‘Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over.’
Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, was a prolific American musician and front man of The Magic Band in the 70s. Known for his diverse musical catalogue incorporating a wide range of musical influences, Van Vilet later himself was to prove a long standing influence on countless bands, part of his music legacy.
When Moris Tepper joined the Magic Band on board as a guitarist, Van Vliet handed him a list of ’10 Commandments of Guitar Playing’. It is an intimate and an expert viewpoint from a guitarist’s perspective. Many of Captain Beefheart’s pointers most amusedly find place with some of our most popular guitarists today. Van Vliet’s advice poignantly finds echos in Slash, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci, among countless others.
1. Listen to the birds.
That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.
2. Your guitar is not really a guitar.
Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.
3. Practice in front of a bush.
Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.
4. Walk with the devil.
Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.
5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out.
If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.
6. Never point your guitar at anyone.
Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.
7. Always carry a church key.
That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.
8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument.
You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.
9. Keep your guitar in a dark place.
When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.
10. You gotta have a hood for your engine.
Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.
Don Van Vliet’s advice on the creative process – point number 5 – is particularly interesting, reiterating as it does the heart of all creative endeavour. “If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing,” echoes many past artists alike who have expressed similar notions of being completely consumed and absorbed in the creative process – or what we call flow.
Psst! Our free newsletter offers the greatest and the smartest ideas, essays, books and links in one convenient place. The emails you receive will be short, smart, and always interesting. Sign up here >>