The Devil and Mr. Johnson

There’s been a whole lot written about the life of Robert Johnson, (1911-1938) who’s short life and career are the stuff of legend. He tragically died at the age of 27, and if it were not for a series of recordings made in the 30’s we would have no record of him at all. He started out as a less than talented guitar player. In fact his playing was described by those in prominence in the great Mississippi Delta blues heyday as “a horrible racket.” He then disappeared for a period of about 8 months to 2 years depending on various sources, and returned as possibly the greatest guitar player of all time. It was and still said he went to a crossroads in Mississippi and made a deal with the devil in exchange for his soul, because no one could have been that good that fast without supernatural assistance. Eric Clapton regards him as the greatest of all time, and Keith Richards has said when first hearing his recordings; “who’s that playing along with him,” a reference to his complicated multi-dimentional technique.

What is probably more likely is that he went and studied with a teacher and somehow honed his practice routine in a way that eliminated almost all human error and resulted in otherworldly progress, which was also said about Franz Liszt as a young pianist. Of course practicing 10 hours a day didn’t hurt, but it must have been the right type of practice.

What do I mean by “ all human error.” I am referring to training that eliminates everything that is not needed in any skillful endeavor and only incorporating those things that are indispensable to that skill. Of course, attaining the elimination of all human error is an impossibility, but the fact that knowing it theoretically exists can be a strong motivating factor. When listening to a great artist it is as important to notice what they don’t do as much as what they do. For instance; using muscles that aren’t needed in that skill and only using those muscles that are directly involved in producing the desired result. In the case of brass players, use of the embouchure and air exclusively seems to produce the best results. Any other excessive use of muscles such as the torso, neck and even slide arm interferes with efficiency and reduces resonance.

How does one practice and aim to eliminate “all human error? By identifying the basic aspects of playing an instrument and honing those aspects to such a high degree that all things that are not that fall away.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s primarily a case of not accepting the normal standard that other people set for that instrument, because when you think about it, no one sets out to be an average player. This means setting your own standard of the various things that go into instrument performance. Too many people get to a certain proficiency and then start “covering material.” The exceptional ones always say to themselves; “I can get a better sound, a better style, more musical phrasing, better intonation, more dynamics etc., etc, etc. The practice room is the R and D department of a musician. This is where you try things that may or may not work. The ones that may not work might be just as valuable as the ones that work because they go beyond the comfort level established and actually show us what not to do. Thomas Edison was asked why it took him so long to make a light bulb, and he replied; “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The old adage “to make a better light bulb,” is good advice for musicians because it should make us question everything we do, as Robert Johnson might have done those many years ago at the crossroads of highways 1 and 8 near Rosedale Mississippi.