I don't feel like I really have my own voice or at least not one that's distinctly unique and my own. I tend to be very attracted to copying different aspects of players I like. Should I make a conscious effort to stop doing this or perhaps even listening to these players? Jim Hall says he prefers to get his inspiration from painters or writers because, when he listens to other musicians, he starts sounding like them. I've always thought the way it is usually done is to listen to and copy the greats while one is young and in the developmental stages and then abandon, or rise above, that imitation in later years to find one's own voice and style.
Unfortunately, though I've been studying guitar seriously for 17 years now, I still really feel like I'm a relative beginner and that I have so much more to learn and especially skills to acquire that it would be silly to abandon studies of other players' styles. I guess I feel like there should come a time when I can listen to Pat Metheny playing "All the Things You Are," or Clint Strong playing rhythm changes and be able to say: "While I'm not Pat or Clint, I can 1) comprehend the thought process that allowed them to play what they did and 2) have similarly developed skill that would allow me to execute a solo with similar harmonic inventiveness, clarity of ideas, and rhythmic and technical precision." Only then would I feel like it's time to move on and develop my own voice.
But, I also, at the same time, fear that this thinking may be warped. It seems like many people with their own distinctive styles have said that, fairly early in their lives, they kind of gave up trying to sound like such-and-such player because they didn't think they could do it. I actually heard John Scofield answer the question of how he came up with his style by saying that he copied other peoples' styles and got them wrong. It almost seems a little like uniqueness through laziness (not to knock Scofield).
In terms of copying, something I'd like to mention is that usually when I get into transcribing and picking apart a particular solo, it's almost always because there's stuff in the solo that I can't do technically (especially if it's a guitar player's solo). I've never even once transcribed a Bill Frisell solo, even though he is probably just about my biggest all-around influence lately. I've listened to both his playing and his compositions (several of which I have fairly recently transcribed) and thought, "Now, how did he ever think of that?" It is, however, when I listen to a solo and think, "Now, how did he/she do that?" that I'm usually driven to pick up pencil and paper and slow down the tape to transcribe.
While I feel like my playing (and writing) has been significantly influenced by Bill Frisell, it's been completely through listening (with the exception of the recent transcribing) that the information has rubbed off. Everything has been more subliminal, less literal, more of the big picture. I don't have any Bill Frisell licks under my fingers (though it's arguable whether he even has any licks). Interestingly enough, I approached John Scofield's music in much the same way; though I transcribed quite a few of his tunes, I only transcribed one actual solo of his and a few signature licks, and people, for a long time, accused me of being a Sco clone. (For a time there, I even played an ES-335 through a distortion pedal, octave pedal, and Boss chorus with two amps in stereo -- how much more obvious could I have gotten?) I eventually got so freaked out by all those accusations that I almost completely stopped listening to Sco and made a conscious effort to stop sounding like him in any way. I guess that has a lot to do with my next subject.
Good technique—being able to execute my ideas clearly and cleanly at slow, medium, and fast tempos—has always been a major stumbling block for me. Sometimes I think part of the problem is beyond my control because my hands have always had a tendency to be a little shaky, and I've never been naturally talented or coordinated at sports or anything else that requires physical agility and motor skills. I figured out early that this lack of coordination carried over into my guitar playing. That may be why two of my biggest initial influences in music were The Beatles and Bob Dylan, both of whom have (to some degree) a rough edge and not a big emphasis on technical brilliance.
My first experience with admiring technical expertise was listening to and copying Eddie Van Halen's playing. Even Eddie kind of tends to use unorthodox ways to make things sound more technically challenging than they actually may be (e.g., his two-handed tapping and extensive use of left hand hammer-ons and pull-offs in traditionally all alternate-picked passages).
The first jazz recording that I really can remember turning my head was Miles Davis's live "My Funny Valentine" (w/Herbie Hancock, George Coleman, Ron Carter and Tony Williams). I remember thinking Miles sounded like the Bob Dylan of the trumpet—really sloppy, but in his sloppiness, devastatingly poignant. After my introduction to bebop and hard bop, post bop, and all that stuff, I was listening mainly to Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery on guitar.
