Simply Genius

The old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a country (or pop) guitarist and a jazz guitarist?”

“The jazz guitarist plays three thousand chords in front of three people, and the pop guitarist plays three chords in front of three thousand (oftentimes, many more) people.”

Just recently, I was involved in a remote recording project with a few of my friends. Our project was to record a cover of Sheryl Crow’s hit, “Soak Up the Sun.” A relatively simple three chord pop song, with a couple of extra chords at the chorus, in typical 4/4 time. My task was to play bass.

“Simple enough,” I said to myself. “It’s just a three-chord pop song – nothing to it,” said my arrogant, decades-of-guitar playing self.

Well…I got out my Yamaha RBX170 bass (a sort of cheap mid-level instrument but I like it) and plugged it into my most awesome Mark Bass amp, threw on my headphones and set out trying to learn this really catchy and cute song. I listened to it over and over. For the most part, it was pretty straight forward but I was a little stumped at the bridge and at a couple of little transitions. After I felt comfortable enough, I recorded my bit and sent it off to my buddy Ray, who organized the project and who was in charge of arranging the final product.

I thought I did a fairly reasonable job and looked forward to hearing the final result of all of our remote band-mates playing “together.” Both guitar parts sounded good. My bass sounded alright and my friend, Janice, as usual, sounded great singing it. The drums sounded fine too. But something was missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was.

My conclusion was that great musicians make even simple songs sound great. I mean, take the most competent cover band or tribute band and they may blow you away with their mastery of whatever song they are covering but it is rare that they ever truly live up to the original recording.

It’s the X-factor; that unknown quality that gives these wonderful musicians impeccable timing and feel. They have a way of interpreting a few simple chords and turning them into timeless masterpieces that live on for decades.

Think about such iconic classics such as, “Brown Eyed Girl,” by Van Morrison. On the surface, a fairly simple song but to play it live and make it sound anywhere as good as Van the Man did, is a tall order – trust me, I speak from experience.

Or “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynard Skynard, also pretty much a three-chord song but I have never heard anyone make it sound anything like the original. The masterful guitar playing, keyboard skills, and singing displayed on the original recording is truly classic – as tired and trite as that word has become.

Many songs such as these may seem simple on the surface but most have several intricate layers over their relatively simple chord patterns. Listening to them with a musician’s ear will reveal just how intricate some of them are. Take a close listen to any ZZ Top song for proof. Billy Gibbons could turn “Happy Birthday” into a blues masterpiece. The interplay between Billy, Frank Beard on drums and Dusty Hill on bass is truly something to marvel at. It’s not for nothing that they’ve been rocking the airways and arenas of the world for more than 50 years.

Seeing John Mellencamp live a couple of times really drove this point home for me. Most of Mellencamp’s songs are fairly straight forward and simple but very few performers can capture and hold an audience of thousands for a couple of hours the way John Mellencamp can. The incredible musicianship of his band is also something to behold. Mellencamp is an incredible performer, songwriter, and band leader.

I had the good fortune of seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live for the first time in 2017 at Ottawa’s Bluesfest – sadly, just a few months before his passing. Mr. Petty held the attention of thousands of audience members for over two hours, in the most miraculous way I’ve seen at any concert. The whole time, he was ever the gracious gentlemen, never once uttering a single curse word or sexual reference (at least none that I can remember). I don’t think any of Petty’s songs are terribly complicated but how many recording artists can claim to have more that 50 hits? He wasn’t the best guitar player or singer around but he was a songwriter extraordinaire and a rare breed of band leader that could surround himself with elite musicians and still keep a steady hand on the wheel for several decades.

I believe it’s a rare sense of timing and phrasing that makes their music unique and so special. They have a way of taking control of the song and selling it like it’s the last song on earth. Carlos Santana, the epic guitarist who appeared at the first Woodstock festival, and is still performing into his seventies, has this ability. An ability to transcend the music and make magic out of a few chords that touches people’s souls. He too has the maestro’s ability to form and lead a band of top-level musicians that can mold the sound into a masterpiece to be loved and admired for decades.

Some songs may be simple enough to learn. But making them sound anywhere close to as good as the original version is far from easy.

References (only to look up a few details):

  • Wikipedia
  • Google
  • Rolling Stone magazine, Special Tribute Edition, Tom Petty: The Ultimate Guide to His Music and Legend

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