This weekend I got a chance to listen to some wonderful young guitar players, but it brought me back to an issue I try to explain over and over when I teach workshops.
Many fingerstyle guitarists today are forgetting about the most important aspect of music – melody. I think this is due to a basic lack of musical study, and the lack of asking the basic question “what is music?”
Without an inquiry into what music actually is, one can get lost by simply copying whats trendy and popular on Youtube and in magazines.
Musical textures, techniques, rhythms, and special effects do not make a song – even if they sound cool, nice, hip and pleasing.
The following “guitar textures”, ornaments and effects add color, flash, and an “ooh and ahh” factor, but by themselves they are not the “basis” of a piece of music.
- Guitar Percussion
- Right hand tapping & fingering on fretboard
- left hand over the fingerboard fingerings
- Altered tunings
- Fast fingerpicking (boom chick style, bossa nova style or any other groove)
- Nice sounding “chords” with no melody
- funk grooves
- strumming joyous chords
- cool and neat open string chords & arpeggios
- partial or multiple capo usage
- delay, reverb, or looping effects
- external objects pasted to the instrument
If one starts out with a melody that one can sing away from the instrument, then special effects are welcome.
These effects add excitement to a live show for sure, but still – they are not “music” in and of themselves and ultimately music using this as its “basis” will fall flat on its face.
Even if it gets lots of youtube hits, magazine coverage and all the chicks think it’s “awesome” that means nothing unless there is a singable melody.
I have been hearing a lot of very young talented players string these textures together in trying to create a piece of music.
Always ask yourself “Can 90% of the audience sing the melody back? (Even the non musicians?)”
If you get to add your harmonics, tapping or anything else consider it a bonus for your inner guitar geek….but for everyone else, the SONG is the main event (whether it is original or a cover song).
Imagine a movie with the greatest special effects, in 3-D, stereo sound, rumbling seats, and amazing computer animation, but with no “story” or meaning.
It may make a box office splash the first week but it will be a B movie rental in a matter of weeks.
If you can’t sing the melody to something you are playing – it ain’t a song, it’s just guitar-isms.
If you like music with no melody, and totally disagree with me, that’s fine too – rock on, and enjoy.
My way is only my way – and there’s more than one way to do things. Test it all for yourself and see what works for you.
Better yet, see what your wife, girlfriend or parents enjoy hearing you play 🙂
Great post Adam, it really made me think and reconsider a number of things….keep it coming!
Dennis Wilson says
Adam, I read everything you send my way. I’m 65 yrs young and have been playing the guitar for about a year. I can play fairly well and I always play chords by finger picking, not strumming.
I’ve always wanted to play fingersyle guitar since I heard Chet Atkkins many years ago. My problem lies in that although I can set aside some time for practice, all the music theory and reading music eventually causes me to quit.
I play for my own personal enjoyment and of course when I get together with friends and sing our favorite songs. I love the sound a guitar makes. It takes me to a different place. That’s why I enjoy your style of playing. You allow for personal reflection of each piece you play. When you play I hear the melody but I also feel the melody. I would like to do that but feel I’m a little too old to take in what it would take to accomplish my goal.
Keep writing and thank you for sharing your skill.
Dennis thank you.
1) Don’t get hung up on reading & theory, just do your next step.
2) You are never too old to learn the next logical step – for you. The music wil keep your mind fresh, so stay in the game!!!!
Fingerstyle guitar is a world of texture, technique and great guitar tone. I’ve been a fan of it for a long time, until recently. Much of it lacks melody. There’s no story and even if there is, the melody is buried in the mix. The pitfall of many fingerstyle players is the wank factor. They can play the tune but the slaps, hits, runs and harmonics often don’t support or sometimes even fit in the song. It’s musical masturbation.
i agree very much with this . i realized that too. many people get carried away buy these special effects and its amazing when you listen to it .but the after a while u cannot actually remember what you heard but only remember the person did some cool effects..
i agree with you Adam.
i have your DVD on Stevie wonder and i am working now on overjoyed. i hope to get done and be able to groove with it. rather than playing it note for note like a robot.
Az Samad says
Completely agree. When I teach fingerstyle guitar, I emphasize melody writing techniques, phrasing, compositional techniques as part of the material. These go hand in hand with the technical material. Thanks for writing this blog post Adam, will be directing my students here!
