Last weekend I enjoyed playing a few songs with one of my favourite guitar players, David Broad. David has been playing fingerpicking guitar all over the country (and beyond) for as long as I can remember—an extremely skilled and experienced musician.
We recorded a couple of videos. The first is a take on the Sonny Boy I side Another Half Pint (aka Sloppy Drunk). The second is David’s very chill arrangement of the eight-bar classic Sittin’ On Top Of The World.
Often when I’m working with people I find that they are overly severe in their own estimation of their playing. We are all our own harshest critics. Unfortunately, focusing on the flaws in your playing prevents you from appreciating all the things you’re doing well. This can lead to frustration and a feeling you’re not progressing.
I’ve got an unpleasant truth to tell you. It never goes away. No matter how many thousands of hours you spend practising, no matter how many gigs you’ve played, no matter how good people say you are, you’re never going to quite believe it. You’ll always want to do more.
It’s the curse of creative people. It’s not all bad though, you just need to learn how to deal with it. So, as I quite like pulling back the curtain on stuff like this (and am masochistic enough to expose myself this way), I thought it might be interesting if I did an honest criticism of my own playing on these clips.
How Do I Think I Did?
A Couple of overall notes to begin with.
Firstly. Both of these clips are in the key of A, and I’m playing in second position on a D harmonica. Instantly I’m off kilter, because of all the keys of harmonica I struggle with D the most. I have no idea why. Maybe just the peculiarities of my mouth and the reeds on a D harp? I dunno, I’ve always found them a struggle.
In terms of preparation, David and I have played briefly together in the past, and we enjoyed an evening late last year knocking some tunes out in his shed. Other than that – and having decided the songs beforehand – these were unrehearsed. Half Pint is a first take, and Sittin’ On Top is a second take.
David’s skill and experience make him a very confident player with a good solid rhythm. This is great. Accompanying is far easier, and more fun, with a reliable partner. Good players push you further and give you the confidence to be a little daring.
Enough waffle, here are the videos. The first is Another Half Pint. This one is over on David’s YouTube channel.
I’m trying to do a Sonny Boy I kind of thing but not trying to emulate him. The harmonica sounds okay. Like I say, me and D don’t get on, and I wish it was a little fuller and raspier. I did a little playing on a D in preparation but not near enough. Getting to grips with D harps is high on my list of things to work on.
Speaking of tone, I do look a little tense, and that won’t be helping at all. Also, I’m spending way too much time with my right hand close to the harmonica. I would have projected more strongly if I kept it out of the way a bit more. It’s also lacking in dynamics. I did a decent job of staying out of the way of David’s vocals though, and playing sparingly, trying to compliment rather than overwhelm during his solo at the end. Some of those bends though – yikes they’re out of tune!
The licks I’m coming up with are a little uninspiring. While I was playing there were a couple more of his licks coming to me and I couldn’t quite get them out, so it’s largely just me messing about. If we were to do a proper recording of this I’d definitely study up on John Lee a little more beforehand.
But to finish on a positive. I think it’s pretty good. I did get some Sonny in there, and there’s an overall energy (probably from performance anxiety) that probably beats out any technical quibbles.
I’m more at home here. I’ve been playing this tune – albeit a different version – with The High Hollers for many years. This is an eight-bar blues, and they tend to be a bit more melodic and lyrical than a typical twelve-bar. That gives me the chance to “play pretty”.
I’m definitely playing more dynamically and am more daring in my interaction with the vocals, often playing the vocal melody softly behind David’s vocal on the repeated line.
I think the solo starting around 3:13 works well, with the contrasting harshness at the start giving way to sweeter melodic playing towards the end. Not as bothered by the sound of the D harp on this either. Perhaps having already got one in the bag I loosened up a bit.
Still less accuracy in some of the bending than I’d like, but overall I think I play a lot better on this take than on the first.
To be honest, considering the minimal preparation I think we both did quite well. David’s skill at performing, as well as his communication during the performances themselves, were incredibly helpful, and they cast me in a better light than might otherwise be the case. I’m keenly aware of my lack of preparation on the Sonny Boy tune probably held me back a little, and that illustrates just how important prior practice is.
Improvising is hard. But it’s fun too, and incredibly rewarding. Scrutinising my playing has highlighted areas I need to work on and given me the satisfaction of giving a decent account of myself in a new setting. Cheers Dave!