Music Snobbery: The Quickest Way To Kill Creativity
It is one of the bizarre quirks of human behaviour that passion so often leads to fanaticism and evangelism. We are rarely content with just enjoying something for ourselves. Instead we feel compelled to spread the good word and persuade others to join us in our appreciation of our new-found passions.
In itself this is not a bad thing (don’t worry, the irony of writing this on a blog all about my passion for blues has not been lost on me). Yet far too often, we present our passions in contrast to alternatives that we deem to be of lesser quality or importance.
Within those pursuits that require practice and dedication, this effect becomes more profound. Take Yoga as an example. Yogis practice with the ultimate aim of achieving spiritual development and a state of higher consciousness and awareness. Even within that context, there are numerous factions within yoga, all of which preach that their particular brand is superior. The divides run deep, even though all yogis are ultimately engaging with yogic practice for the same purpose.
The mind boggles.
In the world of music – and particularly within the world of guitar players – we see the same phenomenon. So many guitarists spend their energy attacking players they deem to be inferior. Just look at the memes and videos all over social media. Most of these get a cheap laugh out of some variation of the message – ‘Pop music is Sh*t, Rock music is awesome.’ Rather than approaching music with an open mind, many guitarists have become totally close minded. They only engage with the style of music they appreciate and treat everything else with disdain. In other words, they become music snobs.
My Experience as a Music Snob
If you aren’t currently a music snob, then I can guarantee that you have once been a music snob. I think it’s almost an inevitable part of falling in love with music. When I first started to play the guitar, I was guilty of this in a big way. I discovered Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and suddenly stopped listening to anything that didn’t feature blistering guitar solos in every song. For a number of years I shunned everything outside of this sphere.
There is one particular incident I can recall which still makes me cringe. I was in the car with my Dad and he was playing the Let’s Dance album by David Bowie. Stevie Ray Vaughan appears on this album as a session guitarist. I was complaining about the choice of music and so my Dad put the song China Girl on, which features an understated but tasteful and melodic solo from Vaughan. After the song ended, my Dad turned to me and said ‘Not a bad guitar solo is it!? My retort was ‘It’s ok, but it’s no Stevie Ray Vaughan’
In fact it was Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s exactly who it was.
In my bizarre and totally unnecessary quest for musical purism, I had become totally close minded and was mocking the very heroes I was trying to emulate. That I could have behaved in that way and been so totally misinformed still makes my toes curl with embarrassment.
Passion vs. Fanaticism
Yet whilst I look back on myself in that moment and shake my head in disbelief, that behaviour was a necessary part of developing as a guitarist. In the world of guitar players – and particularly in the world of rock and blues – music snobbery is rife. Players get locked into listening to certain styles of music. They go deeper into the rabbit hole, shutting themselves off from the wider world of music. They turn their nose up at music they could conceivably enjoy (David Bowie is now one of my favourite musicians, incidentally)…
I don’t believe there is anything wrong with developing an intense passion for a certain style or genre. For me the guitar driven blues-rock of the late 1960s and 1970s will always win. There is however a problem with sticking the blinders on and shunning all music that falls outside this sphere.
Music Snobbery – The Killer of Creativity
The first and predominant problem with being a music snob, is that it limits your vision as a musician and stifles creativity. This is a problem whether you’re a professional musician or just playing for fun. With music – as with anything – variety is key to keeping things interesting, both as a player and a listener. One of the biggest frustrations I have with my own playing is that it’s quite one-dimensional. I have the tendency to rely too heavily on a handful of licks and techniques. So my playing becomes repetitive and boring, both for me and for people listening. This is almost certainly because I’ve never taken the time to learn or appreciate different styles.
You can hear this even with some of the world’s most famous musicians. As much as I love them (and it pains me to say this) there are certain blues guitarists, like Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan who’s discography – whilst brilliant – starts to sound a little repetitive after a while. Just listen to Texas Flood and The Sky is Crying by Stevie Ray Vaughan. The lead guitar work in both songs sounds strikingly similar. This is largely because Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and others play totally ‘straight’ blues. They don’t really deviate from the form at all.
This is of course part of what makes them brilliant. Albert King is one of the Godfathers of modern blues. He is a player who helped define and shape the genre. Likewise, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s virtuosic guitar playing has been rivalled by few guitarists before or since. When we listen to these guitarists, we are appreciating players who helped shape the musical landscape.
