It’s serious-face on this time, boys and girls – we’re tackling everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how to get your own playing style, but never dared to ask. I can’t promise definitive answers, but I can guarantee a mild migraine and some prime, layman philosophisin’ (really?) about this most abstract of all music-related concepts.
We’ve all heard it. Someone talks about a favourite player, and at some point the S-word pops up: Style. “So-and-so has a style all of their own.” “I could recognise such-and-such with just a few notes”, or alternatively “this guy is a good player, but he has no style of his own”. So style it seems, is important. But what is style, and where do you go to get it? Do you already have a style that is innate, or is it something you develop? If you don’t have a style, is all that practicing, writing and playing futile?
What Is Style?
If we’re going to have any hope of successfully figuring out style as a concept, we’ll have to come to some sort of definition of the term. What do we mean when we say style? Is it the notes people play? Is it the sounds they use? Is it everything apart from the notes and the sounds? Crikey, this style business is complicated…
OK, the notes basically have to be a factor, because without them you’re left with silence. The silence between the notes is definitely a part of someone’s style, but if you remove the notes from the equation completely, the whole discussion becomes
even more pointless.
The chords, or (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) the harmonic climate, will put every note you play (or don’t play) in a context that will differ from another person’s harmony. In other words the chords you chose will be as big a part of your style as the actual notes you play over them.
Are your lines/melodies/compositions dramatic? Do they have an intensity curve, or do they feel static? Do they get to the point quickly, or do they meander a bit? In short, is there any drama there?
Is your tone, or tones, the result of careful tweaking and matching of different kinds of equipment, or is it a result of random gear purchases? The sounds at your disposal will definitely be a factor in defining your style (or lack thereof).
What Do We Know So Far?
Apparently everything contributes to your style, so we’re not really any closer to finding the stuff that makes a style – and there’s the rub: Style can be thought of as being the way in which all of these disparate elements blend and influence each other, not one or two things in isolation. In other words, style can be thought of as the sum and differences of all the elements in your playing, so it’s not a thing – it’s a pattern!
Aesthetic Choice As Prism
You know how prisms work, right? They split what we see as white light into its constituent colours (just think of the cover to Dark Side Of The Moon). My slightly broken metaphor is that style is like a prism, or maybe more accurately, like a filter. Your style is your interpretation of what is musically desirable, in combination with what is actually within the reach of your musical understanding and technical abilities. As Jerry Garcia once said, style is a result of what you can’t do. Style as filter, indeed.
Limitations are usually thought of as things to overcome. They’re weaknesses that we should get rid of, and only when we’ve accomplished this, can we be complete musicians. Right… Well, I think that one of the cool things about style is that it can come as a result of you working around your weaknesses. Instead of thinking about all the techniques you don’t yet master, how about taking a more pragmatic approach? OK, I can’t play line X with the alternate picking skill I have now, but is there another way of playing it? Hybrid picking? Slurring? Tapping? Fingerstyle? Maybe a hybrid picking approach would make it sound fresh? Maybe even make it sound like… you?
I’ve quoted Ty Tabor in these pages earlier, and I’m going to do it again. He said that what was key in him getting a style of his own, was embracing all the little annoying things that he did when he failed at replicating Brian May, or any other hero. Those little perceived faults can probably be developed into something that is just yours, and therefore is unique. The challenge is to be confident enough to accept your own playing. No matter how hard you try to be the next Eddie Van Halen, the only thing you’re going to accomplish is being a good copy. There already is an Eddie Van Halen – the world doesn’t need another, slightly less good version of him. Steal his licks and techniques, and then make them your own by injecting them into stuff that Eddie would never do, but that feels natural to you. Oh, and start writing music – you’ll never sound like yourself if you’re just playing Van Halen riffs.
So, How Do I Get A Style?
Hopefully we agree that style is often defined by limitations. As we all have them, the question becomes what sets people with their own style apart from people who seemingly don’t have one? First of all, they’ve had the courage to develop it instead of working hard to play like someone else. Secondly, style is in some ways other people’s perception of your playing. From time to time people have told me “that’s so typical of your playing”, while I haven’t really heard any of the things I know I do all the time. Another time a friend of mine told me that my playing was similar to a well-known player. I had heard of this player, but never heard any of his music. I found a song on YouTube that was supposed to be “just like me”, and I didn’t recognise anything vaguely similar to my playing, apart from a couple of things that I think are bad habits. So do I have my own style? I know that there are a couple of things I do all the time, so in that way I’m recognisable, but a style? Work in progress, I guess.
Home assignment: Steal something you love (and can play) from your favourite player, and alter it until it doesn’t sound like something he or she would play. Continue working on it until it sounds OK, and then start injecting it into your own playing. In time, someone might tell you that you have your own style.
How about you? Do you have an easily recognisable playing style, and if so – how did you go about getting it? If not – is getting your own playing style a priority for you?