“Consciousness kills music” – you have probably not heard that line too many times. But, well, it can do exactly just that. How many times have you heard technically impeccable musicians that you thought are missing some intangible quality, subtlety and “soul” from their playing, even though they seemingly had the power of knowing the fretboard inside out, yet they failed to move you? And how many times you went to a musical forum (usually but not exclusively jazz or classical) on the internet to see people discussing scales, all kinds of different chords voicings, multiple systems and aspects of music theory day in day out? And then maybe you’ve even had the chance to hear a sound sample or two by one of those avid theory aficionados, and – to put it somewhat bluntly – it sucked? If you feel like the above two are somehow connected, i.e. even so called pros can play boring music, and people with undisputed music theory knowledge can sound undeveloped or straight out lame, you might be right.
You get what you have put in
If you approach music as a bunch of individual notes, mathematical formulas and music theory paragraphs, then that is what’s going to come out of your mind, your hands, your instrument. You can only play and play more or less fluently the way you learned to play. And if you spend most of your time trying to look smart on the above kind of internet forums, then chances are your actual instrument and musical thinking skills will remain underdeveloped.
The solution is of course not to neglect theory; after all it’s a device to be able to note down and explain certain characteristics of music (but it is NOT music). Look at it as the boat that helps you get to the other side of the river. If you are lucky/gifted enough to get there without the need of “the boat”, it’s all the better (unless it’s required for your studies, or if you want to read guitar tab and sheet music like what I offer on my website).
Music – a mind game
But music doesn’t live on papers, graphs or paragraphs; it’s in your mind. You control your hands to create it on your instrument. Once you can hear music in your mind – and if you ever had this strong desire to express yourself musically than most probably you can – then you are able to play it; one way or another, but you can get there. It’s just a matter of time, and the quality with which you can utilize this strong desire.
My humble advice is to try to build up a strong and direct connection between your inner hearing and your hands. That’s a key for good and original improvisation and for that fluent and “soulful” playing in general. How to do that? Play what you hear, always. Start out slow, and don’t let your fingers do their job mindlessly and automatically, without you imagining the line or phrase before. Of course sometimes it will still happen, and sometimes it’s necessary for your motor skills to take over to remain fluid – imagine a very fast tempo piece that you have to blow on flawlessly – but your aim should be to pre-imagine as much music as you can before notes come out of your fingers and the instrument. Try to imagine melodies and then figure them out on the fretboard and play them. The same goes with chord sequences or chord melody pieces.
Think only when necessary
At this point you may ask: “Isn’t that conscious thinking?” And yes, as you’ll start practicing it at first, it will probably be. Then it will become your second nature, just like pure scales and mechanical repetition of all kinds of riffs and licks become a second nature for the above mentioned “soulless” player.
Since you are gifted with being a truly musical person, you have the ability to hear music as a whole in your mind, whatever way you imagine it. You can imagine it multiple ways; you can even imagine a whole band playing your piece you just created in your mind, or you can imagine it being played on a single guitar. All you have to do is figure out the chords and melody lines you have just imagined on the fretboard. Be your own teacher and take it easy!