I believe I developed a personal style as a player in spite of my education. This might sound like a flip statement, but it’s taken many years to understand. I’m grateful to have had the training I did, but I didn’t fully understand how working to become a professional could also slow the process of becoming an artist.
It’s a product of the training and trajectory of an educated musician.
From young fan imitating my heroes, to music student, to working player just trying to be prepared for the next gig, a good portion of my musical life has centered on imitating and reproducing familiar sounds. You could probably say the same for most people who play, especially those with formal training. After all, that formal education is meant to build the basic skills you need to play any style of music. You can choose to focus on a particular genre or specialty, but a professional player doesn’t always know what the next gig will be and therefore needs to be able to function in a variety of musical settings.
I used to embrace this philosophy fully, both as a player and a teacher. It’s like the “liberal arts” model of music: regardless of where you land professionally, a well-rounded education is the best preparation. This is certainly true of the freelancer and pro side player, and as a gigging musician that background kept me working. Rock, blues, jazz, country, folk, classical – whatever the gig called for, I wanted to be prepared for it. When I was devouring the pages of Guitar Player magazine as a teenager I read every article and every lesson column, whether I understood it or not, and I meant to learn more if I didn’t. My goal was to be the best and most well-rounded musician I could be.
An artist doesn’t share the same imperatives as a working pro player.
A performing artist needs a distinctive style and sound in order to stand out, and the most successful are often the most strikingly original. When I look back at the musicians that had the biggest impact on me as a player, you could say that about virtually all of them. Even the instrumentalists have an identifiable “voice”. Pioneering Latin rock guitarist Carlos Santana once said in an interview, “your tone is your face. Why would you want to look like someone else?”
When I was first learning to play I was a student and a fan first, learning by imitating my heroes. They taught me what was possible, expanding my concept of what a guitar could do, and I built my vocabulary by stealing from them all. But while many of these players were and are great masters of their instrument, they were not chameleons. They may have started off as I had, imitating their inspirations, but eventually began to stake out territory of their own. This became style as it solidified into a vocabulary and an overall approach.
Developing an individual style may not be a high priority for the average student or hobbyist.
Learning to play favorite songs is satisfying enough for many people. But even if your musical tastes as a listener are diverse, you might find that you have a musical “home base” that you return to even as you explore other, different sounds. So style is defined by musical preference and genre, as well as your own aesthetic sensibility. We all gravitate towards sounds we find pleasing and compelling.
The finer technical points of style develop over time. Every aspect of your technique has an impact on your sound, including the way you breathe and carry your body. So even if you’re not consciously trying to be an individual, you already are. When you start to recognize this, you become faced with an important choice: how much do you allow your predispositions to shape your style, or do you consciously try to absorb things you admire in other players?
This is not necessarily a conscious decision. Intuitive players are naturally guided by what they hear and find pleasing, so individual style often takes care of itself. The player that chooses to develop more wide-ranging skills is also choosing to have more control over their options. When you have more control and a larger vocabulary, a player’s style can change according to the demands of the music. This is a must for the professional session player and most working musicians in general.
For a creative artist, though, this kind of versatility has a downside.
A distinctive voice can be obscured by stylistic “masks”. Again, this can be a conscious choice if the player is being called upon to reproduce a sound. But the most distinctive artists’ style comes through in any musical setting. These can be a product of the player’s physical approach to the instrument – touch, attack, energy – or their musical choices.
You may not have begun to develop a “sound” of your own. As you continue to learn, though, you will find that some things come more naturally than others. Don’t shy away from the challenges, they will help you grow! But do start to recognize your comfort zone, and get to know that territory as well as you can. There’s always more you can do to develop your style with confidence and authority. You might find yourself gravitating to a certain style of playing. Explore the nuances that make great players sound the way they do.
Style is ultimately a product of our influences, but also of the choice to be an individual.
For some people this occurs naturally. If you’re still a beginner or long-term beginner this process may not have begun yet. But the more you play and the better you listen, a sound will begin to take shape. When that begins to happen, embrace it and dive in deeper. Sometimes that means working with and around your limitations. but that won’t stop you from growing. What it will do is allow you to grow as an artist, not just a player.