Who plays who?

Among musicians, there is an old, quasi magical idea about musical instruments: that they have tunes in them. I often heard it said among guitar players, as in: “This guitar has a lot of songs in it”. It’s an interesting answer to the question: “Where do songs and melodies come from?” A hell of a question, one that is good across all genres. Could it be that we pull tunes out of instruments, and that each guitar, trumpet or piano has different songs in it*?

In my experience it seems so, not always with melodies or songs, but also with atmospheres, moods and genres. When I picked up my 90 euros mandolin for the first time, I immediately went for the Neapolitan style of “tremolo” (fast picking of two strings, to produce a sustained note). But when I tried a much better model, all I played was Jazz. I have two acoustic guitars, very different: one is a Rosewood jumbo, very pricey and great for parts that disappear in the mix (plus languid, crystalline, mid-tones solos). The other is a very well made 12 frets, small bodied, v-neck chinese Martin imitation. This is turning out to be the main guitar in my album. It sounds ok (it’s a stark, all Mahogany guitar), but it has a million arpeggios in it, and tunes, and songs. Moreover, I’m very slowly starting to learn the Soprano Sax, and I can only imagine how an accomplished player must feel about his/her horn, especially if he/she improvises.

So, in my experience, the quasi magical idea is apparently true: some instruments have tunes in them, and what players do is let the music out. This is also why instruments get better if you play them regularly, and it’s a shame when they sit uplayed, sometimes for years (or are bought for big money by mediocre, millionaire amateur players).

*I’m using “it”, but I always refer to my guitar as “she” – yet another indication instruments have personalities.