Best wishes from Malaysia,
Thanks Az! Hope to see you soon – AR
klaus eber says
I fully agree with you. These days there are lots of young ( and older) guitarists with admirable great technics…
but I can`t listen no whole CD. Why? Melody lacks and it`s just too boring.
Not every guitarist gets the gift to become also a great composer. Such is life.
Great advice, Adam. Sometimes we need to return to basics!!
You have just described beautifully what I have been thinking for some time. Melody is paramount not those guitar aerobics by players trying to impress techniques than content. Looking forward to seeingyou hopefully if you
can come to north east of England
Ramon B. Joaquin says
I totally agree with u Adam, keep it coming.
Don Williams says
You’re so square. I, for one, and glad you are. For me also – it is all about melody plus rhythm and harmony. The other stuff only works when it’s part – and not too big a part – of a “song”..
When are you coming to North Carolina?
John Horne says
I once read an interview with acoustic guitarist Michael Hedges who (for those who don’t know) was well-known for using a lot of extended techniques, most notably alternate tunings and tapping. In the interview he was asked his opinion of a number of artists that seemed to have a lot in common with his approach. He basically said that he heard a lot of guitarists concerning themselves with rhythm and sonority and clever techniques while having little or no concept of melody which obviously bothered him. He was pretty unforgiving and rightfully so as he had a composition degree from Peabody Conservatory and made a point of using his technical approach to the instrument to bring a composition to life, not the other way around.
Also, lack of singable melodies is one of my pet peeves with movie soundtracks these days!
Michael was awesome. I had a student who was into him and introduced me to his music, and I was expecting “techniques” but then heard melody. He used the physical ideas to achieve what he first heard….Hedges = MASTER.
Right on, Adam! The greatest fingerstyle guitarists (Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and, yes, Adam Rafferty) never lose sight of this principle. I’m all for expanding the acoustic range of the instrument, but not when it causes people to forget or ignore the fundamentals of good music.
Ron Celano says
I agree with you completely. I often find myself in the situation of trying to get the melody to stand out beyond all the affects and other fingerpicking tricks. It is even more difficult for me with three part songs that you arrange (i.e. with a melody, bass and middle part). Don’t get me wrong. I love your song arrangements, but I need suggestions to help make the melody stand out? I know it is best to learn the melody first, but the other parts sometimes override the melody.
It’s that old adage that less is more.Great article Adam thanks and to quote Chet Atkins.If you hear something you like and you’re halfway like the public,the chances are they’ll like it to
Quite right Adam. Too many people these days try to be “clever” instead of being musical. Singers, too, forsake melody in favour of vocal histrionics. For my money, melody is the essential part of a memorable tune, the part that makes it recognisable.
If you can’t imagine the postman/mailman whistling it, then it’s not a good song.
Tom Perry says
Much of the “Pop” music culture today is focused on a rhythmic chant – it has invaded country, pop and of course rap. There is little or no melody and a great deal of spoken verses. Even the ever so talented Taylor Swift uses only a few notes in her songs. One doesn’t need to have a degree in Music Theory to understand the beauty of a nice melody! Melodies are the main “entrée” and the taps and special effects, etc. are just “side dishes” that are never able to “steal the show”. These styles will prove themselves to be just a passing fancy in the long history of music. I have to wonder what J.S Bach would have to say about this trend!
sunny strapp says
Guess I really gotta agree about melody…although not being strictly a guitarist but rather also a singer has let me get it all out there to be heard as a composite product. My “musician” in me does the best production possible and I do love the sound of polished accompanying guitar as I go through the melody and lyrics. It’s all together a good trip.
Thanks a lot Adam for all the thoughtful leads you put out to us.
John Morgan says
You nailed it Adam. Exactly right!
LesPaul always used to say “stick to the melody”…..’nuff said!
Guys, for those of you still following this thread, I have also heard young guys, inspired by Tommy Emmanuel who (for example) try to imitate his fast boom chick sound on “Lutrell” (which I love by the way) and create pieces in an up tempo boom chick open chord style.
“Lutrell” has a super melody – I can’t get enough of hearing TE play that one. It kicks ass beyond belief.
But for those merely “imitating” that sound, I often hear “fast & furious guitar chords and rhythm” with no clear melody.
