Dominic Miller: “The notes that you don’t play, are as important as the ones that you do”

Republished from our “Dominic Miller” Issue 

By Rod De George

Photos by Derek Brad

Dominic Miller is the type of musician who if you don’t immediately recognize his name, you will have most likely heard his playing. He has recorded an toured with some of music’s most notable names, as well as playing on numerous recording which were hugely popular. Dominic demonstrates his well refined taste and musicality in every situation he finds himself in, whether it is as a supporting musician or as a band leader. We were very fortunate to have recently sat down with Dominic for an in-depth talk about his career, music and what his plans for the future are.

When speaking to Dominic about his musical beginnings, he talks about his growing up in Argentina and how the soundscape of his childhood was one of vast amounts of music and soccer. He was always interested in, and listened to, various styles of music including bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, along with quite a bit of Argentine music as well. Dominic says that music has always been a part of him, and from the moment that he picked up the guitar, he felt like he had found his voice. A fact that is clearly evident whenever you hear him perform or listen to his recordings.

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Dominic is enjoying a stellar career and has built quite an impressive resume. His guitar work can be heard on recordings from artists such as Phil Collins, Level 42, Paul Young, the Pretenders and Sting, just to name a few. When asked what he attributes his success as a session musician to, he states that listening is the key, and even goes on to say that listening can be more important than playing. He says you have to listen to what works best for the overall song and what the producer and artist are looking for. Plus, you must be able to let go of personal ego, noting that he doesn’t try to draw attention to the part that he is playing, or to him as a guitarist, but instead, to the song itself. “Shining a torch to the song” as he puts it. Dominic states that creating parts that enhance the song is far more important to him then trying to showcase individual ability or knowledge. Creating and producing quality tones and sounds are very important to him as well. Textures that will assist in pulling the listener in and helping to bring forth the vision of the artist.

Dominic also speaks about recognizing opportunities as they present themselves. A specific example would be when he agreed to work on some demo recordings in the mid Eighties for percussionist Miles Bould (Elvis, Michael Jackson Sting, Beyonce etc), which later led to Miles recommending Dominic for an album that was being produce by legendary and multiple Grammy winner, Hugh Padgham. Dominic and Hugh seemed hit it off immediately, they worked well together and developed a strong relationship. When Dominic heard that Hugh was working on a CD for Phil Collins, he said “you’ve got to get me on that session”. Hugh told him that the musicians were already chosen. However, Dominic urged him try to get him in the studio, stating that he was the guy for the session. Looking back, Dominic says he was young, hungry and a bit arrogant, and probably wouldn’t be so forward today, but fortunately, he took advantage of the opportunity that was before him. 

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Dominic’s confidence had peaked their curiosity and they decided to bring him in to see what he had to offer. When Dominic arrived at the session, the first song they worked on was Another Day in Paradise. Since Dominic had a gig the night before and had little to no sleep, he thought to himself “I better focus and come up with something great”. As they were getting sounds and Dominic was warming up, he was playing with a simple arpeggiated idea. Phil Collins said “I like that! That’s it!”. Dominic assured them that he was just warming up and could come up with something much more interesting. However, Phil said “no, that works best for the song”. That’s when it dawned on him that it’s best to play for the song and not to try to showcase what you can do, or the extent of your musical knowledge.

That album, But Seriously, was extremely successful (the best selling album of the year ’89/’90), and it opened up many doors for Dominic. Although he had been working steadily for years as a session guitarist, he was now considered the hot new thing that everyone should have on their records.

One of the doors it open was the opportunity to play in the Pretenders with Chrissy Hinds. This also led to one of his most memorable sessions. He said the first few weeks of him being in the Pretenders was just hanging out with Chrissy, grabbing a bite to eat, listening to records and shopping, but no real playing. Then they were booked into the famed Abby Roads Studio where they were to record a new song, Chrissy showed up with Dominic approximately 8 hours late. She had shopping to do according to Dominic. When they did finally arrive she apparently stated that she only had about 20 minutes before they had to go. She was taking Dominic to go see Terrence Trent Darby that night. She was said to have laid her parts down strait off and  suddenly, it was Dominic’s turn. At first, he was thinking to himself “what am I going to do?”. Not having much time, he did some meditative thought processes to get him into the zone, and while he was warming up and getting a tone, he came up with the part. At this point, he and Chrissy haven’t really played together, but Chrissy wasn’t even paying attention. Dominic said she was on her phone, filing her nails etc. Dominic already had the gig, so Chrissy just knew that he had it under control, even if he didn’t. However, using Chrissy’s Telecaster strait through a Vox amplifier, he laid his part down strait away as well. Afterward, he was trying to contemplate what just went down. He said that he has deconstructed that event in his mind several times over the years. Performers of that caliber, like Chrissy and Sting he said, they just go in and do their thing. No time for messing around, the attitude behind the performer, sometimes is what can deliver the right performance.

Working with various singer/songwriters of such high caliber led Dominic to dive deeper into his own compositions. Dominic stated that although he always wrote parts, coming up with riffs and progressions as most guitarists do, it was his experience working on sessions with so many talented artists that taught him about the craft of songwriting. He learned about the construction of a song and how you can take it to different places. “Explore all the Houses” as he puts it, stating that it is not easy to write something simple that can draw the listener in and connect with them. Dominic says that both Sting and Chrissy “Explore all the Houses” when writing and that they don’t just take that flash of inspiration, put it in a loop and jam over it. They explore the different options of where you can take the song, therefore taking the listener along with them.

For Dominic, the art of composition also goes back to the letting go of personal Ego and allowing the music to dictate where the song should go. It also includes finding musicians that can be selfless and transparent in their performance, letting the song come through instead of drawing attention to themselves. As stated above, sound is also very important to him, getting the right tone, starting with his fingers, finding the “sweet spot” of each instrument, and delivering a performance that honors the composition. 

