Emulating a State of Experience
by Steve Vai
(Part 3 of 7, originally published April 1989).
The more you are able to identify and express your inner personality, the more respect you will give the instrument of expression — your guitar. If you start identifying more with your different states of mind, you will have new insights into your playing. Your music will take on different characteristics: playful, sad, perverse, pure, or whatever. Guitar playing, after all, is a very personal thing.
If you ever feel you’re just meandering on guitar, or bogged down, here’s an exercise that will help improve your rapport with your instrument. Think of the last few days, and break them down into a series of individual events. Pick one event and play it back in your head a few times. Your emotions will probably change as you feel that state of mind again. Now construct a musical situation that reflects that state of mind. It could be a chord, a progression, a lick, a melody, a sound effect, a whole sonata, or just a single note.
If you are thoroughly saturated in that state of mind, your playing will reflect it. This is where the magic power of music comes in. Take, for example, a simple chord: a construction of notes being struck, strummed, plucked or hacked a certain way can represent a state of mind. Start by imagining the type of chord you think best suits the state of mind you’ve hypnotized yourself into. Once you hear that chord in your head, try constructing it on your guitar. If you feel you’re losing sight of your goal, replay the event in your head and imagine the sound of the chord again. When you think you have a harmonic structure that represents your state of mind, play it over and over, keeping your mind fixed on the event you’re emulating (as we did in Martian Love Secrets Part 2). Your playing approach, and maybe even the chord itself, may change to suit the mental environment more precisely.
Next, try stringing a few chords together to help represent your state of mind. They can be simple or complex, familiar or unusual. There’s a chord progression performance to match every human experience that ever was or ever will be. With that in mind, you’re not likely to run out of ideas.
Now try playing a riff, single note, or melody that reflects the events in your mind. When you find something satisfactory, keep repeating it as the event runs through your head. Remember, finding a tempo and groove for your state of mind is important — it’s one of the biggest factors of expression. We all know how different grooves make us move and feel different ways.
Eventually you’ll find yourself changing what you’re playing a bit, in order to better match your state of mind. The bridge between what you’re playing and what you’re thinking will get smaller and smaller until it feels as though you and your instrument are one. It’s very special when this happens. It takes work, discipline, concentration and patience, but sometimes it happens when you don’t even realize it (and it’s important not to get strung out if it doesn’t happen).
Whenever you play these chords, they will mean a lot more to you than the thoughtless meandering you were previously doing. Put it all together in a piece of music and it will be very powerful.
A word of caution, however: When choosing a past, present or future event to focus on, choose a variety of emotional states. It doesn’t always have to be a strong emotion such as sadness, anger, frustration, happiness or joy; it could be just a thought or impression. Some people dwell very heavily on the negative events in their lives. If you do this too often, your playing will reflect frustrated, twisted, anxiety-ridden emotions and you will attract those sorts of people to your life. On the other hand, if you emulate a wide variety of events, you will look forward to playing your beautiful instrument and people will perceive your visions.
You probably experience thousands of states of mind each day, more than there are adjectives to describe. Let’s say you didn’t eat for eight hours and someone handed you a nice, cold, ripe apple, then CHOMP! You might experience many states of mind in these few moments: hunger, the thought of what to eat, your feelings towards the person before and after they gave you the apple (colored by your hunger), the thought, “Yes, that’s right; that apple is history, babe!”, the biting of the apple and the taste sensation, choking and coughing and spewing out the apple because you were too hungry to chew it properly, or the embarrassment of having predigested apple all over the shirt of the person who gave it to you — I don’t know!
But these are all legitimate feelings to draw from. You can apply any of these states of mind to this exercise. For example, I have the perfect chord for spitting out the apple:
This technique can help you through difficult times in your life, and people will identify with it. It is very powerful in its suggestions, and this is where the magic of music comes in again. The intensity of that power comes from you. When you send out that strong state of mind, you will move people. In what direction you move them is entirely up to you. Remember, your instrument is only wire and wood. You have to choose what kind of sorcerer you will be. Caution is advised. Listen to your heart, and you will play from the heart.