“How can I develop my own style…my own sound?” This is the second most frequently asked question I am asked (“How can I become a great guitarist?” is the first). As a very broad generalization, people in the United States tend to focus more on originality, in Europe people tend to focus more on mastery.
Among musicians in general and guitar players specifically, the approach that is commonly taken to being “original
” is often crippling, oppressing, unnatural. This is why so many people only seem to struggle and become frustrated. That is because the typical approach to being “original” is in direct conflict with the very meaning of the word “original
Think about it, the entire process of being original (and having your own style) should be Natural, Empowering and Liberating.
I strongly encourage you to read this article before reading any further: Originality (When And How).
Ok, so if you clicked on the link above and read the article, what follows will become much more clear.
Going Against The Grain…
When you try to “develop” your own style, by starting from the point of looking to your instrument, you are going against the grain and thus find it difficult to be original because all of the typical things done on the guitar have already been done by others. So in this case, you would be looking for innovation in a place where it no longer exists in abundance. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that I think you should avoid outside influences, in fact I think outside influence generally is a very good thing. To some this might appear to be a contradiction to what I had just stated, but it’s not.
The liberating and more successful path to take is to begin from inside yourself before doing anything. I believe this is to a fundamental principle that will always lead to true originality. Those who say you should not be influenced or listen to other musicians are not seeing the entire picture. In way they are on the right track, the problem is they remain on that track too long. Let me explain…
It’s All About YOU…
In the beginning of your musical journey to find yourself musically, focus on the fundamental nonmusical parts of yourself. Before reading any further, please get a pen and a sheet or two of paper. (Yes please do that right now, you will be glad you did.) Ok, now write down the answers to these questions in as much detail as possible. Some of these questions should really make you think.
01. Who are you as a person?
02. What thoughts dominate your mind most of the time?
03. What emotions are inside of you that you want to express in an artistic way?
04. What people have affected you and how have you dealt with those affects? How does it affect who you are now?
05. What events have affected you in profound ways? How might they have helped forged your personality when you were younger (especially in your critical teenage years)? How do these affect who you are now?
06. Why do you wish to express these parts of your personality?
07. Do you want to connect with the listeners of your music or are you only interested in making music just for your own sake?
08. Do you want to make your self expression vague or obvious to others that hear your music?
09. Is your primary goal to entertain listeners or to express yourself to them?
10. When you are successful at expressing yourself in your original way with your original style, if nobody likes it, will you still like it?
If all you ever did was look inward, get clarity on the answers to the 10 questions above, you will be 90% of the way to having your own style. The answers to these questions are the primary origins of expression. Even if you do not want to express yourself and prefer to express other things that have little or nothing to do with you, the primary source of your original style and expression will always originate from within.
Being original means “being who you really are”. It does not mean you have to be different from everyone else. There is probably nothing about any of us that is truly original really. There is no thought in our minds that some person throughout the world in the past 50,000 years has not already had. There is no emotion you will ever feel that someone, somewhere else has not also felt. So every aspect of who we are as people has been duplicated millions (or billions) of times. Yet we ARE all unique and different. We are different because nobody else in the history of humankind has the same exact combinations of thoughts, emotions and characteristics. My point is, you already are original, unique and different. So you don’t need to change anything about yourself in order to have your own style. When you “discover” (notice I did NOT use the word develop!) who you truly are, what you are all about, what you want to become as a person and have absolute clarity about it, you are ready to begin. And now you will develop your own style because you have discovered your true self. The whole musical process will become much easier now because you are working in a natural way…with the grain, not against it…
What To Do Now…
After you have focused on the mental side of originality and have clarity about what you want your style, sound and expression to be all about, you need to acquire more musical knowledge, skills, and application.
Knowledge And Skills
Understanding how music works (music theory) is critical. Yes, not every player with an original style studied formal music theory, but it would be a mistake to assume that these people were totally clueless about how music worked (at least for what they were trying to do.) Even a guy like Kurt Cobain at least understood how certain chords and notes he used would work together. Yes there was a lot of experimentation and improvisation that went into the creation of Nirvana songs, but too often people (even some Nirvana fans) are misinformed when they think all Kurt’s songs were written by complete accidents. Some level of musical understanding was in his mind.