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Dominic likes creating space as well, allowing the listener to experience and really feel what is being played. This is very evident in his compositions, especially on the opening track of his latest CD Silent Light, entitled What You Didn’t Say,. The first couple chords are arpeggiated and end with this beautiful minor 2nd interval that just hangs there. The space allows you to soak in the overtones that ring out and experience the feel and atmosphere that is created. It immediately pulls you in and and keeps you there until the end. A perfect opening to a magnificent CD. 

Throughout Silent Light, Dominic takes you on a journey as he creates various moods and soundscapes that can sweep you away. Such is the case found in the track Water. The song starts out as a gentle sprinkling that washes over you, and as the song progresses, you find that you are swept up in the current and taken on a beautiful scenic journey.

Dominic mentioned that he also likes the song to be an interactive experience for the listener. He states that it is almost akin to a dinner date, saying it wouldn’t be an interesting date if he just sat there and told you everything he knew about the universe all in one shot. It’s preferable to leave room to breathe, listen, and have an interactive communication. That’s why he’s not trying incorporate everything he knows into one song, preferring Miles Davis’ philosophy of “the notes that you don’t play, are as important as the ones that you do”. You can hear a take on this philosophy in the beautiful song Angel, also found on his latest release, Silent Light.

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Listening to Dominic’s music, it is obvious thathe is very comfortable playing and composing in various styles. This is evident on the very hip track, Chaos Theory, where you are treated to a riveting groove that transitions into a bit of harmonic tension, weaving in and out of the disparate parts with finesse. This then leads into his gentle and beautiful version of the hugely successful Sting hit, Fields of Gold. A song on which Dominic also played on the original recording.

Dominic states that working with Sting has influenced him immensely as a songwriter, saying Sting has such a great “lateral line of thinking”, both musically and lyrically. Plus, he enjoys how Sting throws in unexpected twists and turns into his compositions. For example, in a certain situation where most composers may resolve to a major chord, Sting might go to the relative minor to create a darker, deeper feel. Dominic says that at times Sting may also go to a key change that at first listen, may make you question if it really works, and then he will build it into something beautiful.

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Dominic has been with Sting for over 28 years and when asked how he landed that gig, he says that while working with different producers and establishing himself in the business, his name was one that came up when Sting was looking for a guitarist. At the time, Dominic didn’t even consider himself that much of a fan as he wasn’t familiar with a lot of Sting’s material. Therefore, he didn’t put a lot of thought into it when they flew him to NY to jam with Sting. He reiterated that when he was young, he may have been slightly arrogant, and would probably approach the situation differently today. When he got the call, Dominic was still in the Pretenders and was quite happy there. He told Chrissy that he had to fly to NY to jam with Sting but he didn’t think it was his gig. He told her that he would se her upon his return. Chrissy however, looked worried, but he reassured her not to be concerned and that he would be back the following week. To his surprise, when he arrived in NY and started working with Sting, he said it was “musical love at first site”. They just seemed to gel. Even when co-writing, he says that they compliment each other well, leading one another in directions they may not normally go by themselves.

Although Dominic has been busy with Sting for almost 3 decades, he still finds the time to tour in support of his solo recordings, as well as touring with other artists. This provides a wide variety of musical situations. When asked about the diversity of artists and venues that he performs in, Dominic says they all have there own benefits and challenges. For example, playing in front of huge crowds in stadiums is actually easier for Dominic as he feels that he is part of something larger than the individuals involved. His first gig with Sting was in a large stadium, and when he revealed to Sting that this is the most people that he’s ever played in front of, Sting said that he would have guessed that much. Dominic then stated, “no, this most people I’ve ever played to with all my shows combined”. Although nervous at first, once Dominic stepped on stage, he realized it was about the event and not him personally. He now finds the club gigs a little more nerve racking. To Dominic, playing in front of 100 people where 50 of them are guitarists presents a whole different challenge. A little mental trick that he uses is to focus on playing to the “wives and girlfriends of the guitarists”, or the “non musicians” in the crowd. If you can get them interested in the music, and compel them to come to your show the next time you are in town, then you are accomplishing something worthwhile.

With Dominic’s New CD Silent Light, he once again produces gorgeous tones out of his guitar. While the CD is magnificently produced, the tone starts in Dominic’s fingers. When asked about the development of his technique to deliver such consistency beautiful tones, he states that it has developed over time. Dominic says that it basically starts with having a sound in his head that he wants to create, and then finding the sweet spot in the instrument and/or the gear to produce that sound. It may take longer to find on lesser instruments, but you can find it. He says Jeff Beck will always sound like Jeff Beck, and will always sound great, no matter what guitar or equipment he uses. 

When asked what the future holds for Dominic, he simply states, “keeping busy”. Touring with Sting as well as with his solo career tends to keep him on the road 10-11 months out of the year. This is such a passion for him and he feels so blessed and fortunate to still have these opportunities, it’s hard for him to turn them down. However, family is an important focus for him as well. So, arranging to have his wife and children transported to visit him on the road, although challenging, is a priority. Dominic says that he plans to keep doing this as long as he still enjoys it and can continue to grow as a musician. All while trying to balance it with his family life.

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We here at Guitar Connoisseur feel very fortunate to have had the chance to sit and chat with such a talented and gracious musician such as Dominic. His new release Silent Light, is extremely well crafted, composed and performed and it has the ability to pull you in and provide an escape. A real testament to his gift. We look forward to what he has in store for us in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Dominic Miller: “The notes that you don’t play, are as important as the ones that you do”

  1. He’s absolutely right. It’s not just about the notes you play. The silences between the notes are as important as the notes
    themselves

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