Graduating Guitarist Meets Her Inspiration
One spring day during my second semester, I walked into my private lesson hoping to find new inspiration at a time when I felt musically jaded. My teacher was leaning towards his computer, paying full attention to what he was watching. "You have to check this guy out," he said. Together, we watched YouTube clips of a guitar player improvising to backing tracks in a variety of styles, all of which were his first takes.
The guitarist on screen seemed to approach each style with an appropriate feel, superb technique, and improvisational ideas that provided a fresh perspective on the instrumental rock sound. That day, Guthrie Govan became my inspiration.
I went home and looked Govan up. I felt like I was the last to know about him. He was from England, he had been a member of Asia and other bands, people around the world had posted dozens of clips of his performances, and many famous guitarists had commented on his phenomenal playing.
I immediately bought Erotic Cakes, Govan's instrumental album. However, what inspired me the most about Govan at first glance was a video of him playing with a sound that reminded me of Larry Carlton. That pinpointed to me the sound I was trying to get. I watched the video many times, transcribed it in order to figure out what made it sound the way it did, and recorded my own YouTube adaptation.
Two years—and many transcriptions and YouTube videos—later, I found out that Govan was coming to Berklee to give a clinic and a concert, and that I would have the honor of sharing the stage with him for one tune. I felt very fortunate and elated that I was considered for such an experience. I figured it was sure to teach me a lot about handling difficult, unrehearsed playing situations, finding my own voice within a tune I usually like to play verbatim, and overcoming the obvious nerves of playing with a guitarist who had had a large impact on me.
So how does a guitar student like myself prepare for this kind of endeavor? The answer was simple: do your homework, know the material, and practice. Fortunately, the tune I was invited to play on was "Wonderful Slippery Thing," one that I had listened to and transcribed soon after I discovered Govan. I knew it well, but I believed that in order to be confident on this kind of gig, I would have to analyze the tune in much greater detail and know it inside out.
I did a good amount of listening to the album version, as well as many of Govan's live variations on YouTube. After I received the original chart I really started taking the tune apart. I knew there would hardly be time for a rehearsal, so my plan was to come up with an arsenal of approaches so I could adapt to whatever happened on stage. I considered every possibility I could think of: rhythm guitar parts, complementary chord voicings, melody/harmony combinations, soloing techniques, and other approaches. I made a long list of my best ideas for every role I would have to assume: rhythm playing, melody interpretation, and soloing.
I felt so honored to have this opportunity, and more nervous as the day approached. On the morning of the gig, I quickly rehearsed with the Jon Finn Group, Govan's backing band for the event. As with many other gigs, we had to speed through the rehearsal and soundcheck. We were told that Govan would arrive shortly before his clinic that came before the concert.
In fact, with Saturday traffic coming in from New York, Govan arrived at Berklee to find a full room of enthused students waiting for his entrance, right as he had to jump on stage. This was perhaps the most exciting part for me: witnessing the arrival of a guitarist whose musicianship is so high that he can come off the road with little time to warm up or talk over tunes with the band and still jump in as comfortably as if he'd been the one waiting all day.
So here I was, in the situation I had tried to prepare for. There was virtually no discussion before I joined the band on stage. But thanks to some eye contact, intuition, and a few charts, we were able to pull it together. It was incredible to see firsthand how Govan played some of the sections of the tune exactly as written but improvised variations to the rest. It demonstrated his deep knowledge of the tune and his confidence in varying any part any way he wanted. As his fans know, he may play his tunes differently at each performance. I believe that being able to do that well is one of the marks of maturity in a guitarist, and one that I was especially looking to learn.
The audience reacted well to our performance. I was happy and relieved, as well as grateful to have had the privilege of participating. It was a great learning experience and an extremely enjoyable one. Coincidentally, I was graduating from Berklee a week later. Since Guthrie Govan was one of the guitarists who started influencing me shortly after I came to Berklee, playing with him in my last days at the college definitely felt like a culminating event. It was the best final exam I could have asked for.
Watch a fan video of the performance: