How To Sound Unique
The biggest compliment I ever receive is when people say to me "Chris,
every time I hear you on the radio, I just know it's you. You don't
sound like anyone else". I simply never tire of this. And the
reason is, this is something that I have focused on for many years
now. But it wasn't always that way.
Not at all. I started out playing rock and fusion music, much like many others, and of course I listened to all my heroes and tried to emulate them, and that's generally who I sounded like. Bad versions of my heroes.
The turning point for me was when I landed my first recording deal and made my first album. I remember a good friend of mine said to me at the time, "Chris you have decided to make a record with an archtop jazz guitar, playing clean. That's going to be hard to pull off. So many jazz guitarists sound alike, how are you going to separate yourself from the herd?"
That pill was a little hard to swallow. But what he was actually saying to me was that he couldn't tell my playing from a glut of other jazz guitar players out there.
But I thought about it. In a way he was right. Jazz guitarists do sound alike. They use similar technique, play traditional bop lines, and most of them play clean.
How many jazz guitarists can you name that you recognize immediately? But just as importantly, how many great players can you think of, that you can never quite put your finger on who they are? They might be this person or that.
Is it important? You might ask. No, not if it is not important to you. But most of us are looking for relative greatness and looking to communicate and expand our fanbases. And there is not one ambitious guitarist who secretly would not agree with that.
So where to begin? Well, the first thing to understand is that uniqueness is nothing that will happen over night, simply because you have now decided it is important to you. It will take years of refining. But it starts with the decision to want to be different. And I should also point out that, no doubt, some great players didn't even decide, they just sounded different. Luck maybe? I don't think so, I just think they focused on all the right things early on.
So what are the things to focus on? Well I believe that the day we start to sound unique is the day we decide to stop emulating our heroes. Too many of us get stuck ripping off Pat Martino licks or Pat Metheny's guitar tone. I've even seen guitarists stand the way they do. I understand it. But this has to go.
Spend a little time asking yourself why your favourite players sound unique? Wes Montgomery, at the time blew everyone away with his tone and time. But he played with his thumb pretty much exclusively. Django Reinhardt only had two fingers to play with on his fretting hand. Perhaps this contributed to such a unique sound, who knows. Clearly I am not recommending losing your fingers here! Stick with the ones you have!
John Scofield has a very legato, flowing style. This is because he doesn't pick every note, he uses a lot of hammer-ons. Pat Martino, on the other hand, has a rapid fire be bop vibe. This is because he picks every note. George Benson took Wes Montgomery's octave idea and introduced one extra note; a 5th, and produced a whole new unique sounding set of moveable ideas. Allan Holdsworth uses wide reaching intervals, and so on.
I should also mention at this point that the instrument you play will determine what kind of technique you develop. I started out playing strats playing fusion rock, so my technique was quite 'hammer-on' and legato-ish. Once I recorded my first album I had to completely re-learn my technique on an archtop jazz guitar. The notes don't ring like a solid body so you have to work the instrument more.
I remember a great bebop player said to me a few times how much he never liked the 'ooh-wah' school of guitar playing. By that he meant using hammer-ons like Holdsworth and Scofield. He preferred the picking every note approach. He sure played great too. Still does. And I took his words to heart as I admired his playing so much, and I adopted that pick-every-note thing for many years. But I have recently thought again about what he said, and for me, I don't agree now. It seems to me that picking every note is akin to a horn player tonguing every note, which could get quite old to listen to. Conversely, a more flowing legato 'hammer on' approach might be easier to digest. So what if we adopted both, just to cover the playing field of emotion? Just thoughts for you to consider.
And so I did just that, adopting both technique ideas, constantly trying to refine my individual tone and style. More recently I have decided that playing with a pick at all seems to get in the way of me and the instrument. Playing with the flesh part of the fingertips produces a huge fat sound that a pick doesn't, well for me at least. And I love the tone, so I'm developing that much more. But this is my path, different from your unique path.
But guitar tone is just one side of developing one's uniqueness. The other part is the execution of the notes (phrasing) and the note choices (harmony). And again, learning vocabulary from your heroes is absolutely fantastic, and should never be dismissed in your formative years. But later, to become a truly unique individual, we need to focus on ourselves and our own personal choices. That doesn't mean we stop transcribing other solos we like. It just means that whatever we choose to do, we make it our own distinct thing. And often that means disregarding things that don't sit well under the fingers. Anything that takes us out of the moment may not be conducive to honing our own vibe.
And we can do all that by simply figuring out lines, connections and movements ourselves, sitting down with the guitar. I did this a lot. For example, I studied Wynton Kelly's idea of playing altered lines and moving them down or up in minor thirds. He became famous for it. So after stealing a couple from him, I sat down and worked a few melodic inventions out for myself.
The more ideas you refine on your own, the more unique you will sound. And some of it will be luck. You may stumble on a great lick that falls just nicely under the fingers and people will say, "What's that, show me that, I haven't heard that before".
Uniqueness is not about abandoning everything you have learned. It is about refining everything you have learned, so nothing needs to go wasted. But it is time to become more aware of those 'classic' lines or licks that have been attributed to other great players and filter them, or make them 'you', just like George Benson did with that added note. Get known for your own thing, and of course I can't tell you what that is.
But most importantly I think it is about setting your bar really high and wanting greatness. A great deal of experimentation is key, and being open to all different styles and sounds is going to help. Those locked into the tradition of jazz guitar tend to reap what they sow. A tremendous and admirable pursuit, but in a saturated genre, there may be more likelihood of one melding with the masses rather than standing out from the herd.
But I could be wrong. The fact is we are all on our own path. Mine is clearly different from yours and yours is different from the next, and so on. And that's the magical thing about music. We are all truly unique. We just have to bring it out of ourselves.
Good luck in your pursuit of greatness.
Free online jazz guitar lessons for beginners, intermediates and advanced.
Online jazz guitar instruction from recording artist Chris Standring
Join The Inside Track membership and get access to all Chris Standring's guitar instructional programs, all in one place.