Silence vs. Playing


This is a really important subject, which when fully understood and applied,  can turn you from being an average guitarist into a great player. Imagine trying this simple idea on your next gig, do you think it will lead to better gigs? More work? better venues? I believe so.


So, do you want to know how to take a step up in your abilities?


If you do, you’re in the right place! You see, knowing when NOT to play is just as important as playing, it’s just as critical as playing in tune or having a great feel and timing.  Yet so many miss it – skip past it.


It is like most guitarists have verbal diarrhoea – scrap that! Most musician act like they have verbal diarrhoea – they can’t seem to play enough notes per beat. Yet alone a bar!  Let’s play more and more!



Music is a conversation

Music is designed to be like have a two way conversation, you have to participate in both ways – listening and talking. I’m sure you’ve been in “conversation” with a person who just wouldn’t shut up? Right? It’s really annoying. Plus that’s how you will remember that person – bad first impression?!


Well that’s what you’re doing when you playing all the time. It’s like you’re doing the talking for the both of us and not giving space for the other person to collect their thoughts or even speak.



With that in mind, why don’t you listen more? Why do you do all the talking?



Both are important questions that only you can answer.



Let silence happen

So what are some ways to stop “talking”?


Firstly, think about how the shape of the song would look if drawn out, are you adding something or taking away from the song? Are you building the song or your ego? Remember, the song is king.



Another way is, holding back (sitting on your hands – so to speak). You could hold off from playing until you really have to play. If it’s a slow song, try to hold off until the second verse – then find something small to play, which adds to the song.


How about this, if the song is based around a riff, then just play that and try to lock in with the other guitarist or the bassist. Make it sound like there’s only one of you – just they have been turned up to 11 (any one for spinal tap?).


Next, we could try and find a part that’s there but not there.



Find a meaningful guitar part

I’ll explain, sometimes it’s best to break what you’re playing down to triads and find chord inversions of all the chords which sit close to each other, the best string set for this is the 4th, 3rd and 2nd strings. Firstly it will cut down your movement and will make you have a thin sound. You’ll be there but not noticeable. This is a great skill to have and use, especially when playing with multiple guitarists or keyboard players (they usually hog a lot of the sound space! Hey, show ‘em this article!).


Another way to be small is to really try to lock with the hi-hat and play 8th notes (or whatever the drummer is playing on the hi-hat) and just play the root notes, much like the bass player – usually just twice as many notes. Focus on getting the timing right so that you disappear into the background. You can try sticking to the 6th string and just slide up and down, or maybe try to find the root notes over the two middle strings. This works greats for verses with full chords for the choruses.



Next up, Try to pick two notes on the middle two strings that outline the chord and just try to move one note per new chord. You’ll need to understand your theory and harmony or know your triads – [hint you could play triads without the top note]. You could try picking the two notes in a simple pattern or finding a simple rhythm that complements what the drummer is playing so that the two of you, become one bigger sound. You could try a mixture of picking and strumming. So many options with this!



Or, make your playing noticeable

You could go the other way; make it noticeable when you do play. If you’re trying to build the choruses, then just play in that section – make it loud.


If you’re playing the “hook” or “tag” or “theme” of the song (or whatever you call it), then it could be worth dropping out when you’re not playing or go back to just playing on the first beat of each chord change – you’ll be loud and obvious when you need to be and then provide support when the hook is over and you’re into the next section – the best of both worlds.


One more way, think in terms of painting. Are you trying to paint big broad strokes or small details? You don’t need a big brush to fill in the small details.  Think also in terms of shade and light.  There might be times when you will want to shine bright and other times where you’re happy to just be there in the shade, playing.


Always think, am I adding something positive here or not? If you took me away, would a vital part of the song be missing? If you answer no to either it could be time to reconsider how much you are playing and stop playing so much.


You see there are many ways to play less; the most important of them is to think.



Record and analyse

A way to really think is to record a practice session or a live gig, and ask yourself are you really adding something? Do you need to stop? Could you find a part that is smaller and less obvious? Is there central riff in the song I could play that would support the section better?



I know I’ve given you a few different ways to arrange how you play better but I bet if you think, listen and work hard, you’ll play better and people will notice it. This all will take some time and effort but the reward will be huge – you’ll take a giant step up in your skill level. Surely that’s worth the effort?


  • Tiare says:

    Aloha, Ashley! I just found your site and had to commend and thank you for this great resource.

    As a busy mom, I don’t have time to attend formal music classes like I did growing up. But as a dabbling musician, I like to steadily improve – or at least maintain – my talents. I think your books will be a big help.

    Thanks again!

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