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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Monday, October 29, 2012
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
By Dave Isaacs
Kinks leader Ray Davies once supposedly said that when you borrow from someone else, it's stealing, but when you borrow from yourself, it's style. Now, he was talking about songwriting, but it applies to guitar playing just as much.
We've all got to learn from somewhere....even if you study formally, we learn music through imitation and absorption of what we see or hear other people do. So if you look at it that way, we have to copy, at least in the beginning. And who you copy from is going to determine your style, or at least have a strong influence on it.
Every one of my favorite musicians – guitarists or otherwise – have their own style of playing, but you can hear the elements that formed it when you start to listen critically. In a review of a Cream performance, Eric Clapton was once accused of being a virtuoso imitator of every postwar electric blues guitarist, lacking a style of his own. He took the comment so much to heart that Cream broke up soon afterwards and he began his explorations of country and pop music that led to Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, and his subsequent pop-heavy 70's albums. You could look at this as a negative...that instead of sticking to his guns, he changed direction. But you could also argue that he recognized some truth in what this reviewer was saying, and that for him to grow as an artist it was time to look to new places for inspiration. It's telling that the Band's “Music From Big Pink” album came out around the same time and turned the heads of much of England's rock royalty towards a more acoustic, country-flavored sound. The Byrds' “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”, also from roughly the same period, is arguably as influential if not more....the Rolling Stones “Wild Horses” was directly inspired by Gram Parsons, who led the Byrds into their country-rock phase.
I don't agree with that reviewer's statement....to my ears, Cream were breaking new ground that was rooted in music that came before but not limited by it. But looking back at Clapton's career all these years later, you can hear that he absorbed a wide variety of styles into his music while still keeping himself firmly rooted in his early blues inspirations. Even the slickly produced, pop-heavy albums of the 80's still strongly feature his aggressive attack, unmistakable tone and phrasing, and distinctive vibrato. He himself said in an interview from that period something to the effect of “I might play a bit of B.B. King, a bit of Albert Collins, and a few notes in between that connect them...that connecting part is me”. (Not an exact quote but the idea is clear enough). He was, and remains, aware of and devoted to his influences but not contrained by them.
We are all influenced by the people we listen to, and as individuals no two people are likely to process the same information the same way. So there's nothing wrong with learning to play something the way your heroes did....to me, the artistry is in how that information is changed into something else through the alchemy of the musical mind. I remember being amazed when I read that Van Halen counted Clapton's work with Cream as a seminal influence....at the time I was completely unable to hear it. Van Halen is one of the great examples of a musical mind so unique that he was able to transform his musical influences into something completely new. But now when I hear Clapton's second solo in Cream's version of “Crossroads”, I can also hear Van Halen's sheer abandon and ferocious attack. The notes aren't necessarily the point. The energy and vibe of a player that inspires you can influence you in ways you might not even notice. (I can think of listening to my own CDs and recognizing a David Gilmour lick here, a Mark Knopfler lick there....this was completely unconscious borrowing on my part, but those players' work seeped into my musical mind and became part of my vocabulary.
To me, the bottom line is this: know that you will absorb and copy as a natural part of the learning process, but remain open to all kinds of sounds. The difference between a player and an artist is in that musical alchemy, the way our minds take vocabulary we have learned and recombine the pieces. We all speak using the same words but we don't all say the same things, right? So when you do look to learn something EXACTLY as it was originally played, treat it as an exercise in ear-training and in copying subtleties. If you play in a cover band and your goal is to reproduce the original as exactly as possible, that's different....you're using a different musical muscle. And there's great value in that as well. But ultimately, I think we want to learn from our heroes so we can fully become ourselves....and that's something to be embraced and celebrated.
Editor's Note from Jeff:
This is a great article written by a guitar player who knows what he is talking about. Please show Dave some love by visiting his site, checking out his guitar videos, and reading/subscribing to his blog. You won't be disappointed!