Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Art of Not Playing

When we hear our favorite musicians play, we love what we hear. But what, exactly are we hearing?

“Stupid question!” you say. “I’m hearing the notes being played!”

Yep, that’s true. But you’re also hearing the spaces between the notes. And many times, that exactly where the magic lies.

Think about it. If you’re a guitar player, your guitar is capable of making all the same notes your heroes are coaxing from their instruments. If you’re a mandolin player, your mando has the same notes that Bill Monroe or David Grisman has in their mandolins, too.

“But they play them faster!”, you exclaim.

In a lot of cases, that’s true. But not everything they play is fast. Chances are pretty good that, with some practice, you can learn some of their stuff note by note. Will it sound the same as the Big Guys? Probably not. Why not?

The quick easy answer is, you’re playing on your mandolin or guitar, and the people onthe record are playing on their vintage pre-war D18s or their Lloyd Loars.

“Not fair!” you howl.

Everyone sounds good on those priceless vintage instruments, right?

Have you ever heard someone really, really good play on a cheap instrument? It STILL sounds good. Many times, I have despaired at the quality of an instrument of mine, and then someone much better than me picked it up, and lo and behold – the problem was not the instrument. It was me.

So, what are the Big Dogs doing better than the rest of us? What’s the secret?

There’s a few things that set the highly skilled musicians from us wannabes:

The best musicians have a rock-solid sense of rhythm. It persists whether they’re playing fast or slow. The frustrating thing about having a pretty good rhythm sense or a very good rhythm sense compared to a great rhythm sense is the subtlety of it. You now they sound better but it’s hard to put your finger on it.

Tone and Phrasing
The music is not just wires+wood+plectrum. That’s just notes. A good musician imparts a tone from the instrument by how they attack the task of playing it. There are mechanical things like hand and wrist position, choice of pick, etc., but taken together, it’s a very organic thing, and it’s the way great musicians brings their heart and soul into the music.

Silence as a Part of Music
I taught a jam class for a few years. Folks that were pretty proficient with their instruments wanted to learn why their jams and playing and solos didn’t sound like the pros. There were the subtle things mentioned above (Rhythm, tone and phrasing), but more often their problem was simply overplaying.

I know bluegrassers don’t read music usually, but for hundreds of years there is actually music notation for not playing. It’s called a “rest”. The best players use silence just as cleverly as they use their notes. In solos, a brief hesitation between phrases can be thrilling.

In ensemble playing, at any given time, there should be a lead instrument (it could be a
singer, or an instrument), another instrument supporting the lead with tasteful fills (don’t
be afraid of the “rest”!), and the low counterpoint of the bass, and a higher register pulse (the “chop” on the mandolin, banjo or fiddle). The middle is handled by the rhythm
guitar. Anything beyond that gets slushy, both sonically and rhythmically.

The exception of course, is everyone picking madly away around a campfire – that’s great fun, and who wants to worry about rules, rests and rhythm when your blood’s up like that? But if you want to sound more like the pros, play less, not more. A listener should be able to distinguish between the lead, fill, and rhythm instruments.

If you think I’m wrong, take a fresh listen to Bill Monroe, Vern Williams, Jimmy Martin or
Flatt and Scruggs. Their sound is more sparse than you might remember!

I refer to this approach as the Hippocratic Method of Music: “First, do no harm”. And doesn’t everyone deserve a rest, now and then?

Posted:  8/21/2013

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email