Finding Your Own Voice

You play music. You saved your money and bought a good guitar and a good amplifier, too. You have managed to get your amp to produce a good guitar sound. You can pretty much play whatever is required for the songs you know how to play - and you play them well enough. But...

Your sound just doesn't have that unique thing you were hoping for, that signature tone that separates you from everyone else, which makes you, well, you, and which makes it easy for people to identify that it is you playing, not someone else.

This can be true of virtually all instruments you care to name, with the possible exception of piano. A piano is going to sound like a piano, but it's what the player does on the piano that defines their "sound". For a piano player, it is all about cadence, touch, rhythmic approaches and melodic note choices than "sound", which produces a unique identity.

A perfect example of this is to listen to a Mozart sonata, compare it with a Clementi sonata or a Beethoven sonata. Once you know what you are listening to, the differences virtually leap out at you. So it is with piano players.

Back to guitar. For a player to have a unique sound on the guitar requires more than amplifiers, pedals, specific guitars and specific pickups.

Let's face it. A Gibson cranked through a Marshall amp is going to pretty much have "that" sound. The same can be said for a Strat or Tele cranked through whatever amp you care to mention. It really isn't about the gear as much as you might wish to think.

So how does one get a personal and unique sonic signature?

Learn from the piano players and horn players, not the guitar players.

When guitar players get together and talk about their sound, the more experienced players, such as myself, who've been playing at a professional level, for many years, will tell you pretty much the same thing:

Your tone, your signature sound, is not in the gear, it's in you. Ninety percent of your "sound" your "tone" is in your fingers, and your "touch".

Neil Schon is famously quoted as saying of switching from Gibson to Fender for a while, that he learned right away that it wasn't the guitar that created his signature sound, but himself. He said it was a big eye opener for him to come to that realization, that he sounded the same, regardless of the guitar.

If you continue to listen, you will find that we all agree, it takes time to learn to coax that sound out of yourself. You have to be patient about it. It will not come overnight, period. It will take more time than you want. How long depends upon how much you play, how dedicated to improving your craft you are.

The Process

As you learn to play the guitar, your sound changes. If you were to record a snapshot of your ability and sound at six month intervals over the course of your learning curve from the beginning, you will hear a distinct difference at each point, with each snapshot. Why?

You learn to play something, then you begin to get comfortable with what you are learning. As you learn more stuff, you go through the same phases of discomfort, and through the process of getting your fingers to do what you want them to do, what the given subject requires, to the point that you can now play the chord or riff, or whatever it is, with relative ease, but not with confidence. But over time that confidence grows along with the ability to nail the bits you've been learning, and now can play well. And the sound of those things has improved along with your confidence and ability to play them.

Take your playing in a global way; look at your playing as an overall whole. Again, as you improve, your confidence in what you are doing improves, too. As you can play things with less focus on the doing (the mechanics), and more on the playing (the flow and emotion), the sound begins to coalesce into a more pleasant and consistent sound, a higher level of tonal quality.

Now, if you are striving to reproduce the sound of a specific guitar player, for whatever reason, such as being part of a tribute band, that process is one in which you have to literally mold your playing to conform to a specific set of requirements - which means trying to keep you out of the equation - at least to some degree.

And if you are in a working band, playing cover tunes, you may want to duplicate the sonic character of each guitar player, again, to some degree.

In both cases, you will need to pay closer attention to how they play, how they approach music, and the guitar. But that isn't the key to "sounding" like them.

Let me back up for a moment...

When I was learning to play the guitar, way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, every guitar player I came across was trying to emulate, to play like Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, Page, the Kings, and others. They bought the gear, the records, and began to tear apart the songs and learn every lick - even the mistakes - in an effort to sound like them. It's what we did.

I resisted that to a point because I had already been writing music for a while by 1970. I was striving after my own voice. In hindsight, I really should have done some of what all the other guys were doing. They learned more stuff sooner than I did, but I had a more defined and personal sound well before they did. It was a trade-off I was willing to make.

But here is what I learned by watching others in their struggle to learn the licks of their guitar heroes, and from my own effort to play as well. In learning to play, and watching others learn to play, I heard the improvements in touch, confidence in execution, even technical abilities over the course of about five or so years in both them and myself.

I also found that the "secret" to emulating another guitar player was not in duplicating their gear, and trying to duplicate their touch, their feel. That is literally impossible to do. But, what you can do is emulate the spirit behind the music. I know this sounds metaphysical, but it really isn't. Another way of putting it that the secret is to understand the thinking that underlies the approach to the music of that particular player. Do that, and the way you play those songs will instantly change from an "interpretation" and become more of an "homage", and so more "authentic".

An homage is not intended as a note for note recreation. It is intended as a tip of the hat, a nod, an honouring of the person/band and their music. You strive not to reproduce a note for note copy (though that may be what you choose to do on some songs), but to convey the spirit of the music, using the song as the vehicle, in your "cover" of a given song or as part of the tribute performance.

