Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Develop a "Signature Sound"

I imagine most of you reading this can listen to a guitar player or solo on the radio or from a CD and instantly recognize the player as being Carlos Santana or Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck or B.B King or Duane Eddy or Scotty Moore. These are six great players that are not only well known, but they are well known for their unique “signature sound.” They don’t sound like anyone else and nobody else sounds like them.

How does one begin to develop a signature sound? Well, I have a few ideas to present to get you thinking along these lines. My theory is that there are essentially four ways a player develops a signature sound. Method 1 is without a doubt the best way to go about this. The guitarist is well schooled, well trained and well rehearsed, and has been developing the art of guitar playing for many years in a variety of bands and recording situations. Perhaps they have gone through a period of working as a studio musician and/or have become well known for being an important part of two of more well known bands. These players are so good that they can sound like anybody. The can imitate Santana or Clapton or Beck or King or Eddy or Moore. But they choose not to. Instead, they prefer to interpret the songs they record and perform in their own way, changing whatever is necessary about the arrangement until they arrive at a “feel” that is exactly what they were looking for on that song. This approach produces some great players who play with “feeling” and “personality.” The put a whole lot of themselves into the song, and the result cries “this is what I am trying to say and this is how I want to present this song to you.”

Needless to say, this method of developing a signature sound comes only with years of experience. Another method is just the opposite. In method 2, the player is very inexperienced and has not yet developed the ability to play as well as the other masters of his genre, but for some reason, his band became famous before they became accomplished musicians. This person’s playing is crude, unrefined and does not show an example of years of training and practicing. Yet, the songs are “catchy” and have become hits regardless of the lack of talent, and the guitarist is now famous for this “untrained” sound. Some of the “punk” bands of the `70’s are good examples of this “signature style.” We recognize the guitarist from the band and the song, the song is appealing, maybe crude and maybe not, but the guitarist’s style is a perfect fit for this band’s songs. Later, the guitarist might work with other bands and continue to use this “signature sound,” since it has been good to his career so far!

The third method I have in mind is rather unique, but you can easily find examples of players that have followed this approach if you do a little research. In this method, a player might be largely self-taught, perhaps getting help and advice from teachers along the way, or perhaps ignoring help and advice from teachers. The player creates original material, perhaps in combination with other players. They might form a band, and then rather than learning “cover songs,” they immediately go to work on original material, with each player contributing to what the end result should sound like. After doing this or a few dozen songs, the band begins to play some shows and perhaps gets a record contract. Now, for what makes this method unique; the members of the band don’t really care to listen to other music, and are not interested to comparing their music to any other artists nor do they wish to become part of a genre. The only music they recognize is that which they create. All other styles and influences remain foreign to them, unheard and unrecognized. They “shut out” other artists and are thoroughly engrossed in their own original, unique style of writing and performing songs. If they by any chance should happen to “cover” a song, it will sound very different from the original. Perhaps only the lyrics remain, or maybe also some of the original chord progression.

The fourth method of developing a signature sound is probably the most common. The multitude of players do not fit any of these first three methods because they (1) are not super talented and have many years of experience like the players described in method one; (2) they are serious students of the guitar and want to learn to play a combination of styles as well as possible, so they have progressed far beyond those described in method two; and (3) they don’t isolate themselves from other music and are open to many styles and seek influence from many great players, unlike those described in method three.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that any guitarist that doesn’t fit in any of the first three methods is automatically included in method four. Most of the remaining guitarists that do not fit any of the first three methods do not actually have a signature sound, so they are excluded from even method four because there is nothing unique to identify them from many other struggling guitarists. They are good players, but they are a dime a dozen. They are good enough that you would want this person in your band, and they would make your band sound better, but they simply don’t have a “signature sound!” Most guitarists go the whole way through their playing career without developing a signature sound. That doesn’t make them any less important, it only makes them less identifiable.

The fourth category of players has developed a signature sound as a “project.” It didn’t evolve naturally as in method one, by luck as in method two, or by design as in method three. The few guitarists that evolve from method four do so because they desire a signature sound, even though they haven’t “earned” one. They are skilled enough that they are aware what they sound like. They might be able to compare their playing to other musicians. The can probably lay down a good Clapton lick on one song and switch to a Santana feel for another song. The players in the fourth category are probably familiar with everything I’ve written about so far, they realize the importance of having an identifiable sound, and they simple set out to create a sound that will become their signature sound. Often, this happens along with the other members of the band changing their sound as well to fit the new signature sound. The new sound might be attached to a different style of playing, it might be taking the music that is currently being played and “bumping it up a notch” on the scale of musical standards, or it might just be a slight alteration of the player’s current style. Sometimes the new “signature sound” might be based on the sound of a favorite player, but with a “twist” that makes it unique. It is difficult to just sit down and “invent” a signature sound, but it can be done, and it has been done by many top guitarists throughout music history.

One last comment before I close; I’m not saying that you need to develop a signature sound in order to become a good accomplished guitarist. If nothing else, there is one concept I would like you to consider for each song you are playing now and also for each new song you learn, and that is this: “How would YOU play this song?” Think for a moment about what I just said. If this is an original song, YOU get to invent the guitar part. How do YOU think the guitar should sound on this song? What do YOU think the guitar should play? If it is a cover song, then the nature of your band will probably dictate whether you should play the guitar part note-for-note from the original recording, or better yet, will the band allow you to do your “interpretation” of the song? What I mean by that is that I already know how Clapton played the song, but I didn’t come to hear Clapton, I came to hear YOU! How will YOU play the song? What can YOU add to the song that Clapton may have overlooked? I have heard many guitarists cover a song from a super-star guitarist, and they have no chance of ever getting their solos and fills to sound as good as the original, but they we still able to make the song likable by being unique and putting a lot of their own feel into the song so that even though it might not have been a technical masterpiece of guitar wizardry like the original, it still sounds likable!

As always, I am interested in hearing any comments you might have about what I write. You may agree or disagree, but let’s have some fun and discuss these topics in the comments section! Thanks for checking in each week!


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