How Much is Too Much?
Less Is Often More
How much is too much? The question goes for anything. There’s an objective and a subjective element. One person might need more to eat than another. But at some point everyone has a general sense of someone eating too much and not enough. The answer then might be an objective range, where subjective preferences fall within. A healthy range.
So let’s apply this to music. How much playing on an guitar for example, is overplaying? One element to think about might be replay value. I’d argue that like anything, there can be too much, and that one way to test it is replay value. Furthermore, I argue that most of the time, when you play more, it kills the incentive to listen again.
Doc Watson and Billy Strings are known as some of the great acoustic guitarists around, and they pick fast and often, even in between verses. Part of the reward is that they are considered virtuosos, and of course they are. However, I’d bet there are a lot of guitarists close to as good who make a deliberate choice not to fill every space with a lick or a riff because it doesn’t serve the purpose of their song. One of these purposes might be replay value. For example, Townes Van Zandt’s guitar playing may be considered restrained, only adding in notes that feel essential to the song. Anyway, that’s how I feel impacted by it. And I think that’s part of why I listen to Buckskin Stallion Blues, and Columbine over and over.
Another example is George Harrison, who’s guitar playing in early Beatles records is all about knowing how to get in and get out. “And I Love Her” is noted by McCartney as a song in which a spontaneous Harrison riff makes the song and I’d agree. And it’s a simple riff. But that’s part of why when I think of the song, I know what I’m getting and I want to get it. I want to hear how the riff fits in the song.
But… Sometimes More Is Just More
Disclaimer: but more isn’t always bad. In fact what appears intellectually like too much can still work based on other factors.
Take Prince’s solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” A part of my brain thinks that he’s probably overplaying and pushing it, but other elements must make it work because I keep wanting to go back and listen to it! So more isn’t always bad.
But more doesn’t impress me. To paraphrase common musical sayings, it’s not what you play, it’s how you play it. Likewise, it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play. And finally, I don’t care what you play – do I want to play it again?
How Much is Too Much?