The art of really being able to play what you are hearing and feeling inside is a truly well-honed skill. It’s something that I have always done throughout my guitar-playing life, and is of course, something that can only continue to get better. Basically, one’s skills keep improving as one goes on in life, as does your ear, so it would make sense that whatever effort and time you put in over the years, it will certainly pay more and more increasing dividends. I can certainly recall that special “moment” when I realized that I was truly at “one” with the guitar, and it occurred long before I felt any true mastery of the instrument itself ... but there was just something about that time and place that made me feel like it had all really “come together.”
My first take, when recording in the studio, is one that must always be recorded. You never want to miss that first golden opportunity to see and hear how your first real impression of a song turns out….after all there will never be another “first take” again, period! You should also strive for this kind of first take ability in your own playing. I know one thing that truly helped me was during my years as a sideman with many folk acts, rehearsal was hardly and rarely an option. Also, I believe they got spoiled by the fact that they knew I could always take the stage, hear a little bit of the song, and be able to fall right into playing it not only well, but with feeling! Little did I know, but this very active period in my career made me learn in leaps and bounds ... it’s what I like to describe to others as “learning in front of audiences”, when I talk about my self-taught abilities.
You have to remember, that no matter what you learn along the way, whether it’s from me or someone else, in the end, we all really teach ourselves, and it’s what we do with our acquired knowledge that really makes or breaks us! To me, an initial performance of a song is just as impactful as that first take in a recording studio and as you start to further take the piece of music apart, it becomes more and more yours.
I have done this over the years with certain songs in my repertoire, for example, my big instrumental hit off my second album was “When a Man Loves a Woman.” We thought it was so outrageous when I decided to take a real strong attack with it in the studio, we figure, “let’s just leave it alone, it’ll never have that magic again.” And, therefore we put it out like that. Yes, it was a hit, and got all kinds of accolades in the press, but when Rounder Records inexplicably neglected to include it on my compilation CD, I decided that since I had performed it live better every time since that recording, I would do it again on my Toolin’ Around album! That turned out to be a much more satisfying recording, and I believe it captured the real essence of how I had honed the art form of interpreting that song in front of audiences for 12 years.
So keep in mind that regardless of what the outcome may be, you must always strive for, and aim to, “hear it, feel it, and play it!”