It’s like Mozart’s left hand, without the right!
I am stating this to clearly underline that I am not criticizing anyone’s style or sound or taste. Be it harmonics, right hand tapping, alt tunings, boom-chick or anything else, melody is still king (or queen)
Right you are, Adam. Tommy really proves your point. We all know that he started in music as a drummer. So it’s not surprising he uses more percussion in his stage show than anybody else. BUT he’s a true musician and understands that the magic in the music is MUSIC. His percussion always supports and emphasizes the unique musical content of any song., never overwhelms it. Personally, I don’t care for all that percussion, but that’s only because I’m an acoustic guitarist, .and don’t really ‘get’ drummers and drumming. My deficiency not Tommy’s and I’m delighted when he anyone tries to enlighten me. In his stage show, Tommy’s presenting himself. It happens he is 2/3 guitarist and 1/3 percussionist, and his stage show reflects that. But when called on to perform a particular lyrical song – Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Wonderful World, Luttrell – nothing in his performance detracts from the musical expression intended by the composer.
Adam Rafferty says
I can also tell you that his “show” has a plan, as does mine. Loud percussion brings things to an excitement level so it has it’s place in the grand scheme of the evening.
Not necessarily in this order, but I plan “moments” in my show, like:
Sing the Ray Charles Blues
Misty with walking bass
Up tempo flat picking (Storm WInd)
Stories that go with the tunes, etc
The problem is when you take something like percussion on guitar and make it the fabric of the entire playing concept, to the exclusion of melody because “playing the axe with slaps and hits is cool and the old fashioned stuff is uncool. ”
So, in essence the exclusion of melody = a mis-understanding of music, IMHO.
Thank you sir!
I agree with your main point about the importance of the melody. However, I disagree that 90% of the audience should be able to sing the melody back. First of all, 90% of the audience can’t sing. Period. Can you sing The Girl from Ipanema?
Here is 90% of the audience singing the melody from “Girl From Ipanema”. Check 2:48 – 3:09 https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7nIWl9TUX8E
John Horne says
Ha! Beautiful. Check THIS out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fjv2Sz2CWWc
Thanks Adam. Great post,
Bob Cella says
Another affirmative. Countless are the melodies that I hum in my head. But I don’t find myself humming guitar riffs or flurries. Any instrument can deliver a tune.. but it’s easy to go overboard. Riffs, taps, harmonics, and flurries can be to a good tune what salt is to food. Just a pinch in the right places really brings it around. But man, too much can wreck something otherwise really nice.. and then by itself,, five minutes and I”m out’a here. (like a visit to Guitar Center!)
It may be the era of music we’re in, Rhythm and beat are so dominant in modern performance that I think melodies have fallen by the wayside, or have been forgotten completely. It’s really unfortunate..
Thanks for commenting Bob! yes, yes yes – just a pinch!
Rhett Butler says
Hope you have been well. I read your blog about the techniques without musicality. I do agree that most of these young players have not developed any sense of melody at all. You are right. It comes from a lack of music education. In order to write a good piece of music, one must consider the melody, rhythm, harmony (melody is the most important of the three). With no education, you have to reinvent the wheel every time you try to create music. This drastically decreases the odds that you will create something worth listening to.
The best piece of advice that I can give to young performers is to not try to impress guitar players. That is easy to do. Instead, impress the guitar players wife. If you can do that it means that you are playing good music instead of just good technique.
I would also like to point out that it is not just the “alt” technique guys who fall into the “show off” trap. That being said, I can’t stand to listen to most of the overly percussive players. It’s not pleasant music and most of it is outright irritating. As someone who makes their living playing many of these styles that you are referring to, I can say with some authority that technique without melody is useless for selling concert tickets. If you want someone to pay $30 to watch your concert, you can’t play open string 8th note hammer on and pull off patterns all night and try to dress it up with drumming sounds squeezed in where ever you can. Be better than that OR keep “performing” at Starbucks.
Keep it up, Adam.
Rhett, you hit it on the head, thanks for commenting! – AR
Thanks for this Adam.
Very very helpful.
Yep, all the great songs you can either whistle, hum, or sing. Simple concept. Not necessarily easy to implement. Thanks for sharing all your stuff, Adam.
