September 23, 2019

The Importance of Listening

When I was only a lad, back in the ’90s, I sang in a band. At some point -about the age of 14 – I felt that this was not enough, and my pal Lee let me play his red Squier bass at the Scout hall we used to practice at. I’ve got a couple of photos from back then, and seeing my face beneath my terrible curtains gleefully embracing this opportunity fills my now 38-year-old soul with a tremendous sense of serendipity.

The next logical step was to get some guitar lessons, so with the £40 I’d received for my birthday, I bought a 3/4 size Lauren classical and went to the guitar teacher at school. His name was Dave Goodall, and he was an impossibly tall, giant-handed bass player with enormous hair. He asked me what I wanted to learn and I told him I wanted to learn Unchained Melody and some songs by the Manic Street Preachers, but he told me he’d show me something that I’d ‘spend the rest of my life trying to get right’. This was Every Breath You Take by the Police, which simultaneously introduced me to the add9 chord, and taught me the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned.

Dave wasn’t interested in turning me into a shredder, and I like to think – with a dash of romantic hindsight – that he saw in me then the sort of player I would become. I vividly recall the day that he told me about the difference between hearing and listening, the feeling that I was being told a genuine secret. If the music’s just on in the background, he said, you’re hearing it. If you pay attention, then you’re listening. He told me about how important the right hand was, how essential the striking hand is when it comes to making music. I listened to him, and despite the 20-odd years that have passed since then, I’ve always kept this advice in the back of my mind.

Like many players, I’ve been caught in the fast=good trap. I’m still in there a little, but I’ve never had a particular rod for shredders or learning to play at speed. The few players that I’ve truly looked up to – Robert Johnson, James Dean Bradfield, Bill Orcutt, James Hetfield – have always made me feel something from their rhythm work, and while I love melodically astute players like Johnny Hiland, Danny Gatton and Les Paul, it’s the stiff chord runs and firm enunciation of their right hands that have always stuck with me. I think hat’s why a band like Mastodon, for whom right-hand articulation is of high importance, connect with so many people.

Imagine someone talking to you in a monotone voice. The information they might have or the story they’re telling might be incredible to an almost unbelievable degree, but you’re drifting in and out, not paying attention. If that same story is told with fervour, with accents, modulation of volume and passionate inflections, your interest returns and remains. Instrumentation is no different from this – the strident roar of an aggressive cello performance, the raunch of neatly-chopped bass, or the drag and strike of a drummers’ hands feed into the romantic drama of the music we listen to. It’s what makes certain artists stand out, even when they’re lacking in compositional ability or operating in a crowded field.

For the majority of you reading this, your toan begins at the pick. Material, shape, weight, thickness – these aspects shape the voice of your instrument, and let you speak each word with conviction. For a practical demonstration, try playing one chord over the same drum beat and putting an accent in different places. You’re saying the same word in different ways, and each one of those ways carries a different meanings. That meaning fundamentally changes the import of your song, so the next time you’re checking out a record, listen to the way what’s being played is being played, and you’ll get a whole new experience from records you’ve loved for decades.