The fastest and most effective way to learn music theory is to take music theory classes or work with a teacher. Be VERY careful of attempting to learn music theory on the internet, there is a LOT of wrong information about theory!
Aural Skills. You MUST master aural skills (ear training)! How can you possibly be effective in creating music when you don’t know what all the notes on the guitar sound like in advance? For more information check out my article on this topic: Aural Skills.
When you know how music works (music theory) and can hear it working in advance (aural skills), developing your own style becomes even easier. This is because when you hear something you like, you will immediately understand what it is, why it sounds good, how it works and most importantly how you can use it in your OWN WAY! For example, when you hear a very-cool-melancholy-dissonant-note over an E minor chord and you discover the note is an F#, if you understand that F# is the 9th of an Em chord and if you can hear that 9th sound, you will learn to recognize it every time you hear a 9th played over any minor 9th chord in any key. You will also be able to recall that “very-cool-melancholy-dissonant” note whenever you want to use it in your own playing, improvising and songwriting.
Pay attention to how chords work, how they interact with each other, how chords dictate the function of melodies. (This is all music theory stuff). Even if your main goal is to improve your soloing, the function of chords is critical. Before thinking about lead guitar ideas, know what your solo is being player over. This is so important because Harmony (chords) determine the primary emotional quality of melodic notes.
Try this, get your guitar, play your high E string open. Listen to how it sounds, what is the general feel of this note? Sounds basically neutral right? That is because the E note has not been put into any context (there have been no other notes being played before it, at the same time or after it). Now play an open E chord (with the high E string open). Listen to how the E note sounds now. Play an open C chord (again with the high E string open), now you hear the same E note in a new way. Since the chord changed from E major to C major, the function, sound and emotional quality of the E note changed. This is another small example of the importance of using theory and aural skills together. Knowing and hearing such things will greatly add to your ability to have your own sound. Yes, some other people already know and use this information on some level all the time. But it’s the way you use it to fit your own personality that emerges your own style (more on this later).
In addition to music theory and aural skills, fret board knowledge, physical technique and analysis are also very important skills.
Application, Application, Application…
Beginners and most intermediate players have not yet developed their own style because they don’t have enough knowledge and skills, this is to be expected - that is why they are have not reached the advanced levels yet. For those who do reach the advanced levels, many fall short in having their own style.
In order for these players to be on the advanced (in the way most people define it) levels as players, they will already have a good ear, understand how music works generally, know their way around the fret board, and have good physical technique. On the surface, it may appear these players should be capable of having their own sound. We all know that not every advanced player has a really unique style. Yes, some of these people are not interested in being unique or original (and that is perfectly fine), but for those that DO want their own style, there are two main reasons:
The first reason was already stated above in the section beginning with: It’s All About YOU…
The second reason is a major deficiency in application skills. The old saying, “Knowledge is Power” is totally false! The truth is: “What you DO with what you know is Power.” Knowledge is only “potential power”, it is a force multiplier, but not power itself. What you do with what you know is called application and…
Application Is The Bridge Between What You Know And The Results That Knowledge Can Give You!
Phrasing, Improvising and Songwriting are the main Application skills in music. Many fall short in these areas because they believe their first task is to learn about and then spend years practicing the guitar. With my own students, I generally have them working on application skills right away no matter what skill level they are currently at. It is a mistake to put off application skills until after one learns how to play well. Improvising, songwriting and phrasing need to be learned and practiced just like chords, scales, music theory and everything else. Make room in your practice schedule to include application skills regardless of your current abilities as a musician. If these things are totally new to you, find a great teacher to work with.
Congratulations on making it all the way through this long article! The next step you can take right now is to study the following supplemental articles:
Creativity And Expression. Part 1
Creativity And Expression. Part 2
Originality (When And How)
Copyright 2006 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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See Tom Hess on the HolyHell world tour in 2006. Tour dates posted here.