Bruce Fulton says
Is the gamelan music? Give it a listen at youtube vid /watch?v=sZZTfu4jWcI Lots of hammering, tapping, rhythms and such but very little melody that I can pull out. But for millions of Indonesians, this is music of the highest form.
The advice here is practical if one aspires to play western popular music or entertain listeners with a cultural preference for it. You have to know yourself and your audience. But this is a cultural bias, not a musical one, and make no mistake it is a bias.
Joey Pavone says
You are right, universalizing a certain particular understanding of music, results in excluding other possibilities.
I think Adam’s heart is in the right place in wanting to help developing guitarists who might not recognize the hierarchy that privileges melody over all else in most genres of music popular in the U.S.A, Where you have an audience used to certain conventions that prioritize melody, and it is your goal to keep them comin’ and payin’, then you probably should offer something that accords with their musical sensibility.
However it depends what your goals are in playing music, whether it is musical masturbation or impressing girls, or if you want to imitate the beauty of wind chimes. I hate to see ideas about what music and the guitar could or should be confined and people or cultures made to feel inadequate for exploring other approaches. There is a lot called music around the world that doesn’t prioritize melody.
Since starting to play music, I have found it strange when people talk about melodies in isolation as beautiful or the “most beautiful ever”, because it seems to me that the contextual harmonies and how the melodic line relates to this harmonic context is what seems to make a melody beautiful. Why the need to fetishize one aspect of music as more important than others?
And my answer for today is: the pressure to make $ from 🎼
Fidenciara Orb says
The melody is the heart, it ‘pumps’ blood into all other parts of a piece. It breathes life to it.
From pure experience of a non-musician who: plays for relaxation and enjoyment, tackles a piece in a life time (some of you can relate to me), focuses a lot on the melody (because this is life giving) and take parts which are easier to tackle (intro is the last if it’s difficult)…
…because there’s enough immersion on the melody ‘it gets into you’…as the fingers breezes in the keys- you become one with it…play it suave and svelte, almost with flair of a lounge artist… give it a try!
Mark K Birmingham says
I’ve been playing since the early 60’s when all the acoustic and most electric player both professional and semi-professional (us) were interested in folks humming the tune after the camp fire or church revival. The true core of a musician is to play the tune as well as you can and your reward is the people remembering the song not you. The song remains the and away should be the important goal. FLASH comes and goes but the song remains teser.
Thanks Adam for pointing out the importance of the melody
Nick Nichols says
What about us folks that can’t sing? I can’t carry a tune in a bucket and I was told that if I took up guitar I would have to sing along. But even I can’t stand my own singing. I guess that’s why when I play a song just using cords and strumming it sounds like garbage. At 72 years old I really want to learn how to play but it’s not looking good.
Nick Nichols says
What about us folks that can’t sing? I can’t carry a tune in a bucket and I was told that if I took up guitar I would have to sing along. But even I can’t stand my own singing. I guess that’s why when I play a song just using cords and strumming it sounds like garbage. At 72 years old I really want to learn how to play but it’s not looking good.
Michael Miller says
I ‘m the same . dump the chords and start working on the melody line. Once you have that down, start adding whole or partial chords at the appropriate intervals of the song. You must use your fingers and not a pick. Start with an easy song like “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. You will find how easy it can be. Pick (with your fingers) an easy melody out on the B and high E string. Pick which chords are relevant to that key. Add those chords in while playing the melody. Start simple. The chords will become your base notes.
Rich Nash says
I agree with you 100%. People ask me why I don’t write a “song”. I tell them I can’t come up with a melody.
Couldn’t agree more. What you say applies to any kind of showing of of technique on the guitar or any other instrument. The other obvious example in the guitar world is playing as many notes as possible as fast as possible. Why do people do it? It has nothing to do with music, just ego!
As with other techniques on guitar (harmonics, brushing, bending etc) tapping is a nice effect. But I don’t enjoy listening to the same technique throughout a song or used in several songs in a set. Need melody, harmony, and variation of volume, sounds and techniques.
Those tapping guys should try drums..;)
Oscar Méndez says
Man i totally agree with you, i would like to invite to listen my album and tell me about your opinion or what i have to do to improve. Thanks!
Thanks Oscar – will check.
