The Heartwood Beat, Issue 10: The Power of Silence

ColdplayDear Faithful Heartwood Beat Subscribers,

Hello again! It’s been too long.

Since I sent my last newsletter, I managed to injure my arms playing too much guitar (and, though I’m embarrassed to admit it, taking workout advice from an over-caffeinated Hulk Hogan look-alike in a YouTube video). The injury put me out of work for three weeks and continues to prevent me from doing much typing or guitar playing, but I’m slowly recovering. Once I fully understand how the injury happened and how it could have been prevented, I’ll dedicate a newsletter to telling my story. Perhaps it will save you some grief down the road.

In honor of my hiatus, I’d like to share some thoughts on one of the most powerful tools you have when you’re accompanying another musician: Silence. This newsletter is geared toward guitarists who play with other musicians, but really, it’s a lesson everyone can benefit from.

First, here’s a little story…

Two weeks ago, I was at a barbecue celebrating the visit of my high school buddy, Justin. After the meal, Justin, a fantastic guitarist and songwriter from California, performed some of his songs, accompanied by another friend on harmonica.

The harmonica player had fantastic chops, but he treated the whole song like an extended harmonica solo. No matter if Justin was singing or even playing a fingerstyle guitar solo, that harmonica player blew right through, confusing and obscuring the song’s melody and Justin’s lead guitar work, and creating a kind of relentless, frantic tension through the whole song.

I guess it’s performances like that one that gave rise to this joke:

Q: What do you call a harmonica player who doesn’t blow all over a singer’s lines?
A: Deceased.

This is a pretty extreme example of overplaying: Thankfully, most guitarists know better than to overwhelm a song with constant soloing. But did you ever consider that strumming through a whole song could be overplaying too?

Think of how a typical contemporary rock, folk, or country song is arranged. The song often starts with just one or a few instruments. Then the vocals come in, singing the first verse. Another instrument kicks in at the chorus, adding a new texture for a fuller sound. Maybe the band backs off a bit in the next verse, and then come back with full force for the second chorus. If it’s a pop song, there’s sometimes a breakdown next, where the drums and bass drop out and give the listener’s ears a chance to relax before building to a huge, glorious final chorus.

Most contemporary musicians follow some variation of this formula: Artists as disparate as Steve Earle (listen to the layering of the dobro and second acoustic guitar in his song “Goodbye”), Nirvana (the kings of quiet verse/loud chorus), and Coldplay (who seem to have made a pact that 75% of their songs must start with sensitive piano playing). Why? It’s because they all understand the emotional power of the crescendo–of getting louder as the song progresses.

You miss out on creating crescendos when you accompany another musician by playing through the whole song. To get louder, you must first be quiet. Sure, you could strum or fingerpick quietly through some parts, and then really whomp on the strings during the choruses, but the most powerful way of injecting majesty into a song is waiting for that perfect moment to add your instrument to the mix.

If this approach to accompanying someone else is new to you, here’s a formula to get you started. Obviously, you’ll need to tweak it to match the structure of your song.

Intro: Don’t play
Verse 1: Don’t play
Chorus: Play full volume
Verse 2: Strum once per chord change
Chorus: Play full volume
Solo: Let loose!
Chorus: Play full volume
Ending: Strum once per chord or don’t play

Take note: Styles that typically DON’T follow this approach include old-time music and punk. There’s still a variety of textures, but usually everyone’s playing from start to finish.

Finally, here’s a trick I learned for jamming on songs I don’t know: Wait until the second verse (after the first chorus) to come in. It’ll make you sound like a pro…

…and you’ll get a preview of how the #@$% song goes.

Comments 22

  1. Hey Rob,

    Good to hear from you again and great advice. What I like to do is take my 12 string to the monthly bluegrass jams and just do alot of “back picking”. Playing a 12 string at a bluegrass is not easy, trust me on that one!!! I have to scale back the volume but I just try to make the song “fuller”. I’ve received alot of compliments on how it sounds so at least I know I’m being heard but not overwhelming. I can tell when the other pickers want to let me “roll a little 12 string out” and when to scale back. It’s just fun to sit and back pick.

  2. Glad to hear you’re still on the planet, sorry to hear about the injury that has halted your playing for so long. Funny thing, the wrist injuries, the hand injuries and carpel tunnel injuries are sort of the unspoken plague for guitarists. We’ve been discussing it over at the Truefire forum and like you – searching for answers. Proper hand position, guitar position, even string gauge (heavier strings are harder on the hands/fingers/wrists)have been discussed. I suffered fairly severe carpel tunnel myself, it’s when I found you and other places for guitarists on the internet. When you can’t play, you want to play and at least spend your time learning guitar stuff. These days I pay attention to every twinge and back off the playing a bit as needed, much better than wrists in braces. 🙂 Good luck.

  3. Rob,

    Great job explaining the power of silence! I play guitar as a hobby and to impress the chicks, so I don’t play with other musicians so much. But you’re right about playing soft and loud. I’ve written a few songs using that methedology. My big influence is Bruce Springsteen AND the E streeters. If you ever watch one of Bruces’ documentries, you’ll see how he works in the way you’re talking about. The band has been together so long, they know without saying a word, when to come in and when to fade out. My roommate is a new guitar player and I’ve been telling her to change up her stumming patters and soften it up a bit. She’s working on it. Again, great newsletter!

    Marc Baca
    Lake Elsinore, CA.

