25 Music Icons’ Brilliant Advice on Making Music

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Playing music is one of those things that comes naturally to some people, while to others it seems about as straightforward as performing intricate surgery after a heavy night on the booze. (The latter group often go onto be music journalists.) But still, if you’re set on making music as well as appreciating it, then who better to ask than the people who do it best? Captain Beefheart’s characteristically idiosyncratic advice for guitarists resurfaced recently at Dangerous Minds, and it got us looking for similar words of wisdom from great musicians past and present about the art of playing their instruments. Read on for tips from the best.

Captain Beefheart

“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.”

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Patti Smith

“When we got to the part where we had to improvise an argument in a poetic language, I got cold feet. ‘I can’t do this,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘Say anything,” [Sam Shepard] said. ‘You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.’

‘What if I mess it up? What if I screw up the rhythm?’

‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.’

In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life.”

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Frank Zappa

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

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Marnie Stern

“I had been wanting to give guitar lessons to girls because I feel like women tend to use their voice as the starting point for a song and learn a few chords, and then it ends there because then they just use their voice to flesh out a song.”

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Thelonious Monk

“Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep time. Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play. Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody! Make the drummer sound good. Discrimination is important.”

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Lee “Scratch” Perry

“Bury the mastertape in your garden and leave it there for some time. Blow ganja smoke on the master tape while recording, to add this irie finishing touch. Put a few bottles of your own urine in the studio to give more energy. Leave a hen to sport around on your mixing desk.”

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The Knife

“No habits! There are other ways to do things.”

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Fatboy Slim

“A good DJ is always looking at the crowd, seeing what they’re like, seeing whether it’s working; communicating with them. Smiling at them. And a bad DJ is always looking down at what they’re doing all the time and just doing their thing that they practiced in their bedroom…”

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Jimmy Page

“Let me explain something about guitar playing. Everyone’s got their own character, and that’s the thing that’s amazed me about guitar playing since the day I first picked it up. Everyone’s approach to what can come out of six strings is different from another person, but it’s all valid.”

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Ben Folds

“Be schooled in form and technique as much as you can swallow and abandon it when you feel it’s nearly killed you. Know how people did it before you. Play covers and have respect for the mastery of what came before. It will make you suck for a while. Any gains you make as a musician, especially technically generally have the side effect of rendering you unfocused for a short period of time. Basically, you can expect to play and write like a goober for a while when digesting concepts. Then it sinks in and you come out of the haze, stronger with a broader palette, sharper pen and more confidence.”

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Yoko Ono

“Imagine a dolphin dancing in the sky. Let it dance with joy. Think of yourself at the bottom of the ocean watching.”

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Dizzy Gillespie

“Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die and the horn wins.”

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Brian Eno

“For me it’s always contingent on getting a sound — the sound always suggests what kind of melody it should be. So it’s always sound first and then the line afterwards.”

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Prince

“Self-reflection is so important; sadly, in a society where ‘celebrity lite’ is the order of the day and people seem to have attention spans of a flea, rarely looking beyond the surface or questioning anything at all, it’s sorely missing. The world would be a better place if we would all think for ourselves and question what’s around us.”

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BB King

“Playin’ the guitar is like tellin’ the truth. You never have to worry about repeating the same lie if you told the truth. You don’t have to pretend or cover up. If someone asks you again you don’t have to think about it or worry about it. It’s you.”

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Courtney Love

“I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar and start screaming.”

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Nick Cave

“The guitar is something you kind of embrace, and the piano is something you kind of… when you play it, you sort of push it away. It feels very different.”

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Jack White

“I always look at playing guitar as an attack. It has to be a fight. Every song, every guitar solo, every note that’s played or written has to be a struggle. It can’t be this wimpy thing where you’re pushed around by the idea, the characters, or the song itself. It’s every player’s job to fight against all of that.”

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Roy Book Binder

“Your left hand is what you know, your right hand is who you are.”

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Chrissy Hynde

“Never pretend you know more than you do. If you don’t know chord names, refer to the dots. Don’t go near the desk unless you plan on becoming an engineer.”

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Norah Jones

“In college I had a weekend gig at a restaurant, a solo thing that was the best practice I could have ever had. That’s where I learned to coordinate my singing and my piano playing.”

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Ravi Shankar

“I have always encouraged the creativity of an artist. But one has to have solid knowledge and know the rules to break it. Improvisation does not mean tampering with the authenticity of a classical raga.”

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PJ Harvey

“I think I’m a songwriter. I grab an instrument to make my body a song, but I’m not a player as such, maybe a little more on guitar, but certainly not piano.”

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Eddie Van Halen

“If you have a great-sounding guitar that’s a quality instrument and a good amp, and you know how to make the guitar talk, that’s the key. It starts with the guitar and knowing what it should sound and feel like.

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Richard Lloyd

“1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, 5:6, 8:9, 15:16 and 32:45… Those are your ratios. You can do a million things with them. All of music comes from them. I hope you study them. I hope you do well… read, [and] try to see that whatever you’re looking at musically, on the inside there are these ratios and their relationships. It’s a skeleton key for understanding a great number of other things connected with the guitar.”

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