The Imitation Game
It is this which makes playing the imitation game a bad idea. You and I are not Albert King. If we try to be, unfortunately we will end up sounding like a cheap imitation.
Given the wealth of amazing music that has preceded us, treading new ground as a player is difficult.If you choose to limit your sphere of influence, then it becomes almost impossible.
If on the other hand, you listen to music with an open mind and draw influences from wherever you can, your chances of creating interesting music increases greatly. Two modern day players that spring to mind who do this exceptionally well are Derek Trucks and John Mayer.
Now playing with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Derek Trucks is one of the best contemporary blues guitarists out there. Yet the music his band creates is varied. They incorporate elements of soul, funk and country. Trucks has also spoken at length about the way that Eastern musicians have influenced his slide playing – an influence that comes through clearly on tracks like Sahib Teri Bandi – Maki Madni.
John Mayer has taken the idea of fusion even further. He has created music that is adored by 10 year old girls and blues purists alike. In a way that few have managed before or since, Mayer has been able to seamlessly blend impressive blues guitar playing with catchy pop songs. The result has garnered him hordes of fans.
Music Snobbery – How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
The second issue I have with music snobs, is that they create unnecessary divides within a community that should be about spreading good vibes. When describing the process of writing, Derek Trucks once said that ‘As musicians we’re all dipping from the same well’.
That is the perfect attitude and one I wish was adopted by more players. Whether you’re talking about Jimi Hendrix or Justin Bieber – musicians are creating music in search of the same goal; one of expressing their emotions through music and connecting with others.
I can understand why guitarists might be derogatory about pop music. I personally think it lacks the depth and emotion of the blues. However, that is not to say that we cannot enjoy and take inspiration from even the most saccharine pop songs. A colleague of mine once used the analogy that listening to contemporary pop music is like eating sweets, whereas listening to the blues-rock of the 1960s-1970s is like drinking a fine wine. One is rich and complex, the other will leave you feeling sick after 20 minutes.
He used it to defend his musical snobbery, but I think the analogy actually exposes the flaws in his argument. Life is about balance and variety, and indulgences should definitely make an occasional appearance.
Internet Trolls – The Ultimate Music Snobs
That there exists a divide between musicians of very different genres isn’t ideal, but it is at least understandable. What I find incomprehensible is that fellow guitarists would troll each other. I was blissfully unaware of the divides within the guitar community, until I saw a video of Philip Sayce torn to shreds on Instagram.
Sayce is a brilliant guitarist and one who plays in tribute of the greats. The influences of Jimi Hendrix and in particular Stevie Ray Vaughan are both evident in his music. For reasons still unknown to me, this video attracted a lot of attention from guitarists who were slamming Sayce, criticising his style and approach.
I am on occasion guilty of looking at guitarists in bemusement. There are certain styles of playing – like shred guitar – with which I struggle to connect on an emotional basis. But whilst I wouldn’t choose to listen to it, I recognise the dedication it takes to attain that level of playing.
We’re all in this for the same purpose and should appreciate all fellow guitar players, no matter the genre they’re into or their level of playing. Even that kid playing Sweet Child O’ Mine in the local guitar shop deserves a bit of love.
Striking the Balance
We all have those genres of music about which we are deeply passionate. If you’re reading this blog (and you are not my Mum) then I’m guessing that you are a fellow lover of the blues.
What I’m not suggesting is that you give up any ounce of passion for the music you love. Blues music has brought countless hours of joy to my life and remains the only genre of music I listen to everyday. I’m also not suggesting that you need to ditch the pentatonics and start practicing exotic licks or run out and buy books on Jazz Theory.
What rather I hope you take from this, is that open mindedness always trumps fanaticism. There is a whole world of music out there and we should allow ourselves to be open to it. Even within the blues – which is just one genre – there are numerous and diverse styles. Allow yourself to experiment and try some of these.
I’m in the process of learning slide guitar. Whilst it is difficult and at times very frustrating, it has been immensely rewarding and enjoyable. As a guitarist, being open to new ideas will improve your vocabulary and broaden your playing. It will also make the whole process of learning and playing more enjoyable. As a community of guitarists, it will bring us closer together and make us more appreciative of that which bonds us all together – the love of guitar and of music. That can’t be a bad thing.