Then I heard Miles's album called Decoy, with John Scofield on guitar. At the time, I had also listened to a lot of John McLaughlin, and Sco's playing sounded like a really Bob Dylan-ized ultra-modern version of McLaughlin to me. Here was a modern, really cool, fresh-sounding guitar player that I actually had some hope of being able to copy because he sounded kind of sloppy, like me.
So, a few years later when I made a conscious effort to de-program myself from my Sco-itis, I realized that one of the things that made me sound like him was my natural tendency toward sloppy technique, and so I set about changing that. It was also around that same time that I first started getting into Pat Metheny's playing. I was attracted to Metheny's distinctly non-Scofield-esque elegance and technical precision (though, oddly enough that quality in his playing seems to be a relatively recent development; like early to mid eighties). In some ways, my interest in the study of Metheny's style is mainly based on his technique.
So here's my question: Is there any merit to my "physically challenged" theory? I feel like I practice technique-oriented stuff a lot and, while I've come a long way in the last seven or eight years, I feel like the results are rather disappointingly disproportionate to the amount of effort I've put into it. I feel like I should be a technical master by now, yet it seems I'm always hearing guitar players that have far better technique than me, and I rarely execute an idea exactly the way I intend to. Are my intentions simply not clear enough? Have I been concentrating too much on what my hands won't do and ignoring the fact that, if my brain isn't giving concise, complete and clear information, my hands don't have much to work with? Or, is it that I haven't been practicing the right way? Not doing the right exercises or whatever. My guess is it's probably a combination of all of these to one degree or another.
I guess, then, I'd be grateful to have some suggestions for improving in each of these three areas:
unclear mental ideas or hearing the lines/chords as I play them
different ideas for exercises to improve hand/finger dexterity on the fingerboard
Or is it all just physical limitations, and should I just be satisfied with being a Bob Dylan-Scofield clone with no chops? After all, if that's truly who I am, then I need to be that to find my own voice. But I think, rather, that though there is that aspect of me, there is also the part of me that passionately wants to better my technique and be able to play anything I can conceive of as clear as a bell.
(Good) feel is something I would define as a certain quality some players have (or had, for those no longer around) that makes their music groove and breathe where everything they play feels solid, like they really, really mean it and like it couldn't be played any other way. I think it's certainly related to technique but goes beyond mere rhythmic and technical precision. It's also almost an attitude. Some players that I feel have this quality in abundance are: Mike Stern, Clint Strong, Mike Brecker, Pat Metheny (in a slightly subtler way, perhaps), and the all-time king Jaco Pastorius. This groove/feel/attitude thing is something I make a conscious effort to have, but I feel like I often come off going for it, screw it up, and sound worse than I would have if I hadn't even tried. Yet I feel this compulsion to go on with it and keep plugging away.
I've already mentioned a bunch of influences—rock in high school and Joe Pass and Wes in college. Also, in college, I listened to a lot of non-guitarists and sort of became a "jazz snob," listening pretty much exclusively to jazz. Big influences were Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington (his trio stuff in particular). An album called Unity by Larry Young with Woody Shaw, Elvin Jones, and Joe Henderson was a big influence. On guitar, besides people I've already mentioned, I later got into Django Reinhardt, Jim Hall, Mike Stern, and of course Bill Frisell. After I got my master's degree at the University of Miami and got out into the real world, I realized that, contrary to what I thought in school:
1. You (or at least "I") can't make a living playing jazz, especially post-modern, cutting-edge avant-garde, whatever you want to call it. In fact, most of the time you're lucky to not have the police called on you even if you're playing for free.
2. Just because you can play jazz doesn't mean any and every other style is a breeze to pick up. I learned quickly that I couldn't play rock, country, blues, or just about any other non-jazz style to save my life. I got out my old Van Halen I and II tapes and eventually started checking out blues/rock/country players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, Robben Ford, Jeff Beck, Brent Mason, and Danny Gatton. I re-discovered Jimi Hendrix, whom I'd loved in high school. I also started checking out a lot of other styles of music in general and have come to admire and respect artists such as Prince, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Madonna, etc... Also, blues guys like Albert King, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Jimmie Vaughan and others; Bob Marley and other reggae; twentieth century composers such as Stravinsky, Ives, Copeland, and Berg; Indian classical music; Eastern European folk music; and African traditional and pop music. I've even checked out some of the loop-based drum & bass/techno/jungle-type stuff and found that there's interesting music out there in just about any genre.