Misha Sakharoff says
I totally agree, Adam! It’s nice when the balance between bass/drum, chords and melody are perfect – like in a GOOD jazz trio or quartet 😉
Bryan Harrell says
I totally agree Adam. I had the chance to talk to Tommy E this week and we discussed the importance of melody and to quote TE “it’s everything”. When you break it all down music is three things. Melody, harmony and rhythm. Everything in our society today has been dumbed down, watered down or homogenized. We used to be about quality over quantity. That has been reversed to a certain extent. It’s hard to write a great melody. Without melody you can’t have harmony so that just leaves us rhythm. When I hear someone start doing a tap marathon on the guitar I just can’t take much of it. And technically. it’s not music. Sorry, but that is the truth. Musicians need to think like great chefs and use seasoning sparingly.
Rob Curtis says
Your comments regarding the current tapping fad are completely on the mark. The human voice is the first instrument. We use it to sing or hum a melody. No matter what instrument you play, you strive to attain a vocal quality. Every thing else,( rhythm , harmony, counterpoint ) are essential, supportive elements to this fact. .I don’t think anybody ever set up a drum kit in their child’s room to lullabye them to sleep, or tried soothing the kid with a fingerboard tap solo. I guess, in the” interest of science”‘ you could try it , but don’t complain if you get arrested for reckless endangerment. I was fortunate to hear the Chicago Symphony perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony the other night and I don’t recall a single person singing or trying to replicate the tympani part, as they exited orchestra hall. We all drawn to and relate to the voice at a core human level , whether it’s Beethoven, Robert Plant or Ella Fitzgerald.
On a different issue, Adam, I truly enjoy your arrangements. Keep on spreading the word. Best, .R.C.
Rob, thank you!
Larry G says
Music that is not especially melodic can still be interesting (think Blues, bluegrass, Raga, funk, etc., etc.); and that might include solo instrumental acoustic guitar music that involves tapping. (I used to enjoy Michael Hedges’ approach, for example.) However, just like so-called “shredding” on electric guitar, any form of instrumental music, the intent of which is merely to show off technique (whether that be fancy percussive tapping or facility with a plectrum), will – after the initial oohs and ahhs – bore listeners quickly.
That said, I have always been a lover of melody (a tune one can whistle, even), and I appreciated your article Adam. I would agree that melodic playing is an under-valued skill in our time. I listen to a great deal of contemporary music (many genres), and often find myself wondering “Where has melody gone?”
Melody is the hardest part, which is why people avoid it! Thanks Larry!
Dale Thomas Rates says
What a great topic, thread and reply. Yes, I get lost in throwing sound and technique around, but it does always come down to the song! (I’m reminded of Cris Rock’s joke about how rappers better start writing love songs ’cause “ya’ll gonna look really silly in the rest home!” 🙂
For me, it always helps to go back and lend an ear to someone who showed that melodies can be easy if we don’t over-think the process, and just flow from the heart. This cat made it seem easy for sure!
I am with you 100% on this topic Adam, the melody is paramount everything else is an embelishment some of it very good to listen to some detracting from the musicality of the piece.
Joe O'Connor says
Adam, I couldn’t agree with you more. When I think of my favorite guitarists, I realized they are my favorites because they play music that is based on melody, not sound affects or gimmicks. Thanks for the strong opinion and the courage to voice it.
Melody rules Joe!
Matt Edwards-Smith says
I agree with your points of embellishments versus playing, but to write off songs without a repeatable melody is to write off many forms of music, avant garde jazz being one of them. Also 90% singing back with any accuracy is a big ask. I’m always surprised by how many people can’t carry a melody on their own. Where does your statement leave the long intro? At what point does a piece of music begin if it doesn’t open with the melody? I’m not saying you’re wrong though: there is a theory that to be a hit at the moment requires the singer to make an appearance within 5 to 10 second maximum from the beginning. As I heard it, it was because the listener engages with the human part of the performance and connects easier, but it might be that the listener is rejecting the non music performances.
Mark Crawford says
Discovering your music a couple of years ago is what got me fired up to try learning fingerste guitar. The thing that I love most about your playing is the fact that the melody is forefront in the music you choose to play. The first song I ever heard you play was “She’s Leaving” by the Beatles. I was floored by the music flowing from your fingertips. Please do not ever change your playing style or philosophy. I got a late start (I’m 61) at playing the guitar, but that will not stop me from trying. Adam, thanks for all the effort and countless hours you expend to bring us this beautiful music. God bless.
Tobias Sebastien says
I very much agree that music is melody! I had a discussion once with a friend, because I go even that far that melody is way more important then rhythm, I don’t want people to dance to music but to listen and feel. But the sad truth is, the majority of people want to dance, want to have rhythm, it’s hard to move people just with beautiful ballads. Thus I understand why people like those acoustic guitar effects without a real song underneath it – kept me from learning it yet, though I like it, but without a melody I feel like a fish without water, a bird without wings, a swan without my spouse.
Ruedi Huber says
I fully agree with everything you say.
But: an audience rarely notices mistakes in melody, but if you break the rythm the performence gets bad. I noticed this when playing rythm guitar in jazz bands.
And how do you explain the huge success of rap? Ok, for me that’s not really music, but I am an old man…
Thanks Ruedi. Rap is groove and rebellion, so for some it’s a way to break free of Mom & Dad 🙂
Jackson Kyle says
Hey Adam, very insightful post! Regardless of who agrees on what is irrelevant – what’s important is that it gets us thinking about it!!
I loved the analogy of watching a box office smash movie with no story line. I must remember that! The basic outline of a storyline and the basic makeup of a melody come from that same effortless place within. All the hard work put in is to build a structure around the beautiful melody.
You know what the real challenge is though – making those amazing tunes where the melody isn’t so straightforward in your face or obvious like a singular traditionally melodic “sung line”, but more-so is IMPLIED within the layers of instrumentation through the process of composing, and yet still manages to cut through to your emotive side, leaving that amazing lasting melodic taste in your mouth. I can imagine that this is where a lot of these youtube players are trying to get to! Which may be what offends people in your article. Achieving a lasting melody within the confines of navigating through the maze of finger tapping definitely requires a decent amount of effort, practice and awareness of the big picture!!
I think all it really takes to achieve this is to not get too involved in the technique that you abandon the melody. If you can’t do it yet, practice more, then work on the song! So by all means delve into the way you want to express the idea (e.g a 2 hand tapping line over a series of chords) and then every now and again a RECHECK! See where you’re at! Go back into the head space where you first came up with the melody and try your tapping extravaganza then, see if your pretty decorations still make sense, they still have to have groove and melody! It all needs to be effortless!
I have this quote up on my wall by a violin teacher Kato Havas – “Playing is never difficult; it is either easy or it is impossible” and this article you’ve written really reinforces that so thanks a lot for this post Adam! Much appreciated! Keep on groovin’
Jackson thanks for the insighful comment. keep em coming!
Heinz Robens says
It´s in the nature of music to connect the listener to the soul of the composer and further to connect to the soul of the current artist. Singing is the most natural human expression of a substantiated musical idea. Therefore a guitar player has to give melody top priority. It is a great pleasure for the body making out the rhythm. Additional effects on the guitar increase the attractiveness of a piece of music.
I completely agree
Marlin Lofton says
Couldn’t agree more.
Thorsten Pontow says
what about “Twelve-tone technique / Serialism” by the composers of the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler and Arnold Schoenberg). Is it music? I don’t think you can answer the question “Can 90% of the audience sing the melody back? (Even the non musicians?)” with YES. And maybe the song is not the main event but the principle of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another. But i thing these pieces are music too. The composers mentioned above were looking for new ways.
On the other hand the melody is for me the soul of a fingerstyle guitar tune. When i heard your “Jill’s Song” for the first time i immedeatley wanted to learn it because of the melody.
Markus Neeb says
Agreed! Fully and contemplativly! 😉
Your article pinpoints the Problem with the “modern” fingerstyle approaches, that many talented guys out there are taking. And it makes me kinda sad, when after a concert someone from the audience comes to me just to tell me, that this one song with this boom boom boom and ticka ticka ticka was his favourite. Not because of the tune, but because of the style. 🙁
I have played both guitar and percussion, and I appreciate clever melodies as well as clever rhythms. When it comes to percussive guitar technique and effects, it’s like everything else: some do it well; others not so well. I have seen guitarists (names withheld) use non-melodic techniques to extents that range from tasteful to headache-inducing. I have also seen guitarists (me, as one example) play strictly melodies that were totally boring due to lack of any other flair in the playing technique. Both melodic and percussive styles of guitar-playing can be awesome … or not. Shall we argue about what constitutes good taste? Please, no.
