The true key to success in music, in my opinion, is really the ability to make the most out of what you know at any given time. I have seen this occur so often; it almost seems sometimes that the less
you may know, the better!
Of course, what I am really saying here is that many have “made it” on the backs of not knowing really too much about music, but certainly on being able to utilize their talents and abilities, however limited, to the max!
This translated in real music terms means that it may take very little to create a hit record or song, or it may also take very little even to create a great or famous guitar riff that becomes a part of a hit record that really “makes it.” I mean, look at hit songs like “Wild Thing” or “You Really Got Me” for example; these songs are almost painful in their simplicity, yet it’s in that simplicity that their true success actually lies. A guitar riff such as “Pretty Woman” or “Rumble” or even James Burton’s “Suzie Q” lick are so catchy that they simply can’t help but stay with you! You must remember, the general record-buying public could really care less about whether or not you are technically great or not….many of these “simple” licks were created and then recorded by some players of great proficiency, and were more works of “minimalist” art by complex players who chose to play it “the right way” and who could come up with the correct “part” for the tune. “Pretty Woman” for example, was played by the great Grady Martin, who surprisingly also played those wonderful and complex acoustic fills throughout the famous recording of “El Paso” by Marty Robbins! The two treatments and performances couldn’t be more different, but it’s the same player, just doing his job!
So, in essence, sometimes you must make “less” of what you know, and as many folks have always said, “less is more!” John Prine even once said to me, “Arlen, could you teach me a new chord, so I can write a new song?!” This blew my mind when he asked this, but I immediately got how in touch and to the point John was about what he could or could not do with his talents. In another case, when I was teaching Paul Simon privately, each lesson would turn into a marathon of songwriting, where he would call upon me to have complex answers to many of the songwriting issues that were facing him. He needed my expertise at a very high level, and most of all, needed the “collaborative” ear I could lend to the situation. Sometimes, a write is “too inside” the song, for too long, and needs a fresh set of ears to help them get over certain new hurdles when it comes to the song or idea at hand.
So the bottom line here is that it always pays to know more on the guitar, but many times it’s the notes you choose not to play that really count! Less is more, more or less!!