Was there a clear moment when you knew you wanted to play music for a living?
I don’t remember a particular moment… I just always knew that was what I wanted to do. Still, it was only in a vague way. It wasn’t any more focused than just playing guitar.
Even when I went to college I was fairly unfocused about the whole thing. It’s not like I was thinking about my future. It was a good thing to go to college, so I did. It took me three schools and seven years to get through but I did. This wasn’t exactly the career track plan… and I wound up majoring in history. I wasn’t even a music major, though I did take more classes in music than anything else.
So, how did I get started? There was a guitar lying around, I loved the music I heard on the radio, and I wanted to try to do it.
There was a lot of listening to records, trying to figure out the guitar parts, and it would literally be, “What’s the first note? Ok, I got that one.” Then I would pick up the needle, put it back, and listen again for the second note. Then I’d string them together the best I could. I wore out a lot of records and needles.
It probably would have been a lot easier for someone to show me how it went, but I didn’t do it that way.
Do you think you benefitted from all the extra effort — from learning the hard way?
I don’t know if it’s better or not… it would be presumptuous for me to say that. I guess everybody learns different ways, but I did have to work at it. I think it’s good for your ear and that’s probably unarguable. I can read music, so I can learn something that way, but I can also use my ear.
You’ve probably run across those people who ask if you play by ear or play by note. “Yes,” is the answer. If you know how to read music, does that mean you don’t have a good ear? It doesn’t mean that. They’re both useful.
And now you’re better prepared for any situation.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “I know how to read music, but not enough to hurt my playing.” That’s silly to me. If you’re letting reading music hurt your playing, then you’re a dummy. It’s just a tool.
There are great musicians who don’t improvise. I just learned the other day that Yo Yo Ma doesn’t improvise. He’s a brilliant cellist. He gets magic out of the instrument. But he doesn’t improvise at all. I was a little surprised by that, but it doesn’t make any difference. He’s still a great musician. If I had my choice, I like being able to improvise as well. Just more tools in your toolkit.
How has your approach to practice developed, or changed, over the years? How do you approach it now, as opposed to earlier in your career?
Well, I don’t think of it as practice anymore, so that’s one change. I just play, and that’s how I think of it now. In terms of going up and down scales… I haven’t done that in years. I probably should, but I haven’t. What I do is try to make progress on particular goals. A constant goal is writing. I’m always working on new material. If I’m not, then I’m just sitting down, noodling, waiting for something to strike — for new material to come. So I almost always have some musical goal that I’m working on.
When I sit down with a guitar in the morning, it’s to consolidate what I already know and try to move it further — to find the next part of the tune.
Here’s an example. This is a regular 6 string in standard tuning. I have a capo on the 5th fret, but I’m leaving the 6th string open. I’ve got this much…
(plays first part of what would become Vika’s Tune)
…I don’t have it much further than that. So I’m trying to do two things when I sit down. I’m trying to consolidate what I already have to get it in my fingers as much as possible and I’m trying to figure out where it wants to go. How do I finish this tune? What is it going to do? So that takes me off on all sorts of possibilities.
And I don’t want to just finish the tune. I want it to be right. I don’t want it to be predictable. I want it to be as fresh as possible. I want to bring my entire creative potential and whatever skills I have to make it as good as I can. And I know when I’m there. The tune will talk to me and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” Or it may say, “No, that’s a little too obvious. Don’t do that, dummy.”
And did you notice in that last tune… I was playing the bass part with my thumb, but it’s not an alternating bass line in the traditional sense. You get a rhythm out of it that’s a little syncopated. It’s more like a bass player. It’s musical and the melody’s right there. At the same time, I’m doing other things… like playing on both sides of the capo, which can be tricky.
Beyond that… I was a flatpicker once. I actually won the national championship years ago. It’s been a long time. I don’t play that way anymore… I can’t. The picking motion was killing my arm. I’d start to feel pain go up my arm and if I kept going, it would completely lock up. I couldn’t do a simple motion, much less the speed you need to properly flatpick.
I stopped playing that way, but I still love that music so I had to figure out a way to make it work. I try to make a bit of my practicing to keep that single note playing going. What I typically do is make the downstroke of the pick with my thumb. The upstroke is usually my middle finger. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there. It’s not as strong or dependable as a flatpick, but because I can’t flatpick… well, I guess in that way it is more dependable. It’s not exactly flatpicking but it’s close enough.
And you’re able to do some things that would be trickier with a pick.
Exactly. There’s a little bit of the benefit of fingerpicking in there as well. There are some things that would probably be a little harder with a flatpick.
That’s the only technique that I try to do on a regular basis that falls under the practice category, to go back to your original question.