All of these categories I've been checking out sometimes seem like too much. Often, instead of one happy melting pot of disparate influences, my head seems unable to mix and blend, and I come up with "Tom's Stevie Ray Vaughan thing," "Tom's Hendrix thing," "Tom's Jeff Beck thing," "Tom's Indian/ethnic thing," and so forth. The last kind of guitarist I wanted to become was a studio-type player that could ape any style convincingly but had no style of his own. Besides, my technical imprecision doesn't work too well with that mentality. Studio players are expected to perform like robots, it seems, and I can't even come close; I, at least, know that much about my limitations.
I guess, in the back of my head for some time now, my idea has been that my unique style could maybe end up being a bunch of styles and sounds from every idiom of music but not having the slick studio mentality and still being really spontaneous and creative. I just don't know if that's possible; it may be a conflict of terms. It also may be spreading myself too thin. If I try to do too many different things, maybe I'll never be great at any of them.
The other concern I have is, and I don't know if I'll ever really know the answer to this, am I simply biting off more than I am capable of chewing? Maybe I don't have the superhuman talents and abilities to meld all of these elements into something truly unique and lasting. I doubt very many people in the history of the world do. Then again, the worst I can do is fail. I wonder if I have that potential for greatness or if, like I've been thinking for the last ten years now, if it was going to happen, it already would have.
Or maybe my problem is that my priorities are in the wrong place. Maybe I need to simply love music and dedicate myself to improving as much as I can from day to day. If I can learn to always be happy and content with that, I guess happiness is pretty much a guarantee. Greatness, or happiness? I sometimes wonder if it's pretty much one or the other. It seems that many great people in history have been horribly unhappy people. I suppose there is potentially a huge amount of satisfaction derived from the tremendous self-discipline involved in striving to achieve greatness.
However, it seems like there is a path in life that many people take and are very happy with that involves the simple things in life such as one's family and/or loved ones, taking pride in one's job, and simply learning to enjoy the act of living itself. It also seems like this path could be potentially at odds with a striving for greatness. Maybe it is necessary to view music and guitar-playing as one of those parts of life that is simply there to be enjoyed, and a great joy can be achieved in the total immersion of oneself in the discipline of music. I do know that I have an intense love for music and that it's made me feel things that nothing and no one else has ever made me feel. It has definitely gotten me through some times that I honestly don't think I would have gotten through without it. I guess the secret is simply to live life the way that feels right. I've always believed that, if I truly follow where my heart is telling me to go, I pretty much can't go wrong.
Getting back to a more pedestrian subject, and this is closely related to style, I think, is sound—specifically, guitar sounds. That's another area where I'm pretty much all over the map. In keeping with my desire to have it all, I've accumulated gadgets of all sorts to help me get any guitar sound I can imagine. My guitar is equipped with a tremolo, humbucking as well as single coil pickups, tone controls for the humbuckers (for that Metheny-Hall-Wes warm sound), and thin strings with super low action to facilitate lush piano-like chord voicings.
I have a guitar synth and a bunch of rack and floor effects and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pre-amp (Roland GP100). When I play styles like blues, rock, and country, I usually try to go for an authentic tone that's derivative of one or several different players known for that particular style. The only real sound I've come up with that's even somewhat unique is my "jazz on the back pickup w/tone control rolled off plus flugelhorn patch on the synth." (Even this sound is a little bit of a rip-off of Metheny's chorused back pickup plus sax patch on synth.)
Most other things are an attempt at emulating someone else's, or a combination of other people's, sounds. Plus, there is also the fact that, on any given night of going to see me play, one would hear so many different sounds coming out of the guitar. I've also noticed that many (if not all) guitarists (and other musicians) with their own unique voice seem to have a fairly small palette of sounds.
