How To Develop Your Own Style. Part 1: It's All About You!

Among musicians in general and guitar players specifically, the approach that is commonly taken to being original is often crippling, oppressing, unnatural.

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How can I develop my own stylemy 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 waywith 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.

    To sign up for Tom's free guitar instructional newsletter, visit the official Tom Hess web site.

    See Tom Hess on the HolyHell world tour in 2006. Tour dates posted here.

  • 79 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Stratocaster93
      I just noticed that the self advertising thing isn't there. OK sorry, nevermind... ...I really feel like a shit now...
      Repitition
      Lost count. People who claim posts, answers me this, why? Kurt knew about keys at MTV Unplugged he was talking about playing something in a different key. Plus even if you don't know about theory most people can feel and understand (consciously or unconsciously) the basics because all the music we listen to is based on that so we know about it.
      NevermorePsalm
      Great Article, totally great. Although I've already gained some amount of control over my own sound and style, I'll try and apply this to wherever I can. Really good job.
      Craigo
      Well written, but ideas seem unappealing and not wanted. Sorry bro. Five stars - four for effort and presentation and etc, one for context.
      Inahrima
      Great article, but now suddenly post numbers dont matter? I WAS BANNED for writing 50th i think on some article...
      Dan Steinman
      Zorc wrote: I try my best not to use (or overuse) power chords? Is that bad?
      well, you know, they have their use, and you can get a great sound with them in rock and metal. just don't rely on them completely, you'll only limit yourself.
      auranos
      wingedgopher wrote: appropriate picture- billie joe armstrong. love him or hate him, he definitely has his own style.
      Too bad a generation of guitar players are learning poor technique because of it..."Look ma, no wrist!"
      wingedgopher
      appropriate picture- billie joe armstrong. love him or hate him, he definitely has his own style.
      fonzicus
      great, i read this after i form my own personal style turns out that slapping a guitar like a bass really does work
      Zorc
      I try my best not to use (or overuse) power chords? Is that bad?
      drugless_stoner
      i kinda get what this guy means by europeans going for mastery rather then originality, and americans going for originality, just for example, take the two great jimmys, page and hendrix, page was english, european, he was original, but what do you know him for, his complete mastery of the guitar in every possible way(and this is coming from a guy who doesnt like jimmy page, lol) then you have jimi hendrix, yeah, he was a master, but what do you know him for, being completley original and using evry thing from his amp to his ****ing teeth to get an original song. now they are just some examples, and i know you can argu taht punk became big in britain first and tahts all about originality, or that blues started in america and tahts all about mastery, but i can see where this gy is coming from
      DEVEL
      although everything has been done 10000 times over its still possible to be "unique". nice article
      ArcherTheVMan
      it seems to me that he is a very mathematical person, not literally but he, well, reminds me of someone whos listened to all of salesman techniques tapes amway and such. he puts people in a position and predicts everything they will do. its rather intimidating.
      ArcherTheVMan
      no, i also disagree with his tone, his view that people are predictable and take the wrong approach. i want to read this but its continually frustrating by his generalised assumptions and cynical thoughts.
      DanimalCrackers
      Gibson_Rocker13 wrote: genresrforposer wrote: 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. as is the same w/every other rock band, including metallica who many ppl think b/c of their advanced playing aren't experimenting but 'tallica does it tha same way as every1 else.(see s&m extras dvd where hetfield has no idea wat tha hell composer kaimen means by "4/4 time" and claims his music is "just felt" face it: rock musicians for the most part DO just feel their way around after learning only wat they need n throwing away their sheet music. it may only b this ge so true.i dont know shit about theory and ive written some damn good stuff
      If you want to be a truly well-rounded and exceptional guitar player and songwriter, you learn theory. There is a reason why Kirk plays the solos and not James. It can be easy to get by just by throwing things together that you pull out of your ass, but with musical knowledge you can be more efficient and write on a whole other level.
      Bulletbass man
      It's a decent article. I don't really agree on the topic. I'm more of a find your style on your own type of guy but you posted some points i haven't seen before.
      poopikins
      side thought, i wonder what music would sound like from someone whose never heard music ever before. that'd be interesting. Just like, leave them a guitar and that's it... lol...
      Answer: crap! He'd be so amazed by any basic discoveries that he might make that he'd never advance beyond them. Remember that the music we listen today is built on thousands of years of experimentation. He'd have to have twice the musical genious of Mozart to come up with anything good =).
      ezD
      this is the most i've gotten out of the tomhess articles yea
      diego224
      i just accopmlished licking my elbow! WOOT!...great article by the way, good "hess" page too
      guitar.child
      kirk hammet may play the solos. but look at dave mustaine never taken lessons adn he plays solos too. better yet look at Jani Latiemmen from sonata arctica he never took lessons adn look how bad ass he is. music theory may help but pure talent has its own pros
      smalRaptor
      An amazing article, nice work. Your playing style should develop naturally. But if you're a metal head, or only listen to Green Day, you're not gonna be 'unique'. I believe your influences should vary heavily.
      wanna_lick_me?
      most original musicians don't realize they're creating something new until many years after.
      TeleMasterfast wrote: pretty good...though as some guys said, reading an article about how to be original, destroys whatever aura of originalness that person had (? I don't think originalness is a word...meh who cares)
      ORIGINALITY, dumbass.
      desimate
      bit long, i got distracted half way trough and didnt finish, wot i did read was good, it was just dragged out too much
      kelso12345
      if we read on how to be unique, not very unique is it?
      its not telling you how to be unique it helping you figure out who you are to be unique.
      wanna_lick_me?
      wingedgopher wrote: appropriate picture- billie joe armstrong. love him or hate him, he definitely has his own style.
      if i shove my guitar up my ass and take a shit, hell thats pretty original. doesnt mean its gona be any good tho.
      Gibson_Rocker13
      genresrforposer wrote: 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. as is the same w/every other rock band, including metallica who many ppl think b/c of their advanced playing aren't experimenting but 'tallica does it tha same way as every1 else.(see s&m extras dvd where hetfield has no idea wat tha hell composer kaimen means by "4/4 time" and claims his music is "just felt" face it: rock musicians for the most part DO just feel their way around after learning only wat they need n throwing away their sheet music. it may only b this ge
      so true.i dont know shit about theory and ive written some damn good stuff
      Stratocaster93
      Pretty good. I don't like the self advertising thing at the end of all this guy's articles. Maybe give us a link to your website or something, but don't just flat out tell us how great you are. You're articles have a nice "down-to-earth" feel and that thing at the end kind of ruins the effect. I like your articles though. Very informative.
      vantage4
      that's a really good article, it seems to address a pretty common problem for a lot of people and had some good ideas. well done!
      Inf1n1tY.
      C3_Rocka : if we read on how to be unique, not very unique is it?
      This has some truth in it =) =)
      markoos
      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.
      ?????
      Mky
      147th!!!! ?What you DO with what you know is Power.? Way to go!