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Letter to a young musician

If only I knew then what I know now

Aaron S. Bayley

Playing music is one of the most fulfilling things in the world. Anyone who sings or plays a musical instrument and has the opportunity to share their talent with others, whether through writing a song collaboratively or playing live, knows how transcendent the experience can be. 

Anyone who has ever taken up an instrument was likely inspired by someone (a friend, a music teacher, a musician, a band). For me it was Van Halen, or more accurately, Edward Van Halen. I remember sitting up in the rafters at Albion Pool and Health Club in the early 1980s, listening to Van Halen on my Sony Walkman while waiting for my sister and parents to finish their swimming lessons. I had recorded a radio interview with David Lee Roth that had Van Halen songs programmed in between, like "Panama, "Runnin' With the Devil," and "I'm the One." I was completely blown away by Eddie's guitar acrobatics. I would listen to Van Halen at night on my Walkman and fantasize that I was Eddie up on stage. Around this time my parents made my sister and I take piano lessons at school. I was alright at it, but the piano wasn't the guitar. Then one day when I was 16-years-old, I was fooling around with my dad's old Kay guitar when my friend George taught me how to tune it. That was the first step on the road to becoming a musician.

I started playing by ear stuff I would hear on the radio, and George, who had already been playing for about a year, helped me by explaining concepts to me and writing tablature for songs I wanted to learn. It was the early '90s, and bands like Guns 'N' Roses, Warrant, and U2 were huge, but so were bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Once I asked George to play the opening riff to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" over the phone, and the sound of his distorted guitar was a revelation. My father bought me a Peavey amp for Christmas, and I was a fast learner. I found Van Halen stuff too difficult, but I learned how to play virtually the entire Guns N' Roses catalogue and a lot of early songs by the Rolling Stones. I spent hours in my room practicing, and eventually I hooked up with some neighborhood friends who played drums and bass, and we quickly formed a band and had some fun times learning covers, writing our own songs, and playing my high school's assemblies and shows in downtown Toronto.  When I look back on those days, I feel fortunate that I was able to play in a band. I don't know if it's so easy these days, if kids can just get together with their neighborhood friends and start a band. Back then it seemed like everyone wanted to be in a band; now I think that ship has sailed. Music and society in 2020 is very different than it was in 1991. Today, kids are creating music at home using digital software and plug-ins. But if I could give advice to a young kid starting out in music, this is what I would tell them:

1. Put away your phone and practice, practice, practice. Your phone is not your friend. You cannot expect to be proficient at your instrument if you are busy texting or checking your phone for notifications. You are living in a time where social media is a constant distraction; you have to make sacrifices that musicians of past generations were never confronted with. If you really are passionate and serious about creating and playing music, turn your phone off.

2. Serve the song, not the self.

When I started getting really good at playing guitar, I started writing my own songs. But instead of using chords as the building blocks to a song, I would write guitar solos and build the song around them. I used to tell people that Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" was easy to play just because I could play Jimmy Page's solo. But I couldn't really play the more intricate, acoustic section, which is the framework for most of the song. When most people learn to play the guitar they start with chords, but I didn't learn chord progressions until later on because I was too infatuated with soloing. I didn't know how to serve the song; that is, writing pieces or sections of music that would make for a solid song from beginning to end. I wasn't writing songs: I was writing solos propped up by chords. To write memorable songs that others will identify with, you have to check the ego and serve the song. The music is the most important thing.

3. Have fun.

When I played in a band it was fun for a while, but then it wasn't so fun. The first show we ever played was my high school's battle of the bands. My friend's mother made us hot dogs before the show, and we played all covers. We came in fifth place. The first song we played was "Kickstart My Heart" by Mötley Crüe. (In 1997, I had a chance to meet them backstage after one of their concerts, and I got to tell the guitarist, Mick Mars, that the first song I ever played live was "Kickstart My Heart.") Once we got used to each other as bandmates, we started writing our own material. We didn't have great songs, but the creative process of sharing ideas and trying new things is what being in a band is all about. Later, some of the guys in the band didn't want to rehearse, or wanted to watch TV instead of practicing. It was no longer fun for me anymore, so I split. If you're not having fun making music, why continue to do it?

