Known for his prolific session and touring work over the years, guitar master Tim Pierce explained what, in his opinion, is an important but largely overlooked aspect of being a pro guitar player.
In his appearance on the “Dipped in Tone” podcast, Pierce pointed out that playing guitar parts that feel simple — like your average rock riffs — is crucial if you want to be a professional musician. As an example, Tim shared his experience of seeing ZZ Top live back in the early 1970s, sometime after their “Rio Grande Mud” record was released.
Reflecting on it, he mentioned that he was “absolutely floored” by the stripped-down performance and added (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):
“It was them at their finest — no production, nothing. Just getting up, second act, playing in front of their amps.”
When reminded of how people tend to play ZZ Top riffs wrong all the time, despite them being seemingly straightforward, Pierce then explained that, getting into these nuances in seemingly simple rhythm parts, is incredibly important to become a pro:
“Most people don’t go to the edge on that,” he responded. “And if you do go to the edge, you’re much more likely to have a career as a musician.”
And Tim also admits that he fell into the usual trap of overlooking this important stuff. Looking back at his time as a young aspiring professional guitar player, Pierce recalled how he decided to change his old ways. Sure, we all love a good guitar solo. But playing riffs and chord progressions the right way is what you’ll be doing most of the time as a session guitarist.
“I was very lazy about rhythm guitar until I moved here to LA,” Pierce continued. “And then I almost started learning rhythm guitar on the job, because I was I was pretty much obsessed with soloing… I was obsessed with the guitar solo, and my rhythm chops were not great.”
“I literally had to learn rhythm guitar on the job. And that’s what you’re talking about.”
While it worked for him for a while, Tim slowly became aware that there’s more to these rhythm parts than he previously thought. After all, looking into ZZ Top that he mentioned, that swing and groove of Billy Gibbons’ classic riffs is incredibly tricky to replicate. And that’s that lesser experienced guitar players may not be aware of. He added:
“It’s the difference between getting something sort of [right], and getting it all the way, and, as I said, owning it and finding out the right way to do things. It’s what makes people good enough to be professional.”
Tim Pierce’s take on the matter might sound off to some. But even the greatest virtuosos in the business would agree with him. For instance, Toto’s Steve Lukather would tell you the same thing — playing rhythm parts properly is far more challenging compared to playing fast and doing things that seem tricky.
In an old interview from a few years ago, Lukather addressed young players who “learn all the tricks off the internet but they can’t play in time or play in the groove,” adding that “they never learn how to play rhythm guitar.”
“That is the most important thing you can learn how to play if you want to be a professional musician — to be a great rhythm guitar player,” said Toto legend. “To have great time, to come up with great ideas, to stay out of the way, and have great sound and great touch.”
“You find the groove and you find something that works and you stay on it. And you make that work and you make that part of the thing and that makes everybody sound better.”
Circling back to Tim Pierce, in another recent interview, the guitarist mentioned another important aspect of being a great session player — doing it from the heart. And, as he said, it’s far more important than having impeccable technical skills:
“You can have a lot of ability on an instrument and be able to play anything, but if you show up and what you’re playing seems beneath you, or too easy for you, that can be a problem.”
“Now, I think in this day and age, more musicians understand this. And when they play a simple part, they play from the heart. For me, I moved to a city where there was music going on, I did as much as I could to do every session at every price point [laughs], whether it’s $30, or $50, I’m talking decades ago.”
“I also tried really, really hard to bend over backwards to deliver what people wanted.”
However, on top of playing it from the heart, you need to be okay with having some of your ideas rejected as well:
“The problem with being a musician in a collaborative situation,” Tim said, “is that you will get your feelings hurt. So what I always say is that you have to allow your ego to get obliterated when they reject this amazing thing that you just played from the heart, and then you have to be able to bring it back full force when you try the next thing.”
“So you’ll be playing, you’ll try something, and then they’ll go, ‘Nah, we’re not into that. What else you got?’ Your feelings get hurt, and you get mad, and you have to put that away, come up with the next thing, and then own it.”