Welcome to the second week of my guitar curation series — a free weekly email that delivers you the most interesting, valuable, actionable and even unconventional pieces of guitar content on the Internet. I show you how you can apply nuggets of wisdom from the pros. You soak it in and become a better guitarist and musician. Sounds pretty good, right?
This week, I have a clip from the most famous guitarist you’ve probably never heard of – Tommy Tedesco.
The clip you’re about to see might help solve a common problem – not knowing what to play when someone asks you to pick up the guitar and “just play something”.
How many times have you been challenged to unexpectedly play in front of people hoping that they’ll be impressed with your ability to play guitar? How many of you have clammed up and stammered as you try to figure out what to play in front of your friends, family or fellow musicians? You roll through the cobwebs of your mental song library and try to pull off something that’ll impress. You fall short and wank your way through a rough rendition of a riff you don’t 100% remember.
I can’t count the number of occasions where I felt caught off guard and disappointed in myself because I was too concerned with how my playing would be perceived.
If you’ve ever experienced this, Tommy’s clip should help you get over that mental barrier and set yourself up for success in any situation.
But who the hell is Tommy Tedesco?
Unless you’re an extensive scholar of 1960s-era album liner notes, my guess is that Tedesco’s name doesn’t ring a bell, which is funny considering Tommy has the distinction of being one of the most recorded guitar players of all time (as described by Guitar Player magazine).
You may have heard of The Wrecking Crew, which was a group of studio musicians who played on a stupid amount of the hit records in the 1960s – some Beach Boys, my boy Herb Alpert, Franks Zappa and Sinatra, and Elvis Presley to name a few. Pick any movie or TV theme song and Tommy was likely on it. Insiders knew him as one of the best studio musicians of that era.
Needless to say, the guy has some great insights to share with fellow musicians and guitarists.
The video below comes from a seminar that Tommy did at the Musician’s Institute shortly before he died in 1997. If you have the time and energy to sit through the entire thing, go for it, but the part I want to talk about is from the beginning to about 4:10 into the video.
HA! The “Latin Specialist”.
Look past his thick Italian humor and you’ll find that there’s something inherently useful about his approach to repurposing material and achieving the right musical “effect” for the situation.
On the surface, it’s apparent that a player can get a lot of mileage out of one lick or musical idea. Tommy reused his Spanish-sounding theme to satisfy many record producers and composers in who wanted a Latin flavor – hence the Mexican, Puerto Rican and “Bolivian revolt” music. The producers were none the wiser, not realizing how many times he repurposed this theme.
There’s nothing wrong with repurposing material. If you have a lick that sounds great and you want to reuse it in a jam and in an original song – exploit the hell out of it. Most people won’t realize it.
But let’s go a step deeper, because I find this anecdote fascinating in terms of what people expect out of a piece of music.
Often, people want music to be a complementary TEXTURE; they don’t care exactly what you’re playing – they care about the effect that it creates. For example, a classical guitarist will get hired for a wedding not because he’s able to play extremely hard virtuosic repertoire, but rather, because he adds a nice, calming, pretty effect that complements the mood of the ceremony..
I guess the lesson here is – nobody really cares about what you play as long as it achieves the effect that they want.
I’m sure musicologists would roll their eyes at how elementary and bastardized his Spanish-sounding lick was (especially his “DiVincenzo flamenco”), but for the context of those sessions, Tommy achieved the desired effect – producers were happy, he gets paid – all good things.
How to Apply These Ideas to Your Playing
Next time you’re asked to play in front of people, don’t let your mind go in the direction of “Gee, I hope I can impress them with my guitar skillz”. Instead, consider what the vibe in the room is like and the situation you’re in. Can you get away with playing something really simple that will please your audience?
Why not develop and practice a little musical theme that can be applied to certain occasions ahead of time? That way, the next time someone asks you to “play something”, you can confidently bust out your little tune and satisfy your listeners’ earballs.
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