The Physical, Part Two
by Steve Vai
(Part 5 of 7, originally published June 1989).
Music evokes certain emotions in people. A familiar melody can remind you of whole periods in your life. When I hear ‘Led Zeppelin II’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ or even some old Motown song, the music brings my consciousness back to a time in my life when that music was popular. When we experience this phenomenon, we may actually feel the way we did at the most memorable time we heard the song.
When I was a teenager, for example, someone in my town threw a party almost every weekend. I would make my way to the stereo and put on a copy of ‘Led Zeppelin II’. (I always carried the cassette, in case they didn’t have the album). When “Heartbreaker” came on, my friends would clear a spot on the table or the floor and ask me to “air guitar” the solo. Of course, I’d act reluctant at first, but I was a ham even then, so I’d start jumping around and flailing like a wild animal. Everyone got a kick out of it, especially me. (This was back in the days when Apple Ripple wine, at $1.25 a bottle, was all the rage — you remember, right?)
Well, to this day, when I hear those familiar songs, I’m right back there again, smelling scents of the time, and feeling 15, ready to blow up the proverbial bridge, to GET IT! I actually feel the same sensations I felt then. For me, this proves the great inherent power of music.
In this series of articles, we’ve been trying to develop our playing so that it has our own identity. We must find personal thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations and bring them to fruition through your music. Remember, you have uniqueness — you just need to dig for it. The deeper you dig, the more you will uncover.
Translating feelings and sensations into sound is a unique approach, and the same sensation may mean something different to each person. I know what a bump on the head or a tickle to the feet means to me, but it may have a different meaning for someone else. I perceive things through my senses, and my perceptions are colored by my disposition and view of the world. The way I emulate these things on my instrument is a reflection of how I view the original sensation, how I synthesize it through my imagination (which is unique, like yours), and how I execute it with my technical apparatus (flesh and bones) and coordination expertise (chops) — phew!
Let’s try examining some physical sensations, with an eye towards expressing through our instruments. Grab your guitar, and let’s go.
There are millions of possible physical sensations; let’s take just one, and try to come up with a lick or chord that simulates it. Take the simple sensation of the wind hitting your face. Go out to the wind, if available, and expose your face to it (or your naked body, if you like). Picture the sound that best represents how the wind makes you feel. It may be a chord, a song, an effect, or whatever, but think in terms of expressing it on your guitar. The way you feel about the wind will be colored by variables like the temperature, your surroundings, your state of mind, and so forth. Here’s a chord that I came up with:
You can ornament your idea with different effects, various strumming approaches, superimposing a melody, or whatever. Or you can string together a chain of these sensations to make a song. If you come up with just one new idea from this technique, it will have been worth your time.
Here are some other physical sensations you can experiment with:
• a sneeze
• a tickle
• pulling hair from your head
• an ice-cold shower, or a nice warm one
• a burn
• a kiss (four different kinds)
• jumping into water from 4’ (or 20’)
• running as fast as you can for 40 minutes
• a feather on the belly button
• an ice cube down your shirt
• waiting on line at the Department Of Motor Vehicles
• a somersault
• spinning until you fall down
• and of course, an orgasm (just turn on any Prince record for a blow-by-blow expression of this one).
Your suggestions for relatively safe physical sensations are encouraged.
But in any case, you must truly examine the sensation, letting no detail elude you, and keeping your initial impressions of how the sensations would translate into sound. Getting absorbed in the details is important. The more you get it, the more inspired your results will be.