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Developing Your Own Voice

This blog post is a sister article to the one I wrote recently about standing out as a guitarist. The difference here is that I am going to mostly focus on the playing aspect and to do that, I will be breaking down some particular techniques from three genres that have helped me in the past.


I should start by saying that you are allowed, in fact I encourage it, to fly the flag for one particular genre. I don’t recommend gate keeping it, though! You should have your own opinions, likes and dislikes and the notion of a ‘guilty pleasure’ is based more on the perception other people have of something than yourself. Try to always see the good in something, even if you do not enjoy it. For example, I don’t necessarily enjoy rap music, but I have huge admiration for those with the ability to rhyme words so fluently and for the simple yet effective instrumentation.


That brings us on to our first genre, so let us get stuck in!



Rap

When I think of rap music, I think of legends such as Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Eminem and Biggie Smalls (‘mumble’ rap is something of an exception to my rule, there is nothing positive I can say there!). 


One of my favorite rap songs is ‘Business’ by Eminem (I have linked the clean version, just in case!). There are two main guitar parts here, the riff at the beginning and the high up melody riff - that is it and it is very sparse. This song taught me that a really simple, repetitive riff that slots in with the drums perfectly can be just as impressive as a complicated one. The higher melody riff is mirrored by a synthesizer and this unison line works brilliantly due to the difference in sound, if this was two guitars it might have been necessary to add some harmony into the mix. The key word here is ‘simplicity’. 


From a rhythmic standpoint, there are a few stops in the playing but not in the counting of the beat, an extremely useful rhythmic device.


Ska

As a young boy at college, a metalhead at heart and playing rock music in clubs and small venues at the weekends, I was somewhat reluctant when I was instructed to start a tribute band to The Specials as part of my course - the idea was to force us to branch out in a way we wouldn’t by ourselves. 


Learning these songs was tricky, as it forced me to learn and develop my own understanding of chords and triads in uncommon chord progressions. This is because Ska music, and by extension Reggae music and similar styles, uses lots of chord fragments so that the guitar fits in with such a busy arrangement.


The song ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials helped me further understand the stylistic use of diminished chords and key modulation when it changes to a major key during the bridge section. Part of this song has a descending chord part, where one note changes each time and is coupled by a guitar riff doing a similar thing. This interaction was really interesting to me!


The rhythm is similar to Reggae, though typically much faster and more commonly on the ‘off-beat’ rather than on beats 2 and 4, a useful exercise in itself.


Blues

The Blues is such a myriad of sub-genres, different styles and seemingly endless offshoots, but the core of the blues has remained pretty much the same. What really got me started playing the guitar, and remains one of my biggest inspirations alongside the heavier styles of music, was the legend that is Mr BB King - he truly was the ‘King of the Blues’.


There are many similar guitarists to BB King, and one thing that always struck me as unique was the ability to seamlessly weave their way between a major and minor tonality. Theoretically this shouldn’t really work, but it is now synonymous with the blues sound. Playing a minor pentatonic scale over a dominant chord works most of the time, but the clash of the minor 3rd in the scale with the major 3rd in the chord has a sour vibe to it, so I learned to bend this note up a semitone - that is the sound everyone looks for… at least part of it anyway!


Additionally, I picked up my own style of vibrato, taken from the likes of BB King and his contemporaries, and incorporated that into my playing as a physical change rather than a musical one. 


Implementing These Ideas into Your Own Playing

In order to develop your own voice, you must take these things that stand out to you (not necessarily the ones above) and try to implement them into your own playing without changing your own personal style. There is a good test for this - my mother doesn’t really know anything about music, apart from the fact that she likes to listen to it! Even she can tell if a piece of music features my playing or someone else's, so if someone can recognise you from your playing, then you are on the right path!


Let us use the blues example from above. Take the idea of bending a non-scale tone, in this case the minor 3rd, and bending it up to a note that is in the scale. Or you could do the opposite, and slide it down to a scale tone. This could induce a moment of dissonance, or it may lend an exotic sound - a scale is a suggestion and not a prison after all. 


The notes of a G7 chord are G - B - D - F. The most appropriate scale to use here would be the G Mixolydian scale, which uses the notes:


G - A - B - C - D - E - F


However, many get confused because of the similarity to the G Major scale, which has the notes:


G - A - B - C - D - E - F#


I would take this F# note, which clashes in a displeasing way with the F in the G7 chord, and use it as a passing note. To my ears, this gives a slightly dissonant and briefly ‘outside’ sound that is quickly resolved. That would be one way you could take a lesson from the blues and take it further - the likelihood is that it has already been done, however, the journey of playing guitar is one of self-discovery as much as anything.


From a songwriting perspective, and also live performance one, writing a part for a song that is identical for another is mostly pointless (unless you are double-tracking in the studio). I learned to take the chord fragments, triads and inversions from learning Ska music and layer textured sounds on top of existing chord progressions. This can be used to not only enrich a song aurally, but you also have the opportunity to make the sound more sophisticated - if appropriate!


For example, a Dm chord has the notes D F A. If you play an F Major chord (F A C) on top of this, you are implying a Dm7 sound - not always the best but a good option to have nonetheless. This is dipping our toes into the crazy world of Jazz harmony and upper structures, which is a whole kettle of fish on its own!


Have a listen to some African High Life music. The use of guitar is very distinctive here, and something I take from this would be the constant flowing, but still connected, pattern of arpeggios and scales. It is all very close together, and to some it even feels more accessible than Jazz guitar. I also admire the right-hand technique, especially the rhythm playing and use of muting. 


These are all examples, and to develop your own voice needs your active input.



Final Thoughts

Your personal approach to playing will always change, and this is even more true with younger guitarists whose taste changes as they mature as people and as musicians. The idea is to have a signature style, and if you notice, that’s what all the famous guitar players have. Like Allan Holdsworth in my previous post, he had a love for the saxophone as a child and sought to replicate that on the guitar with a smooth tone and flowing legato technique. 


If you are truly stuck, let’s be honest, it happens to all of us at some point, then I would suggest asking your parents or grandparents for their favorite song and learning it. See if you can use some of those notes to develop your own guitar catchphrase. Or you could simply search for something random and see what happens - at the time of writing this, I searched YouTube with the term ‘clarinet solo 1956’ and came across a great piece by Ernst Krenek and I immediately noticed his dynamic control and intervallic jumps - I’m off to try and copy that myself… I’ll race you!


Alex

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