There are two types of musical instruments. There is the electronic instrument. This would include electric guitars, and various offsprings of it. The other type of instrument is the nonelectric instrument that doesn’t depend on pickups and amps to make it go. When we play music, we can play the notes mechanically, or we can put our emotion into it to make the music live. This is how we can interpret the music. It’s rather difficult to do this with an electric guitar, because these axes are meant to rock when played. A good jazz artist can wring out real emotion from his/her electric jazz guitar. But the nonelectric instrument is much easier to manage. We call nonelectric instruments with strings acoustic instruments, as I’m sure you already know. Suppose we know how to read standard music or standard tablature. There are two ways to approach it. We can play a tune exactly as written, with an even, lockstep rhythm. This is how most popular music is played. If we have other instruments and a rhythm section playing with us, the only way to keep the band together is to play rhythmically. This is a perfectly acceptable way to play music. But there is another way. We can play directly from the heart. How do we accomplish this? We do it by varying the rhythm, varying the volume, and pausing in places to add tension. Breaking out of the strict rhythm most music seems to be played at seems counter-intuitive, but it’s a beautiful way to approach our music. And if we are playing a solo with no one else playing with us, it’s very easy to wax poetic in this interpretive way.
There are times to interpret. If you want to set a mood, if you want to take the listener along with you, if you want to illicit emotion—these are the times when you should play in an interpretive way. But most of the time you will want to play rhythmically. This doesn’t mean you can’t do a fair amount of interpreting when playing rhythmically. If you are playing your ukulele for children, you can add lots of gleeful emotion to your performance. But if you want to really wring out the tune, try freeing up your playing. It’s fun to play this way and in many ways it’s easier to play like this since you don’t have to constantly keep up with the rhythm you’re laying down.
To show you what I’m talking about, I have played the beautiful Celtic tune, “Wild Mountain Thyme” two ways for you. In the first treatment I play it through rhythmically. You can evenly count along as I play it. The second time I play it I interpret the tune in my own way. You can’t count along with it because I’ve taken too many liberties with the rhythm. Yet, my interpretive treatment works. You can listen and compare the two playing styles by clicking right here.