  4. Thanks for all the kind words regarding my injury. Thankfully, I’m working with a great physical therapist who specializes in helping performance artists with repetitive stress injuries. We’re focusing on keeping my shoulders in proper alignment, and relaxing the upper and mid-trapezius muscles–apparently my injuries resulted from bringing my shoulders forward while I played, resulting in too much strain in my forearms.

  5. Hello: That was great advice. I was just at a Bluegrass Festival over at the the Ahern’s property 2 weeks ago (in Snohomish, WA) and I noticed there were certain rules about playing together, especially if you don’t know each other. It’s good to be aware of the total sound, not just your own playing. And silence can be golden when you don’t know the song that well.
    As far as your injury, I hope you can work through it. At one point I had chronic extreme carpal tunnel and tennis elbow. I never had the surgery that was recommended by Neurologists, etc. Now it seems to have gone away with rest and time. I do certain stretches now to allow the nerves to get plenty of oxygen and take the B complex. It seemed to help.
    I saw on the comments that Vern Pringle goes to a monthly bluegrass jam. I live in Kirkland, WA and wonder where he might go for that, (in Seattle?) It sounds like fun! Anyway, let me know if you know anything about the location and if other people can join.
    Always looking for fellow musicians who love to play.
    Thanks again,
    P.S. Who is your physical therapist?

  6. Rob,
    You’re a bright spark aren’t you?..don’t do that to us again. I won’t ask what you do for an encore..we here are waiting for your words of wisdom and you go and do that..have respect for your fellow musos here..(lol). I am copying your info (above) for a country music workshop I help co-ordinate here in Sth. Australia. I’ve been trying to get people to see the “don’t play side of things..or at least softly softly approach”..but you have written it out wonderfully. It never occured to me to write it all down in the past. Me thinks I might put it in my next workshop newletter with the headline “DON’T PLAY” in Arial 48 then it will hit them and make ’em feel guilty..he he.. All for the love of music and unpaid..and a lot of fun..good crowd too..30-40 every month..Saturday afternoons in Gawler area. We do have a life outside music somewhere…(having said that 3 of the co-ordinators belong to a 50’s/60’s band so outside of workshop we see each other on a regular basis..).
    I’m trying to get the sessions less of a jam system. But some of the regular attenders are coming on nicely just the same..
    Anyway Rob, welcome back to musical reality..I and my fellow bloggers are happy of that to be sure..
    Elizabeth Downs
    Sth. Australia

  7. Hi Rob,

    Sorry to hear about your injury. I wish you a speedy recovery.

    I could really relate to the information in your newsletter. I’ve been wrestling with some bandmate issues that you hit on. In one of the bands that I’m in, I’m one of two frontwomen. One of the guitar players is utterly inconsiderate. He needs to play and noodle constantly throughout every song to the extent that he makes up his own guitar parts. His volume is always on 11 and he’s always playing licks or a melody that he came up with over the vocals. It’s distracting to say the least. If you make a casual mention of it, he remains quiet and sulks for the rest of the rehearsal. There are many more issues but that’s the most annoying one. If I thought it would help, I’d send him your newsletter but it will fall on deaf ears. I’m glad you wrote it anyway. Feel better and thanks.


  8. To Lorrie Keech,

    Greetings Lorrie…about the monthly bluegrass, it’s located just a little outside the Washington State Line…actually in Fredericksburg, Virginia…I don’t think I’ll be making it to Kirkland/Seattle area anytime soon!!
    If you’re out this way, look us up at Pickers Supply, first Saturday of the month at 2:00pm.



  9. This is great advice. It is also true to sa that silence is equally important n creating melodies. People are too quick to just shred as quickly as possible in a solo, without the puases and silences, there is no melody!

    Great stuff

  10. Heck yeah, this is solid advice. I try to get something like it into my guitar students’ heads when they’re learning to improvise with pentatonics. I’ll be playing a slow blues and they’re simply playing a bunch of random notes, not listening to the “music” they’re creating. When I tell them to play LESS (or let more notes ring out longer), the music starts to creep in and they get it…I hope! 😉

  11. Hey Rob, do you ever plan on starting back up your group lessons? You bought that nice house to have them in, and you havent done it yet. Of course you ahave to get healthy first.

  12. Hey Randy! Good to hear from you.

    I know it’s been a long time–1.5 years–since I taught group lessons. Sorry to leave you hanging. There is quite a bit of interest in them, and I’m keeping the possibility open, but there are several other things asking for my time: My current schedule of students, upkeep on the house, a new opportunity to teach online video lessons, producing DVD’s, and all the poor people who’ve been on my private lesson waiting list for years. It’s hard to make room.

    Thanks for checking in,


  13. hows the recovery from the injury going? you need to be careful with these things to prevent a repeat and doing long term damage. a friend of mine who is a drummer has a similiar issue but after medical examination we found out that it was due to exhaustion, meaning he couldnt even life the drum sticks. scary stuff.. im assuming you have got this checked by a doctor.. anyways hope it gets better soon..

  14. The space within as the song says.
    Hope the recovery is coming along. Don’t forget to stretch out before playing. Your fingers are just like the legs of an olympian runner. Who is fully stretched before attempting the all out sprint.

  15. Man have you nailed it. Too many alleged “musicians” don’t listen to what’s going on around them, and guitar players are often the worst offenders. Great job making your point, and the story about the harmonica player…well, who can resist an opportunity for a harmonica joke?

    Best from Nashville, I’ll be stopping by again. Let those paws heal up….

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