4. Turn up, play loud. I'm not saying crank the volume to 10 and piss off your neighbors. But if you plan on playing live to an audience one day, make sure you practice at a decent decibel level. When I was playing guitar in my room, I never turned the amp too loud, because it sounded good when it wasn't cranked. But the first time I played live, our sound was coming out of a PA system. When I struck the first note on my guitar, the note was so loud that I couldn't believe it was coming out of my instrument. I wasn't used to the sound level and had a moment of disconnect. I felt like a ventriloquist. I felt as if I was about to lose control of the sound coming from my guitar. Playing loud from the start let's you get used to how you will sound live and forces you to focus on your tone.

5. Keep an open mind. I am a much better musician now then I was when I was a teenager. That's because when I was playing in a band, I listened mainly to hard rock and blues. All I knew was the pentatonic scale. These days I am influenced by funk, country, rockabilly, New Wave, as well as rock and metal. There are some genres of music I don't care for; jazz for instance. But jazz phrasings are a big part of rockabilly, and funk music uses a lot of jazz-influenced chords. Over the years, I have acquired a taste for a variety of styles which have added textures and layers to my playing. I can hear it when I play. There are certain things that country guitarists do that you will never hear on a rock album, and certain chords that funk guitarists play you might never hear on a metal album. If you want to grow as a musician, you have to think outside of the box. Even if you are strictly a rock guitarist or metal guitarist, your playing can be informed by other genres, and it will be better for it.

6. Make sure everyone is on the same page. When I was playing in a band, I wanted to go somewhere with the music, but I didn't pursue it enough; maybe I didn't want it that bad. My bandmates wanted it even less. I didn't like that they were not taking the music seriously. If you think that you'd like to make music your career, make sure you have a talk with everyone in your band about what their goals are and what they hope to accomplish. They might want the same things as you do, or they might not. If they don't, you are in danger of spinning your wheels and wasting everybody's time. If you are a solo artist, be prepared to sacrifice your social life to commit more time to your music. 

 7. Become a musicologist. Study music like it's a science. Don't just listen to the current Top 40 radio hits; seek out and listen to music from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. Pay attention to how songs are constructed, their verses, choruses, bridges, vocal harmonies. Study music theory. Then try writing your own songs using some of your favourites as a blueprint. Eventually you will develop your own songwriting style and preferences.  

8. Learn to sing.

Singing is the glue that holds together a song. Think about it: how many instrumental songs become hits? For much of my life I looked at songs from a guitarist's perspective; it wasn't until I learned to sing that I began to appreciate songs that, in the past, I never paid much attention to (I'm talking about you, Hall and Oates). It sounds obvious, but people love songs they can sing along to. Even if you're not the singer in your band, learning to sing can help you gain another perspective, not to mention add joy to your life.  

9. You don't have to be famous to make great music.

So many talented musicians can be found all over the Internet, and most of them are not world-famous. The truth is that you don't have to be famous to make great music and, especially in today's age, share your music with the world. Your band might play coffee shops or bars, or maybe you are alone in your room using DAWs like Garage Band, Logic, or Pro Tools. Whether you become a music celebrity or not, the important thing is to never stop creating.  

10. Be humble.

When I was young and writing my own songs, I thought they were really great. I thought I was Brian Wilson; I wasn't even Bryan Adams. I thought my skill as a guitar player automatically made the music I was writing great. It didn't. Making great music is truly a collaborative effort. Unless you are Prince, Dave Grohl, or Nuno Bettncourt and can play and record every instrument on your own, you will need to work with your bandmates and bring out the best in each of them. No one wants to play in a band where one person thinks they are better than everyone else, especially if they're not. If you want to make good music, you have to suppress the ego and serve the song.


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