I was invited to accompany a very talented musician - playing harmony on my guitar. That's what I like to do - to fill in the spaces in the melody. To add some depth, some height, some overtones, some undertones, to join the flow of the music with my own flow.
It's a delicate balance - it's a trip. To be there in the moment - fully present, listening. Sometimes to follow, sometimes to lead - while remaining there, side by side - separate, connected. To feel when it's time to step back and let the other shine, or when it's time to break out in a solo. To give solid backing in the rhythm - to give support and lift. To find thehigh notes that make the melody soar - the bass line that keeps its feet close to the Earth.
If you play music with people, you’ll know what I'm talking aboutand the feeling it gives when it works right. This is what Mozart famously called ' getting into the groove ' - or maybe it was someone else who said that. But that's what it's all about.
In any good musical performance there's always a certain amount of tension. There has to be for it to work. Unless you want to make elevator music, or music to put people to sleep.
A certain level of tension is good for the music and necessary - especially in a live performance. You want to feel that the players are alive - that the people making the music are human beings, like yourself, also capable of making mistakes. Thereneeds to be an element of risk. This is something that allows the listener to connect with the music, to be humanised and uplifted by it.
But too much tension and being present at such a performance becomes an uncomfortable experience. Are they trying too hard? Is the tune stuck? How will they get out of this groove - this rut? How is this ordeal going to end - and when?
Too much tension - or the wrong sort - creates stress. This is what we don't want or need. God knows, there's enough stress in our own daily lives without having to listen to stressful music.
The principles of tension vs stress are fundamental to making guitars. In order to build a good guitar, the maker needs to be able to predict how the wood will behave and react to changing conditions. To understand where are the lines of tension within the wood - what is their direction, where are the points of weakness and of strength. How the wood will expand and contract depending on how much water is in the air at any moment. How the structure as a whole will respond over the long passage of time, to the constant pull of the strings as well as how it will respond to their vibrations.
The job of the guitar maker - the fundamental work involving the most skill, experience and intuition - is in judging how much tension to build into the structure of the guitar. There needs to be a certain amount or it just wouldn’t work. If the soundboard was not braced and thicknessed with enough tension to counterbalance and spread the tension of the strings, it would collapse due to the stress. If the body of the guitar didn’t have a certain level of rigidity, it would fall apart in no time. But too much tension would cause stress - and this we do not want. And sometimes it's a very fine line.
Too much stress and the guitar wouldn’t respond to the player's touch. It would sound blocked. It wouldn't open up to reveal it's full potential. It would be like those guards outside Buckingham palace - stiff and immovable. Or like a neurotic person - doing its best to appear normal on the outside while inwardly tearing itself apart with too much stress.
So, in short - in music, in making guitars and also in life - a certain amount of tension is good and necessary, but it's also important to eliminate stress.
When the musicians really know and trust each other - when they know and feel the music, deep down - how it flows, when it's about to change - the scales and patterns and underlying rhythms that make it what it is -then they can relax, forget themselves - let the music go where it will and take everyone to a higher place.
Likewise, when the guitar maker really understands the materials and how to work with them to bring out their full musical potential, that's when s/he can relax into the work of making great guitars without having to think so very hard or worry about the outcome.
That's basically, essentially what it's all about. The art of creation. At least a big part of it - yet it must always involve the knowledge that all is not yet known. There is always mystery and there will always be more to learn. Inevitably and necessarily, mistakes will need to be made. No matter how high you get, risks will need to be taken in order to get higher still - and there are always higher levels to be reached.