Scofield - one sound (unless you count turning his volume up and down to get more or less distortion)
Bill Frisell - two sounds: clean and distorted (unless you count his EH delay stuff as a third sound)
Metheny - a few more: ES-175, GR-300, chorused back pickup with or without sax patch, acoustic nylon string, acoustic steel string, (more recently) slightly distorted à la Sco
Okay, so Bill Frisell uses acoustic steel string, too, and Scofield has recently used both nylon and steel string acoustics. Hey, who knows, maybe the multi-sound thing is the wave of the future. Still, the fact is, Bill Frisell is instantly recognizable by his clean electric guitar sound (or even distorted), Metheny is universally identified with his 175 sound, Scofield for his sound, Mike Stern for his SPX90 sound, Mick Goodrick for his bright finger-picked sound, etc...
It just makes me wonder if I need a "main sound" that, when people hear it, they say, "Ah, the Tom Lippincott sound" because I kind of feel like I don't have one of those. Come to think of it, fairly recently something like that did actually happen. I was sitting in at a jam session, and a drummer friend of mine was also sitting in. I had brought just my guitar and an old amp which the reverb didn't even work on anymore. I played several tunes, thinking that I must really sound terrible, when my friend looked back at me and asked, "Did you bring your effects and stuff with you?" I explained about the old amp that didn't even have reverb, and he said he thought I had something else with me because it had that "Tom Lippincott sound." That definitely made my night!
I still, after all this time, feel like I've just scratched the surface in terms of getting over being nervous playing in front of people. In college, it was such a bad problem for me that I almost gave up on music and basically therefore on life because of it. I have always been a horrifically shy person, and it's very difficult for me to open up and be myself around people I either don't know or feel I don't have much in common with.
Because playing music is such an intimate form of communication and self expression, it becomes very difficult for me to be comfortable basically exposing the depths of my soul to a bunch of strangers... or even a bunch of friends. Sometimes, it's even more awkward and uncomfortable to play in front of people I know; when it's in front of a bunch of strangers, at least there's kind of this mask of anonymity. They don't know me, and I don't know them, and I'll never have to face any of them afterward.
To this day, every time I play any kind of solo where I'm really being featured (or a tune where I'm being featured), it's kind of like this big, scary roller-coaster where I just grab hold with both hands, grit my teeth, and hang on for dear life. Then, the next thing I know, it's over and my hands are shaking, and my heart's beating a mile a minute. This phenomenon happens more intensely the fewer times I get a "feature." When I do a gig of all my own stuff, it usually happens for the first few tunes or even the first set, and then, eventually, I begin to relax a little, and a few times have even felt like some pretty nice things happened musically. But when I have just one or two featured tunes per set or per night or say, just one eight-bar solo the entire gig, the roller-coaster factor is multiplied exponentially.
The biggest feeling I come away with is almost like I was cheated out of something. Like, it was over so quickly I didn't even get to enjoy it. A friend of mine once said that, sometimes, when he is alone practicing, he feels like he's the "second coming" and then, when he gets on the gig, it's like, "What's this hunk of wood with the wires stretched across it supposed to be for?" So, at least I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.
The one thing I can say is that, when I think of how scared I used to be, I realize I've come a long way. Once again, my instincts tell me, "Hey, kid, lose the ego; what are you trying to prove and who cares? Play because you love to play and want to share that love with anyone who wants to take it. There's no use worrying about who won't accept it or who thinks you're great or who thinks you suck because, in the long run, does any of that really matter?" I can't depend on anyone else for my happiness. It's up to me to make myself happy and, if that means playing my heart out, then great. And, if other people happen to like it, great. If not, who cares? (Other than the fact that they may be people who could hire me for a gig if they like what they hear.) I think the idea is to always be looking for ways to stay focused on what's really important.
I like to keep the action on my guitar very low and am, in general, always tinkering with the damn thing to try to get it to do what I want it to do, so I always have two opposing suspicions in the back of my mind:
Suspicion #1: I really don't know what I'm doing. Every time I mess with it, I'm probably just screwing it up. The action should be lower, but it already buzzes a lot. The tone isn't as full as it should be. Maybe the body should be denser; maybe I need a hollow body guitar. This pickup isn't as meaty as I would like; maybe I should try a pedal steel pickup, etc...
Suspicion #2: All this is just an excuse for my lame-ass playing. If I had Bill Frisell's Klein for a month, I'd probably find just as many things wrong with that guitar. I should just learn to deal with it the way it is. If I'm a good player, I'll sound good no matter what guitar I'm playing and vice versa if I suck.