John Knowles a Friendly Master of the Guitar - Ben Knorr
March 15, 2015
This past week I had the pleasure of meeting and working with John Knowles. I had high expectations knowing that he had worked with arguably the biggest names in FingerStyle Guitar: Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Lenny Breau, and Tommy Emmanuel. Regardless of my expectations I was not prepared for the amount of wisdom and advice that was about to come.
I met him on Tuesday. In my private lesson, after a brief introduction and chat about Lenny Breau, I played him my solo guitar arrangment of 'All the Things You Are'. After I finished he said: “If you could think about what you just did and to some extent you’re satisfied, some extent you are not, if there is something you would say…. say all the stuff that is a little shaky started to go away and got right, what would get better or you would like to see resolved that you feel would elevate the performance. Sometimes one or two little things can elevate the rest of it because if there is one or two rough spots it will effect leading into it and coming out of it. Even though is it that big, (small hand gesture), it will end up sounding that big, (large hand gesture). If there is something in you just did that if you were going to do it again you would say 'I would do that better this time’? it’s a big question you know.” I thought it was a very interesting question because if everything I had planned worked out the way I had wanted it, I wonder would I want to change? I thought about it and at first I was about to say nothing, but then I realized that was the point. Instead of asking me what I could improve in the moment he was asking me what I would like to improve in the long scheme of things. This question should be very familiar to every musician because it forces them to continue to look forwards to chase ever growing goals.
I said I would like to improve my time feel, and melodic expression.
“Lets get time feel off the griddle for a second and see if you can play the tempo just a little slower, where the odds that you will get to everything on time will go up… Then the question is, how does the melody come out? Well there is two ways the melody gets lost: one is if it is not loud enough; that the other stuff over powers it. The other way is if the melody notes aren’t connected to each other, like a melody is, (lyrical constancy he later says). So what happens sometimes is a melody note gets lost because it is time to move to a chord”.
I played him the first section again and we worked with it.
“There’s a little trade off moment here, either you can get exactly the chord you want and the melody suffers, or you get the melody right and the chord has to be compromised. At that moment it’s like a choice…. do you remember the words to this thing?” I sheepishly admitted I did not, and he said “That will tell you right away what it is, because the way to make the melody sing, is to play it as if it is being sung. The lyrics are as good a guide as any. Depending on the natural rhythm of the words you will know if you have enough time to make a chord jump or not...What once was a stretch or a leap of desperation, becomes a gesture”. He later elaborated that it is also important to sing it because "you can use what you hear in your voice to help guide the melodic inflections in your playing". The concept of learning the lyrics, even if they are just being played as an instrumental, is something John stressed on multiple occasions during the week.
“Once you got those melody notes connected together you can hear now that everything else is serving the melody. Exactly as if you were in the rhythm section, and you had been hired to play with Ella Fitzgerald. The bill says “Ella Fitzgerald and rhythm section” not “Rhythm section, and ella fitzgerald”. To me being an artistic musician is to make choices that resolve anything that is getting in the way of the music reaching the listener. The listener is who has paid for parking, hired a baby sitter, asked somebody special, bought a ticket and has dressed all nice. [Music] is all they're there for. So they’re there to hear the song, and sometimes if its a sophisticated audience they want to hear hip changes too, but they still want to hear the song”.
“Even if now and then it means getting your almost-favorite-chord, it is worth is to the song”.
On the topic of arranging he made some very inspiring insights at his clinic on Thursday: “Playing arrangements should be like telling stories; you never memorize the words, only the story. If you have everything worked out it is great, even if you have techniques to fix mess ups, but then what happens when you get an idea? Loosen up the arrangement so instead of having a one-way path, you can allow for choices at the forks in the road. Sometimes in the story, depending on the audience, I elaborate more on the bartenders hat, but I never forget about the bartender”.
He got all the guitarists who had brought their guitars to play something for him. He was very kind, and never seemed to openly criticize any of us. He managed to find something unique in all of our arrangements to bring out and talk about. He admitted to being suspicious of commenting directly on compositions because “they are our babies”. In what ever you create don’t dismiss anything until you’ve perfected it because if you don’t know what it sounds like at its best, you have the potential to be throwing out a masterpiece. John talked about the arc of a piece and how it is important, but it shouldn’t be misleading. "Be surprising, but also predictable, not just one or the other”.
“If you can’t name what something is, (genre, technique, etc), you’re onto something”.
Being in John Knowles presence for even just a few days has inspired me and transformed the way I think about the guitar and music.
For more information about John Knowles visit his website at www.johnknowles.com