Chess For The Musician

Aug 18, 2007, 11:13 AM |

I have a lot of free time on my hands but it comes at strange times during the 24 hour day. When I go out on the road with my band, there is a great deal of down time while traveling (either on planes or driving) and chess fills this void greatlIy

You could change the title to "Chess For The Transplant Surgeon" and it would work equally well (since transplant sile on surgeons have down time when waiting for an organ to arrive. The point is, that with the many software programs available to people, you can do a lot with the game of chess.

I start my morning with a strong cup of coffee and a filterless cigarette. Within five minutes I am doing chess problems. I find it both a way to wake my brain up and get in the zone at the same time. Music and chess share a lot in common, at least in my mind. I'll give you some examples (Note, that I am trying to add something to the blogs that may be a bit different in an effort to offer a different perspective. Some of you may not find this of interest, some of you may. Either way, I'm writing the blog and you can choose to read it or not, so there. Did I mention I'm a bit childish). Here are some commonalities between music and chess from a guitarist/song writer's point of view:


Most memorable rock songs have a good introduction, usually from the guitar. It's a guitar lead or riff that sets the tempo for the song. In chess, it's your opening. The opening, set's the starting tempo so to speak. With guitar leads, it is sometimes better to have a simple yet haunting opening lead as oppossed to one that is complex and over played (I get tired of people trying to see how many notes they can cram into an introduction. We can all throw those great heavy metal guitar tricks in and sound like monster guitar players, but try using four or five simple notes. this separates the boys from the men). Led Zeppelin was great at rock solid yet simple lead work in the beginnings of their songs (Jimmy Page would then throw some complicated lead work into the middle solo, but he never over did it). Openings in chess and guitar playing are important! If you try to get overly complicated in your opening game, you apt to get a beating from you opponent.

Next the middle game. In guitar playing, this is where you develop the verse andf chorus of the song. You want something that has a consistant theme but is still interesting. In chess you develop pieces and clear the board in order to get to your end game. Now, in a good song there is usually a guitar solo. Again, this is where less can be more (to take a Zen approach). I like leads that are catchy, technically sound (yet not cramming in a million notes to impress the listeners), and above all, get stuck in your head. It is the lead work during the guitar solo that is similar to the transition from the middle to the end game. Your capturing your listeners note by note. In chess it's piece by piece, exchanging only when it's to your advantage.


 The end game in song writing is building upon all that your played up until that point in time (the introductory lead work, the verse and chorus parts, the middle guitar lead, etc). This is where you go in for the kill so to speak. Your listener has heard the song so far and you have to finish it in order to musically checkmate your listener (believe me when I say you can stalemate your listener with the wrong ending). In chess, you want to checkmate you opponent in the least number of moves with no wasted moves (there is nothing worse than chasing a king around the board, something I've done a number of times. You may win but it is a sloppy win at best). With a song your down to the final move, the song's ending. Listen to Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin (I use them as an example, because I just had to learn nine of Jimmy Page's guitar parts, leads and all, for a project). The song is a perfect example of all of the above mentioned song writing techniques, especially the ending. The song is the equivalent to a perfectly play game of chess. No wasted moves in that game! They checkmate the listener with no wasted time.

Now, I got a bit off course here since I was talking about the use of chess to fill voids in your daily schedule. I get up and do my chess problems. Then, I start work in the studio. I start either recording new material or mixing down songs that have already been recorded. I need to stop many times during the process and walk away and come back an hour later with fresh thoughts in my brain. If you listen to the same song over and over, you can loose your ability to make changes in the mix because you stop hearing the mistakes. It's like picking up a bad habit when learning chess. We all know bad habits are easy to pick up and much harder to get rid of! What I do is: go upstairs and play a couple of games of chess on my computer. It relaxes me and gets my mind off of the problems in the studio. I go back to the studio with a clear head, relaxed and ready to work again.

 I use Chessmaster 10th edition (I own four previous editions but always get suckered into getting the latest edition) because I can use the training programs, playa game with the computer, work on chess problems, replay historic games and study tactics, all in the same software package. I have it on our PC and my laptop (so I can take it with me when I travel. When we travel, I play chess during long flights across the country (I hate sitting there staring at the back of the seat in front of me. Chess software allows me to use my free time to get better at the game. The same applies to anyone who has voids in time to fill. 

I know many other musicians who play chess on the road as well. While touring with Black Flag and DOA many years ago, we had a board set up on our bus and played games all the way across Canada. It was great. Of course we invented a few chess drinking games that left us all drunk as can be, but that aside it was a great way to pass the time.

So If you don't have a handheld device for playing chess, invest in one and carry it with you every where. You'l never have another wasted moment.