobbly or your timing a little shaky. Find people that are willing to play with you as you are and learn with them or from them. Those imperfections you hate might be what draw others to you. Johnny Cash recalls in his autobiography that he had one singing lesson as a child. "Don't ever take voice lessons again. Don't let me or anyone else change the way you sing" was the advice he received. He does go on to say that he wishes he hadn't listened, and had learnt at least a little about how to protect his voice, but you have to wonder whether he'd have had the same level of success if he'd sounded more like every other singer out there.
2) Recognise that everyone else is learning too. Absolutely no musician has ‘completed’ their instrument. If you feel yourself wanting to have a sneer at someone else’s playing have a word with yourself and realise that, if your words were to get back to them, you could be discouraging someone that might have become great from achieving what they’re capable of. We’ve all been told to give up at some point or another, and nobody ever remembers the person that told them that fondly.
3) Simplify the way you write and the way you practice. By all means use the technology available to you sometimes, but try to step away from it and really listen to your own playing. Play with other people to get the instant feedback that comes with co-writing and jamming.
If you have any thoughts about perfection and imperfection in music I'd love to hear about them in the comments!