One of my many fine guitar students loves Slash. No, I mean he really really really loves Slash. During our lesson the other day, I mentioned other guitarists I felt he should be listening to in order for him have a more well-rounded listening experience as a young guitarist. As part of his homework assignment, I wrote down the names of a few amazing players and told him to look them up on YouTube; and not to listen to Slash for a week. He looked at me and said, “This is the worst homework ever.”
I had to laugh because we have all been there. We have all immersed ourselves in our influences and copied every single lick, stage move and nuance of their playing. While this is an important starting point, there comes a time where we all had to shed these primary influences and seek out others, musical and non-musical, in order to grow as a guitarist, musician and as an individual. Musicians are, for the most part, creatures of habit, happy to feel safe in one place musically. It takes courage to have open ears, hearts and minds to expand our creativity into uncharted territories. In this blog, I will discuss using influences to discover our own unique voice on the instrument.
Let’s say you have a geat chord progression but want to spice it up a bit but don’t know how to approach it. You can, for example, listen to the outstanding lead/rhythm work that Pete Townshend uses on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. You can also break the chords up and add some different extended notes to be more spacious and less “rock”. Listen to how Alex Lifeson of Rush uses chords to create unique textures and sounds. Another great example of using different chord structures to create a sound scape is Andy Summers of The Police. He often uses extended chords arpeggiated and different voicings to create a very dramatic effect. Case in point being “Every Breath You Take” and “Message In A Bottle”. Check out the introduction to “Bring On The Night”. Andy uses a picking pattern taken straight from “Etude No. 1” by Heitor Villa Lobos, the great Brazilian classical guitarist/ composer. What an excellent example of thinking outside the box, using an influence and making something your own! Another fantastic example of thinking outside the box and adding a different element to your style is Eric Johnson’s use of right hand “chime harmonics”, which he borrowed from the late jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. If you want to use some effects to create a different sound or texture, listen to how The Edge from U2 uses delay on “Where The Streets Have No Name” to create a very hauntingly beautiful chord pattern. Want to try some unique alternate tunings? Listen to the late Michael Hedges and his strange but melodic tuning variations and compositions played on acoustic guitar and harp guitar.
Want to spice up your lead playing? Try some two-hand tapping techniques. The inherent problem with two-hand tapping is that invariably you will always be compared to the master, Eddie Van Halen. Listen to the phenomenal guitar work of Steve Vai and the late Randy Rhoads. Both are masters of two-hand tapping, but they both have their own unique twist. Their individual personalities shine through. And they sound nothing like King Eddie. If you want to expand even further than that, check out the right hand tapping work of Brian May from Queen during the solo section of “It’s Late”. Its brilliant and above all, unique. Just like me. Just like you. Are you in a band with another guitarist and want to add a different vibe to a guitar passage in one of your songs? Listen to the melodic twin-guitar harmonies of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy on the incendiary Live And Dangerous recording. Tired of playing too fast. Listen to the beginning lead of “Machine Gun” by the late Jimi Hendrix from the Band Of Gypsies recording. He holds that first note forever and manages to capture the violent and destructive nature of war during that whole lead section. tired of playing too slow. Listen to the work of Yngwie J. Malmsteen. I know that Yngwie gets a bad rap sometimes but the bottom line is this: the dude practices his butt off and can play! It’s ok to shred once in a while, and its ok to hold one note forever too, as long as both styles are played with conviction, feeling, integrity and meaning.
You can also use non-guitar influences to take your playing to the next level. Listen to the phrasing of the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane on “A Love Supreme” and “Naima.” Check out the beautiful timbre and tone of the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis on the Birth Of The Cool and Kind Of Blue recordings. Listen to the drumming of the late Buddy Rich to add more challenging rhythm work to your repertoire.
Be brave. Challenge yourself. There are influences and different sounds we can incorporate into our own playing everywhere. From Brahms to Black sabbath, from Slayer to Segovia, its all there for us, just waiting to be heard and absorbed. All we have to do is open our minds and ears and listen.
Now get off this internet thing, pick up your guitar and go and play. And I mean it!