What is feel? In the most general sense, feel is essentially a musician’s ability to connect with the listener on an emotional level. The resulting emotion can vary from excitement, to sadness and even to tension (especially if we like to play those crunchy outside notes).
In terms of lead guitar, feel can best be defined by the way we apply our expressive techniques such as vibrato, string bends, note choice, phrasing, our sense of dynamics and our overall tone. Of course, this varies greatly from one guitar player to the next.
The general mood of the song we are soloing over also plays a huge role when it comes to making an emotional connection with our audience, as does the chord progression, as this will determine our note choices. Additionally, some players just seem to have a secret mojo in their playing that can be impossible to describe.
So, can feel be taught? This is a difficult question to answer definitively, simply because a guitarist’s feel is essentially an extension of his or her personality and a teacher cannot manipulate a person’s character (or, at least, they shouldn’t try to). However, the core ingredients that make up what we consider emotional playing can indeed be taught. For example, a good guitar teacher can advise the student on the intricacies of vibrato, phrasing, dynamics and note choice, guiding the student to work on developing these techniques over time. However, there is no magic wand that will instantly transform any student into B.B. King. Crafting one’s own style can be a lifelong pursuit.
We can work towards developing our own feel on a slightly more abstract and subconscious level. Try the following exercise: Without overthinking, try to visualise three blues guitarists whose names frequently come up in conversation when discussing the subject of feel. There’s a strong chance that B.B. King, Albert King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix were some of the names that immediately came to mind. Perhaps you chose Jeff Beck, John Mayer and Albert Collins, but that doesn’t matter. One thing blues players have in common is that they all play with feel.
Now go back to the first name you chose, close your eyes and try to imagine hearing that guitarist play. Can you hear it? There’s a good chance that you’ve already listened to and internalised so much of their music that you can literally hear their phrasing in your mind. Try the same exercise with the remaining two names you chose.
Sounds lovely, right? Without realising, the chances are you have just picked your three favourite guitarists, or at least the three whose playing affects you the most strongly on an emotional level. You should now take time to analyse what it is about the feel of these three players that you love so much. What qualities do they share? What is it about their phrasing or vibrato that you connect so strongly with?
Feel is not something that you either have or you don’t. Nobody picks up a guitar on day one with the sudden ability to make it sing!
It may help to make a list of the specific traits of your favourite players that most appeal to you as these are the things you should work on and apply to your own playing. In much the same way as many vocalists subconsciously adopt the vibrato or phrasing of their favourite singers, you too will find that you will naturally inherit the expressive qualities of the guitarists you listen to the most. After all, we are what we eat and new music cannot be made without influences.
It’s no crime to make a conscious effort to copy our favourite players. In fact, copying other guitarist’s licks and making them our own is a huge part of the blues. After all, the blues is essentially a language. A musical form of communication. If musicians didn’t borrow phrases from one another, the blues would lose its instantly identifiable sound and become something else entirely.
Don’t worry about becoming a Stevie Ray Vaughan clone If you happen to learn Texas Flood note for note. Learn some B.B. King next, then some Albert Collins. Hey presto! You are now a blues guitarist whose style is a cross between Stevie Ray, B.B. and Albert Collins. If you analyse most guitar players’ styles closely enough, you can hear the influence of three or four key inspirations. In Stevie Ray Vaughan’s playing, you can hear the influences of Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Freddie King. However, it could never be said that Stevie didn’t have his own instantly recognisable style.
Let’s conclude by dispelling some ill-informed myths about feel. Firstly, it’s been said that you can’t play fast with feel. You only have to listen to Eric Johnson or some of the aforementioned Stevie Ray’s rapid fire flourishes to know that’s untrue. While not an essential ingredient of the blues, a sudden burst of speed at the right point in a solo can really hit the listener square in the feelings. The myth may have originated in the midst of 80s shred overkill, during which time, many young guitarists (my 13 year old self included) became obsessed with playing fast at the expense of working on their vibrato or phrasing.
Finally, feel not something that you either have or you don’t. Obviously, it’s possible to prefer one player’s feel to another’s, but we are all able to continually work on and improve our own expressive techniques. Nobody picks up a guitar on day one with the sudden ability to make it sing. In fact, we all sound terrible at first. We sound like angry bumblebees when we first attempt vibrato and like crying cats when we first try to bend strings.
The most important thing we can do to improve as guitar players is to be mindful of our own playing and to listen to ourselves. This sense of awareness will help us filter out the important things that we need to work on, allowing us to play what we hear in our heads and connect with our audience on an emotional level.
Until next time, enjoy your practice,