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I playing guitar since a couple of years (but not regularly) and I always wondered if guitarist from known bands always play their songs/solos perfectly? Especially when the songs are fast paced, is it easier to make mistakes that no one will notice? When I play solos I am never really satisfied with my performance since it doesn't sound exactly the same like in the song.

I know there is no exact answer but I would like to know what you think so I can silence my conscience :)

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    I'm not sure if this question can really be answered here, but I can say that if you listen to enough Led Zeppelin over and over again, you'll hear that not only did Jimmy Page make mistakes, but he made mistakes that they didn't feel it was worth the time and money to go back and fix on the recordings. These days, it's much cheaper and quicker to fix mistakes, so you'll hear hardly any to zero on major releases. – Todd Wilcox Feb 28 '17 at 18:40
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    Also story about Charlie Parker, a student once transcribed one of his solos and presented it to him the very next night. Parker famously said "I didn't play that, I have no idea what that is." It's more about the sound and the feel and not about "perfection." Perfection is a raggedy ideal once you leave the realm of classical music. – Dave Kanter Feb 28 '17 at 21:20
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    I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes. -Jimi Hendrix – GGMG Mar 1 '17 at 4:13
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    If you make a mistake in a fast solo, repeat it and everyone will think you meant to do it ;) – mcottle Mar 1 '17 at 5:58
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    There are certain iconic solos that fans just want to hear note perfect. Hotel California is one. That solo had to be re-learned note for note for their last tour. If they'd changed it, the fans probably wouldn't have accepted it, even if it was better than the original. Would that be possible? Remember though, on guitar, with any mistake, you're usually only one fret away from a good note. That's where slides came from... – Tim Mar 1 '17 at 9:39
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If you are talking about mistakes made during a live performance, all guitarists make them and most of the time they will not play solos note for note as recorded on the studio version (see the many Youtube videos of Steve Vai's original and several live versions of "Tender Surrender").

If you are talking about a recorded performance, as @Todd Wilcox noted, mistakes are hardly ever left on with most music genres as they are so easy to fix.

Of course in jazz, blues, etc., guitarists make mistakes on solos all of the time but you probably won't notice them as they will just turn them into a new ideas as solos are for the most part improvised (live and studio versions). Mike Stern told me many of his best ideas came from errors and variations on them.

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    That's not a mistake. That's jazz. – BZN_DBer Mar 1 '17 at 16:51
  • Jimmy Page would also use some non-perfect guitar tracks for use on an album if they sounded better than the "perfect" ones. Sometimes hitting a note slightly wrong or getting the timing slightly off adds to the quality more than it subtracts. – user12998 Mar 1 '17 at 21:27
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I would expect that the musicians in top bands play extremely consistently, due to sheer repetition and the fact that it's their career.

However, your question touches on a trickier idea: What exactly is a "mistake"? If the exact notes and rhythms are prescribed, then any deviation from that clearly constitutes a mistake. But how precise does the timing/tempo need to be for the rhythm to be considered correct? What if it's technically correct, but a bit off stylistically or emotionally? What if something is "supposed" to ring out, but the fretting was a bit off and a note got partially dampened?

And what if the music is improvised?

From the listener's perspective: would you rather listen to a solo that was beautiful but had a wrong note, or one that was technically perfect but soulless? Anecdotally, my favorite rendition of a Debussy piano piece has a blatant key signature mistake in it*, but it's still my favorite due to every other aspect of the performance. My old piano teacher tells a story of performing a section of a Bartok piece in the wrong clef, and people still enjoyed it.

The whole idea of perfection and mistakes is not very well defined, and in performance art it must be that way. Ultimately, the question is not whether or not a performance was "perfect", but whether or not it was enjoyable and conveyed whatever it was supposed to.


* For the curious: Van Cliburn's recording of Jardins sous la pluie. The section in C# in the middle, he misses B# in the melody each time.

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    Out of curiosity, which Debussy piece and which recording? – Kyle Strand Feb 28 '17 at 23:59
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    @KyleStrand edited to include that info – MattPutnam Mar 1 '17 at 17:24
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'Perfectly': never. 'Very Good': usually. Professionals tend to want to show you what they can do, rather than what they can't; it's their meal ticket, after all.

One of the skills in being an instrumentalist though is to practice techniques that allow you to power through small mistakes without disrupting the rhythm or the overall feel of the song, or letting your small mistake trip you up and turn into a bigger one. Pros will generally be good at this aspect of instrumentalism too; it's one reason you may not notice their mistakes.

