If you're anything like me, you've heard a musician take a mind-blowingly hot break and stopped to wonder, "What does (Charles Sawtelle/Tim O'Brien/Vassar Clements/David Grisman/Bill Monroe/Earl Scruggs/Don Reno/David Grier/etc/etc/etc) have that I haven't got?"
To be sure, there is some sort of intrinsic physical talent there; some people are simply able to move their music makers faster, more precisely, with greater alacrity than others. I have to assume the best of the best also have some sort of distinct mental acuity; the amount of time between the realization, "This is what is coming up next" and the decision, "Ah ha! this is what I'm going to do!" is shorter for some than it is for others.
But no, I'm not interested in the purely objective, measurable differences. What I've started to obsess over is much more subjective, much less rigorous, almost ... metaphysical. In the absence of a better term, I've started to call it ... "The Feel".
The Feel is hard to define, but I suspect if I do my job correctly you'll know what I mean.
If you're a newbie, you'll mainly know The Feel by suffering its lack: When you're struggling with that new bit of sheet/tab and you can't hear the melody in your head and you can't produce it on your instrument EVEN THOUGH you've heard the tune a hundred times, thats The Feel. Or, more precisely, the ghost of The Feel, the tiny Feel-fish that slips through your grasping fingers.
If you're an intermediate player, you may have some passing acquaintance with The Feel. Like a fair weather friend, it may come to visit without warning, puff you up for a brief moment, and then vanish without a trace. The Feel may come to you, making that one break that you've struggled with for weeks suddenly come out sweet and effortless; that ludicrous finger-wrecking chord progression will ring out smooth and clear. But like that not-such-a-great-friend, The Feel will desert you when you need it most (usually at the jam circle), and fumble fingered frustration will be your one true companion.
And while yours truly only has hypothetical understanding of this, I have to assume that expert and/or pro players have somehow managed to master The Feel, to train it, or somehow find out where it lives and what kind of candy it likes, because they play with the bit between The Feel's teeth. While brilliance may not show its sparkle all the time, it is there often enough to make us mere humans know the difference between those who have The Feel and those of us who do not. For these lucky few, The Feel is the bridge, the glowing path of the id's impulsive drive through the transformative creative crucible to the medium that
is the musician's instrument. Conscious thought has little to do with it -- The Feel reigns supreme.
It may be that all of this is but an illusion cooked up in a feverish flatpicker's brain. I have to be willing to accept that possibility. But, I don't know what else to call it when it physically -hurts- to hit the wrong note -- the brain winces, the sense of revulsion rises. Conversely, the bliss, the ecstatic joy of making it through the break without blowing it, and whats more, actually hitting that hot lick at the right time and getting a nod of approval from your jam-mates -- that bliss is too real to ignore.
I call that path -- the process of converting the wince into the bliss -- the pursuit of The Feel, and that pursuit is the reason why I pick my instrument every day, and play.