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"Just because you're not a drummer..."

Students in the school of blues guitar hear me repeat the same comments over and over in lessons and VE’s - “harmonize the drums,” "swing," “breathe,” "dynamics," “play melodies, not patterns” etc. etc.


When you constantly hear the same thing from a familiar source it becomes easy to tune it out, but when you hear the same thing from a different source - say, one of the most distinctive musicians this country has every produced - it takes on new meaning. With that thought in mind, consider the following:


“Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time. Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head when you play. Make the drummer sound good.”


“Discrimination is important. You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig? Stop playing all that bullshit, those weird notes, play the MELODY!”


“Don’t play every thing or every time. Let some things go by. Always leave them wanting more. Let some music just be imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.”


“A note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.”


"A genius is the one most like himself."


These words of musical wisdom were uttered by Thelonious Monk, one of the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century and composer of such standards as “Straight No Chaser” and “‘Round Midnight” (they were written down in 1960 by saxophonist Steve Lacy; to see the original list visit


I came across these quotes a couple of years ago and they struck me as one of the best summaries I have seen of the transition from playing notes to playing music; in other words, from repeating memorized shapes and patterns to really hearing what you play and playing what you hear, which is the highest aspiration for any improvising musician. The music Monk wrote and performed was often complex and quirky, but his comments are just as relevant to playing no-frills blues: feel the beat, play a melody, breathe, let your inner voice guide your fingers - whether it’s the fastest, most complex bop tune or “Sweet Home Chicago,” that advice applies to improvising in any style and at every level. 


So…you might get tired of taking it from me, but definitely take it from Monk!