There are obviously many factors that differentiate a good musician and a great one, but what are the qualities that instantly separate a good musician and one that you really remember? What is it about a great musician that allows you to recognize their mastery from the first note they play? What is it about their playing that can make you want to get up and dance or leave you feeling overcome with sadness?
Many summers ago, when I was just starting to learn guitar, I attended a camp for young musicians held at the University of Miami. One of the best parts of this camp was the faculty concerts. At these concerts, the other campers and I witnessed masters on the piano, saxophone, trumpet, and guitar, perform with such facility and conviction that you couldn’t help but be impressed. A couple fast licks here, a really high note there, and it was almost guaranteed that they were going to make kids’ eyes widen. Thinking back on those faculty concerts now though, I can’t remember a single one of those licks. What I do remember is certain performances and qualities of those great musicians — like Ira Sullivan playing through an impossibly fast tune with total finesse or the powerful sound I heard every time Ed Maina played his tenor sax.
If the purpose of music is to connect with the audience on an emotional level — to inspire, to uplift, to make them feel a deep emotion — then there are two main qualities that instantly distinguish great musicians from good ones: their tone and time feel. Think of a musician’s tone like a writer’s voice that matures over time and demonstrates a certain command of the craft. Time feel is the ability of a musician to lock into the rhythm of the music. The simplest comparison is dancing. The difference between a good dancer and a great one is not really that the great dancer knows more moves, but that he or she is so tuned into the groove that time seems to flow with them and pull or push according to his or her movements.
You can be a great musician by playing simple melodies with excellent tone and time feel, but you can’t be great without those qualities. I think the best example of this is jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. Not to say that he couldn’t rip through a fast tune, but when you think of his playing, what comes to mind first? Most likely you think of his distinct sound on a Harmon mute, or the way he could leave space in the music and then come in with a single, perfectly placed note, like he does on the track “Blue in Green” from his classic album, Kind of Blue. Look that song up on YouTube and you’ll hear exactly what I mean.
Another reason that tone and time feel are an appropriate measure of mastery is that they can’t be faked. Great tone and time feel are things you develop as a musician over time from practice. You can learn to play all the same licks as your favorite musician, but if you don’t know how to improve your tone and time feel as well, then your musical growth will be limited. Miles said it best when he said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
What qualities do you think separate a good musician from a great one? Let me know in the comments or send me an email. I read every one.