I have an open mind, and I love a good melody. I even PREFER a good melody over tapping, etc. But, to imply that a guitar piece is not music because it doesn’t have a melody is like saying that a Jackson Pollock painting is not art because it doesn’t have a recognizable image. [Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Pollock, but I can’t say he wasn’t an artist]
Well JIm, one or two pieces like a specialty are cool, but would you want to spend a 2 hour concert with no melody? 🙂 AR
I agree with u Adam that its not the special sound effect that connects to one’s soul but the melody that flows making music memorable….cheers!
I totally agree. I have been listening to the latest Tommy Emmanuel album and I find myself humming the tunes. I realized after reading this article why his one the best in the world. He knows when to incorporate these elements of guitar playing without losing the melody. It all fits together.
Thanks Shawn, yep TE is awesome! AR
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that …. oh yea …..swing…..
I agree with you. But sometimes with evolution, newer, fun, dare I say innovative, techniques get overused, especially by the less trained. Then they can become hollow, vapid, and dated. This is the case with many flash in the pan guitarists. Hopefully, some go on to actually learn to play some melody and compose memorable songs.
But to be fair, drumming probably came first. And it ain’t that bad to start a music literacy journey with some rhythmic banging around.
There’s lots and lots of great music out there without conventional melody, harmony, etc.
Whenever I get too cranky about that bangy stuff, I remember that I am over 55 so….. yea…
I have played at guitar festivals where the “headliner” (s) have been more guitar drummers than songsmiths. But hey, whatever floats your canoe.
Thanks for commenting Dave!
I believe this is why Tommy Emmanuel’s music (or guitar performances) are so beloved.
His mantra is also “melody, melody, melody”. He plays the melody line as if it were a singer.
Of course he not only pushes melody but backs himself up with rhythm, bass and percussion accompaniment – all at the same time! But he is a master. As our you, Adam! Thanks.
Timothy Barr says
Adam, Thank you for posting this.
Thank you Tim!
I think you are completely right, most of the young guitar players should be drummers no guitarists ! Songs completely without any melody sound nearly similar. This players cannot interprete any normal song withour these effects. These effects (slapping, hitting …) are overated in youtube.
I can’t agree with your friend that this is a ‘career-limiting’ post. In fact, when I see how much thoughtful response it generated, I wonder if it isn’t time to re-post it!
Jeffrey Davis says
I want to first just say your performances and your DVDs & sheet music are fantastic! Thanks so much for all eight Stevie Wonder arrangements! I bought both DVDs.
I get you emails about blog posts as well and I try to read them as they come in. This one struck a chord with me so to speak…. 🙂
I am a student of music from an early age but I studied physics in college. However, I have also taken up classical guitar though I do love fingerstyle as done by you and others (Laurence Juber, Tommy Emmanuel, etc.). Also, David Cullen is a guitarist that does bridge that “classical technique” and funky style quite nicely.
That said, I felt compelled to weigh in on this debate.
The fundamental question of this post is: “What is music?”
Music is incredibly broad. Much of what can legitimately be called “music” in one culture is often viewed as noise in another. Good examples are throat music from Tannu Tuva and purely percussive music as from Stomp: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZ7aYQtIldg .
Is several people banging brooms on the floor music? Absolutely. Does it have a melody? Well…
I think the best analysis of music I have learned is from Dr. Robert Greenberg who used to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory and is now Music Historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances. Dr. Greenberg talks about music as simply: “Sound in time” without any additional qualifiers. Though the piece will invariably have a “Theme” that theme does not necessarily have to be a melody.
Claude Debussy is one of the most innovative and influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and much of his music didn’t have a “melody” per se. But the pieces did have a theme. However, that theme was often musical timbre and not melody. His
Nuages from Nocturnes is a classic example of instrumental timbre as theme and not melody.
Getting back to guitar, even though using lots of fancy techniques just for the sake of showing your fancy techniques can still be considered music, if those techniques are not tied together in a larger “theme”, then it really will seem a disjointed mess.
