Here we go, the biggest, most vague subject of them all: style. How to sound like “you.”
Indeed, how do you sound like you?
Somebody in the back shouts:
“Just pick a note! That’s how you sound like you – by playing.”
It’s that simple. Just by playing you are attaching your musical and physical fingerprints to the sounds you create. They can be unique and beautiful or sound just like somebody else. All colors of the musical rainbow have their place. For me however, the ultimate goal when playing music is to create a personal style – or “stamp” – that people can recognize in a couple of notes.
I have all of my ʻukulele music sorted into its own genre in my iTunes library. If I press “shuffle” I want to hear a style that sounds so unique I can place the player in the first five seconds without first recognizing the song. I believe we should each strive to have a signature style that is so easy to identify.
If by playing you are automatically creating your own style this should be a short post. It’s not. Here are some thoughts that I’ve explored. They are by no means “correct” or “right,” but maybe they will give you ideas and inspiration on how to learn about yourself and your music better. I’ll quote Victor Wooten from his book The Music Lesson:
WARNING: Everything in this book may be all wrong. But if so, it’s all right!
Same for this post. This is a realm with no rules and scant previous writings to build on.
The Sound In Your Head
Sometimes I daydream about performing years down the road when I’m a “pro” and I imagine what my playing will sound like. Maybe you do too. This is probably the truest form of our own style – when you aren’t limited by your current playing abilities. What your mind can imagine has no boundaries and is therefore the best place to take a “listen” to the awesome player you want to be. Once you can mentally “hear” how you actually want to sound, you have something a tad more tangible to work with.
The harder part is advancing to a point where you can get what’s in your head out into the real world. Once you can do that, you have pretty much arrived at your style. But there are some questions to ponder before accepting the Sound In Your Head for what it is. How does it get there? Why does it sound like it does? Is it as true to you as possible?
I’m convinced that the Sound In Your Head is created by a mental device that functions like a “mental sieve of awesome-ness.” This sieve collects all of the musical ideas, songs, sounds, lyrics, pictures, places, etc… that inspire you and compiles them into a sound (maybe even a feeling or color that inspires a sound). The stuff you like gets caught in the mesh and the stuff you don’t like falls through – just like lumps of flour in a real sieve. What gets stuck are (hopefully) the most beautiful parts of your existence, converted into music. To a certain extent you limit your sieve of awesome-ness by the types of music you listen to. Someone who listens to only Metallica and Megadeath is probably not going to have much Simon and Garfunkel influence in their sound.
Experiment: Think of five musicians you idolize. Try to imagine them being smashed into one person. This Being plays your instrument better than anyone on the planet. This Being also has better tone and musical statements than any other musician on the planet. Do you think the sound of this Being’s style is similar to what you eventually would want to sound like, given enough lifetimes? Hmm…
At first I wanted to play just like my idols. I learned (and still do) their songs, licks, inflections, state of mind, gear, and, short of having their own fingers, their style. At a certain point though you’ve got to stop and take stock of your real goals. If you go unchecked you can get to the point where you are actually trying to steal the Sound In Their Head. Why would you want to do that when you can have your own Sound? After all, it’s truer and more personal than anything you could ever take from someone else.
Even if you could perfectly rip off your hero’s style, everyone would know. You would sound just like that person. In my opinion, that is a very bad thing because if you are compared to something you can never really be, you will always fall short. You will never have your own voice and will forever be walking in a shadow. I know of many people who are “Jake carbon-copies.” They play very well, but they play just like Jake. I’ve seen Jake in concert. I have some of his CDs. Why would I go to their concert or buy their CD if it’s just like Jake? I’d rather put my money towards the original instead of some ghost who is creating a false representation of someone else’s music.
But copying is part of how we learn. Always will be.
There are great benefits to trying on different musical shoes. You can learn so many great things your otherwise wouldn’t by figuring out how an artist does this lick or that lick. However, once you start sounding like somebody else you cease to be “You – The Musician/Artist.” Instead you’ve become, “You – Trying to be Like So-and-So” whether you intend to copy or not. This means the Sound In Your Head has been lost (to a certain extent). It’s been replaced by one part of the Being from the above experiment. Why have only one influence when you can have thousands for a more detailed and diverse sound? When you work only with the borrowed style it’s like you are taking a beautiful picture and reducing it to only 8 colors.
Now I’m going to throw some numbers in the air. Maybe they are close, maybe they aren’t. Doesn’t matter. Let’s just say that the Sound In Your Head is derived 75% from influences. That leaves 25% created purely by you.
When you begin developing that 25% there are no longer any influences to hide behind – the awesome “Being” from the experiment has been internalized and “forgotten.” The goal is to be able to play the Sound In Your Head, not like the Five-People-Person. The later will get you 75%, but you’ll be missing the important ingredient – spices. A pot of chili by mass is 99% meat, beans, and veggies, but without that last percent of spices – meh – it doesn’t taste very good. That’s how I see the last 25% of style.
Maybe you had already guessed that your influences played a big part in your sound and you’d been waiting for me to tell you how to get the last 25% and sound like you. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I can’t help much. I’m still working on finding my own sound.
From what I can tell, the moments that I sound the most like “Brad” are:
- When I’m writing or playing an original song. A creation purely my own has no preconceived anythings and is a total blank slate to exercise my own sound as much as possible. Herb Ohta Jr. always encouraged me to write my own songs because it forces you to grow as an artist. If you always play somebody else’s song you never have a chance to find out what your songs might sound like.
- When I make a lucky mistake and find gold. This is a real treat. Diddle around on your instrument long enough and you’re bound to do something new and different that you don’t think you’ve heard before. Take that gem and polish it into something you can use intentionally. Practice it, mutate it into other forms, internalize it so that it becomes yours.
Sadly I probably never will complete the goal of discovering my 25%. Nor will anyone else. It’s a constantly moving target. As your likes and dislikes change so will your goals as they relate to your style. Look at an artist over the span of thirty years. Have they evolved? I would hope so. They’re still chasing the sound inside their head.