Perfect Imperfection

Perfect Imperfection

You have probably heard the saying “Practice makes perfect” and there is a element of truth to the cliche. If you practice something enough times you should be able to play it well consistently. But should "perfection" be the ultimate goal for music? 

Many great guitar players of old where not “perfect” players. If you listen to John Lennon’s (The Beatles) rhythm guitar parts, there is not much consistency and even the occasional “mistake” in his playing. But his playing and the songs are “perfect” in the sense that people still react to them emotionally and still enjoy them 50 years later. This is a perfect example of feel trumping perfection.

If music becomes too perfect it is often at the cost of feeling or emotional content. There is a reason why a lot of current pop music sounds generic. It’s not that everyone sounds alike (although some do), it more that they all sound “perfect.”

Much of modern music is “assembled” in the studio rather than performed as a band. Computers allow us to copy and paste music to assemble “perfect” tracks. Instruments are isolated or recorded separately, typically starting with drums and then adding instruments from there. You may play a rhythm guitar part several times while recording and then the engineer will pick the perfect riff or best four bars of the verse and chorus and then copy and paste them as needed to assemble the rhythm track. This makes the track “perfect” but also inhumanly precise and repetitive.

Vocals will be recorded multiple times and then will be “comped” or assembled on a phrase by phrase (or even word by word) basis. Comping a vocal is not a bad thing. Actually, it is a good thing. The vocal is the most important part of a song and you want a great performance throughout the song, but another step is often added now called auto-tuning. Auto-tune is software that corrects the pitch of the singer’s vocal. This might seem like a good thing, but it can take away the character of the vocal, and may sound unnatural. All in the name of “perfection.”

This desire for easy editing also requires musicians to play to a click track so that the tracks can be easily edited and assembled later. Playing to a click track can add a mechanical “feeling” of perfection to the track because it never varies. Or more accurately, it can remove any human feeling from the tempo. Experienced musicians can learn to play to a click track and add some feeling, but the tempo will never vary from its mechanical "perfection." The recordings of the 60‘s and 70‘s that people still love were not recorded to a click track. They often have slight “human” variations in tempo or “feel” dictated by the music and by humans playing together as a unit on the basic (rhythm) tracks. 

This standard of studio perfection can also affect live performance. People are not machines that can perform flawlessly every time, yet some bands try to achieve perfection by playing to a click track or pre-recorded backing tracks in a live setting, thereby removing any chance for band interaction, tempo variances, or improvisation. Which would risk the resulting “imperfection.” 

So what does this have to do with guitar playing? Well, if you want to play in a band with a hot new pop singer you will have to deal with this reality. Secondly, if you are starting your own band, you will probably be recording independently (paying for it yourself or crowdsourcing funds) and you will have the opportunity to buck this trend of unnatural perfection. Practice like crazy before you go into the studio, and if you are tight as a band (like any band recording should be) record the basic tracks as a unit to get a band feel. The recording engineer will probably discourage you from recording that way, but if you are paying, you are the boss. And don’t be afraid of a less then perfect performance if the feel is perfect. 

The bottom line is, you should strive to be the best guitar player you can be, and play at the highest level possible, but when playing remember that feeling is more important than perfection. People react to emotional performances. Perfect performances can be impressive yet still not connect with an audience. Do you want to be in a killer live band that connects with its audience or sound like a perfect karaoke track? Sometimes a little imperfection is perfect.

Spanish Sensation

Spanish Sensation

Space Monkeys

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