Sometimes You Need to Stop Playing Your Instrument

I’ll never forget one of the musical compliments my band got about five years ago, from a successful nationally touring folk musician. “I can tell you guys are real musicians because not everybody plays all the time.” This comment has stuck with me ever since. Why was he impressed that we chose to stop playing?

As I’ve matured as a musician I’ve seen more and more examples of the importance of not playing. Sometimes this means not playing at all for a section of a song, sometimes it simply means playing fewer notes to take a background role. Here are 3 lessons you need to know about the art of not playing.

1. Don’t Play Between Songs

The fastest way to look unprofessional at a rehearsal is to not show up prepared. The second-fastest way is to play your instrument between songs. Generally speaking, it doesn’t help the rehearsal for you to constantly demonstrate that super sweet guitar tone you came up with this morning.  And honestly, nobody wants to hear you work on that show-off lick you learned.

Always playing between songs does not impress people – playing what you’re supposed to play when you’re supposed to play it impresses people.

The exception to this is warming up. Please warm up. Please tune your instrument. But let each note you play between songs be intentional.

2. Make Them Miss You

The audience doesn’t have a chance to miss hearing you if you play throughout the whole song. For some instruments, this is appropriate. For most instruments, this is a bad thing. Listen to any recording of any song in the last 50 years. Almost every instrument drops out for at least one section of the song if not more. Vocals disappear for the instrumental sections, drums and bass lay out for the quiet parts, guitar layers fall in and out depending on the section.

In today’s pop and rock music (and the genres based on it), dynamics are everything. The song contrast. Loud sections and quiet sections. And extremely loud sections and extremely quiet sections. This is best achieved through what is called, in classical music, an “orchestral crescendo”, which really just means more instruments are added to make the music get louder. If you play your instrument throughout the entire song, you are limiting the dynamic range of the song. A drummer dropping to a quiet ride cymbal is moderately dynamic; a drummer completely dropping out is very dynamic. A guitarist dropping to moody swells is somewhat dynamic; a guitarist completely dropping out is very dynamic.

This also applies to atmospheric background playing in a worship context – if most members of the band are playing something (somber chords on the piano, reverb swells on a guitar, little decorations on the cymbals, etc.) then it stops being atmospheric and starts being a low-volume jam session. Don’t let the atmosphere get muddied or distracting because you never choose to stop playing your instrument.

Make them miss you. That sick, loud entrance you have at the chorus is going to be effective – but only if you weren’t already playing.

3. Less is More

The three most important things in music are the song, the song, and the song. Ask anybody. Notice what’s not on that list: the guitar, the drums, the horns, or the bass. Not every song needs an instrumental feature. Especially not in a worship setting.

In college, my drum set instructor taught me the importance of playing to serve the song. In fact, he introduced me to the concept of trying to play as invisibly as possible, attempting to not leave one’s mark on the music. He told me of a great jazz pianist on a world tour who said that he intentionally avoided the licks that he knew would get the most applause. He instead tried to create good music the most organically and pure way possible, rather than playing the showy scales and runs that were tried and true ways to get crowd response. What a concept. This is especially important if you want to get hired as a studio musician.

I’m not recommending to never play impressively or to never let your instrument be featured. What I am recommending is to always be aware of the featured instrument. If the featured instrument is the vocals, or anything besides your instrument, stay out of the way.

Listen to the other instruments: lock in with them and compliment their playing with yours. Be aware of your own playing: are your notes in the same octave as the other instruments, masking them the mix? Is your groove clashing with the rest of the band and confusing the overall feel? Are your lead lines or fills during other players’ fills? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s time to play less. It may even be time to stop playing for a section of the song.

A good musician knows when to play. A great musician knows when to stop playing.