OnlineRock: Empowering Musicians  

Finding Your Sound

As a musician, there are many goals to achieve. Learning to play your instrument competently (which a lot of people seem to be foregoing these days!), getting into a band, writing good songs, getting gigs, getting a recording contract and on and on until finally, you are a top-flight act and you are accepting your "People's Choice" award for "Best Pop Recording During Spring By A Pregnant Male Vocalist In The Category Of Latvian Rumbas. How did you get to such an exalted position in the music biz? Because nobody else sounds like you.! Because the record that got you the award was a unique expression that just happened to resonate deeply with a large audience. And, usually, it was unconscious. For example: you are really a heavy metal guy who on a lark (and a few beers) decided to give Latvian rumbas a try. It was not serious, just fun. But when you did it, all this great stuff just came roaring out. The other guys in the studio who have been playing Latvian rumbas their whole lives couldn't believe it when you told them you had never played a Latvian rumba before in your life. But it was true and it was "your sound".

We all know that a lot of the music that we hear on the radio is contrived. It is a producer or record company armed with demographic data trying to "target" a "market segment". It's not an artistic endeavor, at all. Just business. Still, there is some decent music that gets made this way. But what really moves people is a personal expression that somehow strikes a universal chord and makes people feel what you have to say. And because they feel what you felt when you were writing, arranging and recording your tune, it means something to them.

So, does this mean having to learn to play a new instrument or play a different kind of music in order to find "your sound"? Absolutely not! I used the example of a heavy metal guy playing Latvian rumbas to illustrated how this guy found his sound unconsciously; without trying. There is an old Zen saying that I will paraphrase: The eye that seeks the flower in the garden never finds it. The flower eludes the searching eye, because the "search" is all it sees. The eye that does not seek the flower sees the garden in full bloom! Sometimes you have to stop trying in order to let true expression happen. Allow me to illustrate my point by re-telling two very famous stories about how a couple of our better known artists expressed themselves successfully.

One day at Sun Studios in Memphis, a dude named Elvis was trying really hard to make a record. It wasn't happening at all. They had been at work for hours and had nothing in the can. The engineer, manager and part time janitor, Sam Phillips, was extremely frustrated and about to throw in the towel on the whole deal, Elvis included. But in between the takes of the "serious" music they were trying to lay down, they started to goof off. Oh, they were having a great time! The guitarist, Scotty Moore, was playing a very simple rhythmic pattern, the bass and drums locked in in perfect syncopation and Elvis was dancing, singing and gyrating around like a fool, making the other guys bust up laughing. "Hey, what's that thing you're doing there, Elvis? What's that tune? We ought to record that!"."Oh no, Mr. Phillips", Elvis replied sheepishly. "It's nothing, you know, just acting a fool. It's not serious or anything." "Well, Elvis" Mr. Phillips stated forthrightly. "It sounds a hell of a lot better than that serious crap you've been trying. Let's lay it down on tape and see how it sounds!". That is how "It's All Right Mama", Elvis' first single and booster rocket to stardom was born.

Jerry Garcia was very serious about his music. In the early sixties, roots music was not trendy or chic. They were disciplines to be mastered. He was a bluegrass banjo player and folk singer, guitar picker. He was a purist, not a dilletante and strove to faithfully reproduce the great bluegrass masterpieces of all time. So how did this serious bluegrass purist evolve into a rock and roll guitarist and eventually become one of the most distinctive instrumental voices of the twentieth century ? He started off as a teenager fooling around with a guitar. Eventually, he discovered folk and bluegrass and that lead him to become a serious banjo picker. Which then lead into the decidedly non-serious jug band. While the jug band was becoming a success, it suddenly morphs into a full blown electric blues/rock outfit, with a biker-looking guy for a lead singer. Eventually they became one of the major rock acts of all time and eek out a scene that gives them more freedom of artistic expression than just about anyone ever had. But the rock band thing was something that Jerry never looked for. It was something that happened to him while he was making other plans. He definitely was striving for a career in music, no doubt. Instead of getting hung up on the bluegrass banjo though, he eventually finds his "sound " playing electric guitar in a rock band.

So, how to get your own sound? Just be yourself and let your natural tendencies wail. If you get out of the way of yourself, it's bound to come out.

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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