So, in my opinion, you can make music without starting from a melody but you must know your audience in a performance context. If they are expecting (and possibly paying) to hear songs that they can sing along to, then you should honor that. But if they are fine with hearing and seeing a display of virtuoso techniques that you might not be able to sing with, then Ok – it’s still “music.”
Thansk Jeff for this epic and thoughtful comment!
To people who can’t sing, instrumental is music. But personally, if the instrument can project a “melody” then, to me that is music.
Leo – any instrument even drums – can play a melody! AR
Good song needs few chords and good melody
here is one 🙂
Will check it out! Thanks Robert.
A great post Adam (PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE IT)! I agree with you 100%.
Adrian Foster says
Agree completely. Any instrument can (conceivably) play a tune. But there’s something transcendent that only seems to arise from a thing with a tune at, or close to the heart. All the other stuff adds significance, and excitement, but never really works if it’s the focus. The potentially transcendent and critical quality is increasingly missing. (Potentially=not every song works for everyone)
In fact, some technically extraordinary musicians now build a large part of their performance on being a circus act of extraordinary physical attainments in speed, complex rhythm and coordination, and some are wonderful and extraordinary people. But it’s not music.
thank you for this information this helps me a lot
Scott Buchanan says
Adam, I’ve played guitar for 40 years now. Through that journey I’ve learned a lot of cool, fun, flashy things and techniques. I’ve studied different styles, learned theory, and continue to take lessons from awesome musicians of all sorts…and I couldn’t agree with you more. Flash, technique, and tricks all have their place, and it can be a lot of fun. However for me, great music has a melody. It doesn’t have to be formulaic, and it doesn’t have to have strict or predictable structure. It can flow, be unpredictable, have some flash, and still have a great and lasting melody that sticks in my soul for days. My belief is if a melody or song triggers an emotion in me, positive or negative, then the composer and/or performer has given me a small piece of who they are. Sometimes the emotion will be so strong that it evokes some kind of musical response in my own music. All that being said, I’ll end with this. One of the most beautiful and sorrowful melodies I’ve ever heard is the theme song and music for the movie Schindler’s List. If there was ever an example of a memorable melody, that would be it. Play on everyone.
Adam Rafferty says
Thanks for the lovely comment Scott!
Hi Adam, melody is king, that’s it
Just a thought on the tapping percussive guys. When it is done well it is impressive from a technical point of view. I once saw Jon Gomes on an early morning tv show but he could not plug in his guitar and I think that says it all. No electric, no good.
Also I think no matter how good a guitar player is it is very difficult to hold the attention of an audience for an extended period of time if there is not variety and by this I mean singing songs. I feel that after an hour of listening to a guitarist, if there is no variety then it becomes monotonous. This is possibly controversial but I firmly believe it. One of my favourite guitarists is Martin Simpson. For me he has it nailed. Also I’ll bet whenever you play live you get more attention from the audience when you play a slow number than a fast one. Melody is always going to be what make people listen.
I believe the percussive elements must serve the song. They’re the icing on the cake.
I’ve never sought to play pieces that are very heavily dependent on percussion. Melody takes predominance, and while I may not be able to actually (and accurately) sing the melody, it should leave an imprint on one’s memory. When I was in my teens and discovered the playing of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, the first things that got to me were the beauty of the tone and melody and also the syncopation in some of their tunes. In discovering Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Howard Roberts, and other jazz guitarists it was the melody lines they improvised, as well as the chord melodies. Wes’ improvisations on ‘Chim chim-erie’, ‘Naptown Blues’ (from the ‘Going out of my head’ LP) were imprinted in my mind from the get go. The same with many of Kenny’s improvisations.
One of the main challenges of playing fingerstyle is to keep the melody alive and vital while all the other stuff is going on.
Les Hacker says
Hello Adam, I liked what you said im 65 years old and have played music all of my life. when you really get down what is the one unique thing that makes a song a song? The melody! You can add all kinds of bass notes and rythms but Amazing Grace is is unique because of the melody. Thanks Les
H. Scott Peck says
Hi Adam, I couldn’t agree more. That style is completely boring. To quote John Lennon, “it’s Muzak to my ears!” Some flash in the middle of a song is great. The true geniuses like Tommy Emanuel (and you of course) know how to integrate that without losing the melody.