When I figured this out, I stopped trying so hard to sound like Clapton, Beck, Page and the others, and began to tap into the spirit behind the music. As a result, I actually sounded closer to how these guys play than other guitar players, all of whom were striving for note-for-note accuracy in copying the guitar licks and rhythms. When these players would ask me what I did, how I do it, I told them my "secret".

This allows you more freedom, too. Listen to the studio version of a song, then the live version. They aren't the same. So, neither should your performance of a given song, in homage, be exactly the same. What you do is play "in the style of", using the signature licks, and adding genre appropriate ad libs and even thematically composed passages, rooted in the stylistic approach of the given musician. You will not only sound more authentic to the player, but also the style, because you are tapping into the spirit behind the music, not simply mechanically reproducing a note for note copy.

The Real World

When I work as a hired player, whether in studio or on tour, I sometimes have to learn someone else's guitar parts, even follow strict notated passages. Sometimes I am allowed a certain degree of freedom (mostly in the solo sections, unless the solo is very specific in what needs to be played). I seek to capture the spirit behind the musical composition and style. In most cases, my employers are more than satisfied, in part because I am infusing "new" energy into the songs. If they really want the "note for note" thing, then I certainly give them that, but with my own stylistic approach (within reason and without compromising the intent and spirit of the guitar part being played). Rarely am I told to change anything when I do that.

In the studio, I am often asked to work without a "formal" chart. What I have is a basic chart of the arrangement, the chord progressions. I am given a guideline, but nothing hard and fast. I get the "Can you play with this style or feel?" questions and requests. The producer has an idea what they want, apart from the rhythm sections, but they're not quite sure the sound they want. I am directed to play something appropriate in the eight to twelve bar solo section I am given. They want to see if I can bring something "better" to the composition.

But because I am a different person than the next guy, my style will always peek through whatever I am playing. Here's an example of what I mean...

I did some session work a number of years ago for a singer. It was pretty standard stuff. All she needed was some rhythm guitar for the songs. That was fine, but she also need help with the arrangements. So we sat down and laid out the core arrangement of verse, chorus and bridge. An easy gig.

About five years later, I saw her site on the Web and went to see how she was doing. I clicked on one of her songs and listened. Something familiar was coming out of the speakers. I realized that I was listening to my playing. I had thought she would have created a fuller production of the song later, but she kept my guitar part. When listening to the guitar, I recognized some stylistic artifacts that are clearly "me". I recognized my approach to playing, the emphasis on certain elements, accent placement and so forth. It was interesting to experience that recognition years later. It was uncredited work, but I don't really care. I know who it is on the guitar!

I Gotta Be Me...

So here's what you want to be aware of. At the end of the day, you just have to be who you are. You recognize where you need improvement, work on that, and continue to progress. Your sound is evolving. And it will evolve forever - unless you consciously decide to "keep" your sound, to crystalize your sound to always be "this". The settings on your amp will never change, the speaker choices will never change. You freeze a moment in time, so to speak, and that becomes your sound.

A perfect example of this: Santana. Believe me, I love his sound. But the problem I have with his playing is.... his sound. He has always had great tone, always. That's not the issue for me. What I find a little perturbing is that Santana's sound got frozen in time. I listened to Supernatural, and it was instantly understood, that's Santana. Same sound he had twenty years ago.

Now, I'm not talking about style, or tone. I'm talking about the sound.

Listen to people like Eric Clapton. His sound has been "evolving", changing over the years. He has changed guitars, amps, everything, as he has matured, even his approach to music has changed, and that is the primary reason his sound has changed. Pete Townshend doesn't sound like he used to, either. Same reason. His approach to music has been changing. Name a guitar player who has been around a long time and you will hear the maturity in their sound, the evolution of their sonic signature over the course of their career.

You can't get stuck. And you shouldn't allow yourself to get stuck. Okay, that's my opinion. But if you listen to stuff I recorded thirty years ago and compare it to stuff I do now, you will find I sound "different". You might recognize stylistic elements that remain, but the sound has evolved, changed, and *gasp* matured.

I'm not twenty-three anymore. I don't think like that guy anymore. I've grown. I've improved. I've expanded my influences. And that is the single biggest factor in the evolution of all guitar players' sound: more influences and expanded knowledge and understanding of music. The more influences you bring into your playing, the more knowledge you bring into your understanding about music and what is possible, the more it all will affect how you sound.

This is a natural process, to grow, to mature, to expand knowledge, and should not be discouraged. It should be encouraged because it is how you achieve your signature sound, though evolving, and it helps to define and refine your style and approach.

This is a good thing. Embrace it. Love it. And always, always keep growing and expanding. After all, it's the journey, not the destination, that matters in music. And that includes the evolution of you and your sound.