Art vs. artifice
I'm beginning to realize that playing the guitar is a kind of parlor trick. Every guitarist has his own style, his own flair, his own bag of favorite tricks. Put a guitarist into an unfamiliar musical situation - improvising a part to someone else's music, or playing with unfamiliar musicians - and he'll fall back onto his familiar bag of trigs. Granted, some tricks are more sophisticated, flashy, memorable or impressive than others. But they're still tricks - practiced, conditioned responses designed to fit within a certain framework. Whether it's a grab bag of blues cliches or the jazz guitarist's encyclopedic knowledge of which scales to play over certain chords, there's always a reiteration of carefully practiced and refined techniques that fit - automatically and thoughtlessly - into the current musical context.
Every craftsman makes something. It's often said that guitarists make decisions. I certainly don't deny the difficulty of making the correct decision at each moment in time, nor that of framing a series of decisions to - for example - develop a solo such that it has a clear beginning, middle and end rather than being a strung-together series of cliches designed only to fill time. But improvised music rarely transcends artifice to become art.
As long as the musician sticks with his familiar bag of tricks, no careful or clever selection can produce the element of surprise. A listener may indeed be surprised, not being aware of the full extent of the tricks in the musician's repertoire. But the musician, knowing full well the scope, sound and nature of every trick in his bag, is surprised only by an unanticipated shift in context or by (consciously or not) inventing and developing a new trick in the heat of the moment. This might be an attempt to play outside or to grab a handful of strings in an unfamiliar way. It might also be the ability to recognize the unexpected new possibilities inherent in a mistake and to follow the consequences wherever they may lead. In these moments, music becomes exploration rather than reiteration.