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Joe Satriani said:

There are a lot of good guitarists out there. Their technique is great, their fingers stretch really wide and they can play really fast. But very few of them can be expressive and that is the most important thing.

I have a feeling that Joe said something very important here, please help me to understand what this is.

How can you define "playing expressively" in terms of music?

Are there any exercises, practices, songs, or principles that might help one to be "expressive"?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I'm a pianist, and the Joe citation can be applied to pianist too.

Playing the correct notes, or playing fast, or even playing wide intervals is relatively easy. After some time trying out you'll eventually get it right.

If you play the right notes or eventually miss one or two notes it does not matter. What really matters is the meaning you give to those notes.

And this is what means to play one instrument expressively. Being expressive is being able to transmit a well defined mood(or many, but always well defined), to give a meaning to all the notes being played, to play consistently, to phrase correctly. You should be able to make a listener feel the music and not just listen to it.

I guess the following pertinent questions are: How do you do it? What should be taken into account?

Imagine you're studying a piece of music, you should first of all determine the voices and the phrases they're speaking, this is a good start. After knowing "who" is speaking, you have to determine "how" they'll speak.

I recommend watching videos of well known players and listening to their interpretation carefully, writing down the dynamics and articulation they're playing and ask yourself: "why are they playing it like that?".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulation_%28music%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamics_%28music%29

Pay very close attention to modulations, how they're introduced (are the softly introduced or are they very harsh and dissonant?) And mark your conclusive cadences very well, it's very important to phrase correctly. (As Chopin said to a student: "One who does not know how to phrase (musically) is like a person who can't speak her own language").

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrase_%28music%29

The best way to learn it is to try it out, experiment, trial and error. Get your guitar, play the song multiple times, with different approaches, ask somebody to give you some feedback. It's also highly advisable to read about music theory and musical interpretation.

Hope it helps.

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I think this applies to any instrument. Thank you for the answer. –  Silver Light Nov 17 '11 at 17:25
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He definitely said something important there.

Expressive playing in rock-like music styles does incorporate elements that a classical musician might also use, like dynamics and articulations, but it's actually much more, more about "having the blues". What that means is hard to define, so this is just my interpretation —

It means, for instance, bending notes to pitches that can't be exactly described in a score. It does, in fact, mean playing notes that you could not really define yourself: playing "from the heart" rather than from the mind. This may include notes that would classically be described as plainly wrong.
So, in contrast to what Victor said, correct phrasing is not always necessary or even desirable – you do have to find the right balance, but technically perfect may be not musically ideal.

To give a concrete example: consider the guitar solo in Since I've Been Loving You, by Led Zeppelin. This is by no means a technically perfect performance, the fast passages are sort of huddled together rather than phrased out properly. But that just gives it this incredibly emotional, desperately screaming character: I consider it one of the best soloes of all time.

Of course, there are more nuances of expression than just blues, those are typically closer to the classical expressive elements. Still, expressive guitar playing has a lot to do with letting go of from-the-head control over what your hands are doing; so it is not much good trying to practise this type of expression with specific exercises, and most certainly not with any "principles". You rather just have to practise so well that you can stop thinking about what you actually are playing, so that you can start letting the emotions "float into the music". The best way to get there is probably: lots of improvisation, preferredly with a band. When practising alone, avoid playalongs, better just jam around on your own.

That said: all this does, of course, not mean you should abandon technique and discipline. Sometimes an "expressive" part simply will sound outrightly wrong, and what sounds amazing when played in some climatic solo may be rather annoying in other songs. Most often, you're on the safe side when going the classical way as described by Victor: subtle and conscious modifications of pitch, attack and articulation. These are best practised on actual romantic pieces played on classical guitar, which I would definitely recommend over practising any parts from songs on electric guitar.

By the way, "conscious" modification will not necessarily be subtle: a prime example for excessive and greatly effective use of such elements is Jaqueline du Pré's Elgar Cello Concert, which is at least as expressive as any blues guitar solo but still considered close to technical perfection.

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If you consider music to be a language, then technical proficiency corresponds to rhetoric, grammar, and logic. But how well you speak is only important if you have something to say. Expressivity in music has more to do with the meaning you invest into each note than any transcribable detail of the notes themselves.

Consider a high-school student playing Polonius from Hamlet versus Bill Murray. The speech from Polonius to Laertes ("Remember, neither a borrower nor a lender be....") is about imparting all the wisdom of his entire life to his fledgling son in one condensed paragraph. Bill Murray layers this desire in every inflection, every pitch of his performance; investing the words with meaning. But the poor high-school kid, bless his heart, simply has no such wisdom to give; so he can merely speak the words.

So the question to ask when reviewing a performance is: what is that note doing there?

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Being able to express feeling through music is a combination of a wide range of factors, and none of them need to include technical ability.

Speed can be nice, but I can think of many fast guitarists whose technical ability is incredible, but who turn me off completely - there is no feeling to their music. Other guitarists, such as Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, don't play fast music but their note choice, bends, harmonics, timings (not always on the beat) and other factors provide expression.

Think about Kurt Cobain - looking at how he played, it is evident he wasn't a technical wizard on the guitar, but the way he played moved people.

Although I do like fast guitar (Vai, Satriani, di Meola etc are in my list of heroes) I far prefer to play solos that are full of feeling. They may have the odd fast bit, but our audiences seem to really like a solo that moves them, and changes with their mood.

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All these answers are great but I would like to add something.
To bring expressiveness you have to be extremely comfortable with your instrument and confident. The instrument should be part of your body, like an organ.

And the music piece you are trying to interpret should holds no surprises for you. For example you should be able to play it completely in your mind, you should be able to play it and your eyes are closed.

Personally, sometimes I play in the dark. This is useful for me.

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Though surprises can at times also yield interesting results, but they rather more often don't. –  leftaroundabout Nov 21 '11 at 21:25
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