I just don’t care about scales… how fast or cleanly I can play them. At one point, yes, I worried about that and I practiced that. Everybody has to go through some amount of discipline with things like that. I’ve taught a bunch of guitar lessons over the years. You’re running a school down there so you’re probably doing the 50-lesson-a-week kind of thing. I’ve done that. I didn’t have my own school, but I’ve had the 50-lesson-a-week thing. I started doing that in the 80’s. At the time, these teenage boys would come in and they all wanted to learn modes because they read in some magazine that it was cool to learn modes. And they wanted to play their modes really fast. Doing so, they completely lost sight of the music.
It got to the point where I’d say, “Guys, I can promise you’re never going to be in a situation where someone says, ‘Hey man, play me those modes. Those are awesome.’ They’re not going to do that. They’re going to want you to play a song. Learn songs. Use those other things as a means to an end — to play music.”
There’s discipline involved if you want to do something well. You need some of those things to strengthen your fingers and reinforce those patterns of movement. But ultimately, it all has to be in service of making music… especially if you’re thinking about making a living at it.
What projects are you currently working on?
First, let me tell you about the last project I did. Twenty-four years ago I recorded famous pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. I did it for what I called a guitar orchestra, which was really just me a bunch of times… electrics, acoustics, a bunch of stuff. That was twenty-four years ago and it turned out really well. I sold a bunch and it still gets some radio play.
But what I just put out in December is a double cd. I did the entire Nutcracker Ballet for guitar orchestra. Again it was just me… Les Paul, Stratocaster, Telecaster… 17 different guitars… acoustics and electrics. I sat there with a conductor’s score and put it all together. It took me two and a half years. The finished product is an hour and twenty minutes of music. It’s everything you hear the orchestra play. That was a huge project that just came out in December.
And then I blew my left hand out in December. That was part of this year too… getting my hand back. I’d never had anything like that happen before. I was shaking my hands to dry them off, flicking them outwards like you do. I guess I did it too hard. This finger shot off that way, painfully, and stayed. I pulled it back because I couldn’t believe what had just happened, but my finger went back over. The tendon that goes across the top slipped and was sitting in this valley, pulling the finger over. I had hand surgery on New Year’s Eve. How’s that for a musician? A guitar player’s dream come true.
So that was a big part of this year, just getting my hand back. I didn’t do my first show of the year until April 3rd. I don’t have my wedding ring on right now because I can’t get it on. My fingers are still swollen, but I can play. So anyway, that’s been a project… getting myself together.
The next actual musical projects are… I’m waiting for my main harp guitar to return from having some repairs done in California. As soon as that comes back, I’m going to start recording a new guitar cd. I have a bunch of new tunes that I’ve written and some arrangements that I want to record.
Another project… a couple years ago I started writing… well, I had back problems and wound up having surgery then, too. It wasn’t very comfortable to play guitar then, so I was basically doing music on my computer and wound up writing a bunch of music for piano and cello that I really like. That’s another project that I have underway. It’s classical music, but you’d like it. It’s very cool and very accessible. There’s a particular classical concert pianist who lives nearby. She says she’s interested in looking at it, so I’m waiting to hear back from her. If that works then there’s a possibility of getting this all done live. Otherwise I have software with very good Midi instruments that I could use. Either way, it will be a cd of piano and cello — my first cd of non-guitar music.
I could learn the piano parts myself, but I’d have to cut my fingernails, quit playing guitar, and practice a ton. That’s not really the point of it. The point is to create the music. I don’t really care if I’m the one who plays it.
[Since we spoke, Stephen has also recorded an album of Beatles arrangements to be released this year.]
You’ve done a lot in your musical career. What advice do you have for younger musicians?
Figure out, as best you can, what your musical goals actually are. And then make progress on these goals, checking once in a while to see if you’re making progress on them. Additionally, in the pursuit of making a living and reaching whatever goals you’ve set for yourself, don’t forget what it is that you love about music… those things that made it your life’s work in the first place.
For me, I try never to forget that magic I felt from music when I first consciously experienced it. I try to make that happen for others, as best I can. I’ve tried to earn the respect of my peers for my writing and playing. And always, of course, to earn enough money to live on. Can’t forget that!
When I had my hand injury 6 months ago and didn’t really know for sure that I’d be able to play again the way I’m used to playing, I was forced to think about all these things again. And I realized that if I couldn’t play anymore, I’d be ok. I’d miss playing, obviously, but I realized that I had done what I set out to do. I had achieved the respect of my peers.
Fortunately, as I said before, my hand did turn out ok and I’ve got a lot more playing and writing to do!
Playing music can be a challenge, but it can be a challenge to do anything in life. In terms of advice, play as well as you can. Be nice to everybody. Don’t be a jerk. What goes around comes around. Also, being in the right relationship makes all the difference. Realize that being a musician can be a hard way to make a living, but it can also be a great way to make a living. If it’s inside you, telling you that you have to do it, then you have to do it. Just make the music as good as you can and be as nice to people as you can. The rest will sort itself out.
Catch the first part of our conversation here.
For more about Stephen Bennett, check out his website http://www.harpguitar.com.