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    Excallent answer. Pros make precision mistakes that get swept aside. Newcomers blunder, crash, or halt all the time. Between these extremes lay everyone else. The more you practice, the more pro you become. – bishop Mar 2 '17 at 1:05
  • Back in the stone age when I was a bass player (not to be confused with an actual bassist), we practiced the changes over and over. We would get on multi-act bills and there were definitely musicians up there who were out of our league, but they missed too many marks and we came off as "better." So keeping the overall feel might be Start well, change well, end well and everything in between is forgivable. Doubly so when it is your own original music. – Yorik Mar 2 '17 at 16:34
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I'll talk about live performances since, as other posters have mentioned, recorded performances can easily be fixed with editing.

Mistakes? Yes. Always.

But don't let them stop you!

As a not-top-notch performer I can tell you that there is a stark difference between your (the performer's) perception of the performance and the audience's. In a band situation, you are concentrating very specifically on what you are playing while the audience is taking in the entire performance of all of the members. Not only are you paying more attention to your own performance, but often there are monitors allowing you to hear your performance more than that of your bandmates. This can make you think "wow, that stood out like a sore thumb", when really it's not as prominent as you are hearing.

Further, you can feel your mistakes. You feel your fingers slip or not hit the strings with enough force. This extra sense of the mistake underscores when they happen.

An interesting aspect is that due to the nervousness of playing in public and having practiced a song many times, you are perceiving time differently. A mess-up will feel like it lasts an eternity but typically they are over so fast that it will fly by before anyone gets a chance to notice.

The real key to a good performance: when you inevitably make mistakes, don't let it show. Don't make "I messed up" face. And after a performance, just don't mention mistakes, even though it might be the first thing on your mind.

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I am not a guitarist myself, but I know a really great one and he assures me that he has never played all the way through a song without making a mistake, nor has he ever played a piece through exactly the same way twice. He's always tweaking things here and there. If you're comparing yourself to recordings, you have to realize they do multiple takes and combine the best takes. Even then, nobody is hardly ever perfect.

And please do silence your conscience! This is not what it's there for!

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Other answers are great, but I'll add my experience. When playing live with a band, you have a lot going on at the same time. So mistakes may be masked by the rest of the band.

Most importantly though, is that you roll with it. Not just from the perspective that mistakes can still work, but that if you let it get to you, you are more likely to make more mistakes. Instead, just keep going, the audience can't rewind to hear your mistake again. If you can finish strong, that's what they will remember.

I love this video, and it's the perfect example of rolling with it:

SRV breaks a string and his tech replaces the guitar in basically a four measure break that was there anyway.

  • Fantastic SRV clip! – GreenAsJade Mar 2 '17 at 6:25
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No. Professionals are so perfect they never hit a single note wrong, and if you try to play like they do and they find out you make mistakes, they will come to your house at night and you will be banned from playing in front of people until the end of your life (or the end of the world, whatever comes first.)

Ok, now forget everything I just said.

Of course they do. Sometimes, it does happen that guitarists (or trombonists, saxophonists, etc.) play perfectly if they practice enough. I myself once scored a perfect score in a contest with my flute solo. And- I've also failed miserably the next year I did it, even though the piece was (sort of) easy and I've played it fine millions of times before. So I know the feeling.

Some mistakes can be covered up, especially if you're not playing alone and you're not totally terrible. And even if you are- if you play a Bb instead of a B one time, no one will notice. Really, it depends on how well you play. Everyone makes mistakes. The difference in levels is that when an ok musician messes up one note, they freak out and mess up even more, humiliating themselves completely; however, when a star forgets a big chunk of their music, they begin wildly improvising something that is way better than what was written. (This actually happened once at a concert with our band; a saxophone player had a solo part, and he missed the entrance by a few beats, so he just started playing something completely random that wasn't anywhere near what he was supposed to play. But it was honestly amazing- after the concert, we all agreed that we liked the new version better.)

So yeah, it happens. There are only two good ways to deal with these situations, however: when you goof up, cover it up with something better, or, as I heard from my band director hundreds of times: "Don't practice until you can play it right; practice until you can't play it wrong."

Good luck with the guitar!

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“Never lose the groove in order to find a note.” ― Victor L. Wooten, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music

This acknowledges that musicians do play "wrong" notes, but what's more important is the flow of the piece. As for "wrong," it depends on how formalized the piece is. Some classical music has a fairly rigid structure, and the performer is usually expected to play the music as written (note-wise, not speaking of interpretation here). Celtic tunes on the other hand have "settings" (i.e. ways of playing) that may vary, so a musician who plays a "wrong" note may claim it as a new setting; but of course playing a C# in the key of F may raise eyebrows...

I like the comment above about being one fret from the "correct" note, and that's what slides are for.

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