Individual virtuosity is great if you’ve got it (I guess!), but even Jake Shimabukuro collaborates with other musicians sometimes.
In fact, you should stop reading right now and watch this clip of Jake playing with James Hill and Anne Janelle at the Winnipeg Folk Fest!
Anyway, most musicians are not virtuosos (or virtuosi), and never will be. We lack the skills and/or the ambition to be soloists. And that’s not a problem! In plenty of situations, you can be a perfectly adequate musician … and sometimes even get paid for it … if you have some knowledge and some skills.
Oh, hang on; you should also check this out, especially if you only know Emily Keener from her performances on The Voice! In real life, she is a triple threat who sings, writes songs, and plays the guitar like a boss.
Of course I admire people like Jake and James, who have reached the highest levels of proficiency on their chosen instrument, and people like Emily, who seem to be able to “do it all”. But I’m not jealous of them. (No, really!)
In all honesty, I appreciate the fact that being in a band means I don’t have to do it all … which allows me to really focus on the one or two (or maybe sometimes five) things I am doing, so I can try to do them reasonably well!
There are plenty of little things a musician can focus on in any given moment: Keeping time, keeping the left hand moving smoothly and efficiently around the fretboard, using just exactly the right picking or strumming pattern with the right hand, choosing just the right note to play at just the right time … or choosing just the right time for a dramatic pause!
Sometimes I also have to worry about singing in tune, remembering the lyrics, and “emoting”! Meanwhile, I’m depending on the other band members to keep doing whatever they are doing as well as they can, too.
And then, magic can happen! A quartet can be far greater than the sum of four individual musicians … even (and this is the best part!) if each of them is individually doing something easy.
Here’s a quick tutorial from UkuleleYes! magazine about how a uke group can “orchestrate” a tune as if they were a bluegrass band. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional player, you can do this, too! Next time you find yourself strumming along in a jam session, just try playing something different from the people next to you … using these “Lester/Bill/Earl” examples as a starting point. You will often find that adding something, even something extremely simple, will magically make the overall sound of the group seem more sophisticated.
A similar approach can work with songwriting. Unlike Sheri and Geoff, I just don’t seem to have the knack for writing songs on my own, but I’ve managed to make my contribution to the GRÜBS catalog by starting a couple of songs and collaborating with other band members to get them finished. Sometimes it takes a village.
“Sweet Rebecca”, for example, ended up with lyrics by Sheri and Geoff, and a melody by Anne, but it began with my chord progression. It’s snazzy and jazzy, with lots of major and minor sevenths and a “borrowed” E-flat chord, all of which I’m rather proud of …
Gmaj7 Cmaj7 [4x] Am7 Bm7 [2x]
Gmaj7 Cmaj7 Ebmaj7 Eb6
… but it came out the way it did because I was trying to write something that not only sounded cool but was also easy enough for me (an adequate bassist, but not really a ukulele player) to play on the ukulele. (Pro tip: Several of those chords look much fancier on paper than they do on the fretboard!)
It’s highly unlikely anybody else in the group would ever have written a song quite like this, because it’s partly a product of my specific strengths … and weaknesses … as a musician. Likewise, everything we do as a band is a result of the unique combination of our individual personalities, tastes, and abilities.
There is only one GRÜBS … Accept no substitutes!