To say art reflects life and vice versa is, well, trite: This is both the purpose and the unavoidable fact of human expression. Yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, neither this inescapable reality itself nor awareness of it is very instructive to those of us striving to fully express our (hopefully) ever-evolving selves through strings and sound waves.
The typical dichotomy we talk about is how art either reflects the creators’ inner states or serves as the oppositional outer yin to their internal yang. Either someone who looks and acts like a crazy-ass freak is gonna play like a crazy-ass freak—like Zakk Wylde or the Great Kat, both of whom tend to dress, talk, and act pretty wild on and off the stage. Or, in the yin-yang view, you’ve got players like Thurston Moore, Edward Van Halen, and late greats Prince and Hendrix, who by most reports are/were pretty quiet, unassuming people in social situations but become/became electrifying performers with their 6-strings.
But to be your most captivating, truest musical self—to make your songs and guitar playing the most unique and primally you that they can be—it’s utterly useless to adopt anything remotely like this simplistic mindset. (I know, I know … right now many of you are thinking I’m driving this thing right off the cliff with some circular, needlessly complex, self-important, pseudo-intellectual hoo-ha. But hear me out.)
In terms of music consumption, these days it’s ridiculously easy to listen to basically anything and everything we want, whenever and wherever we want. And don’t get me wrong, for the most part this is pretty amazing. But—and this is a huge but—the more we immerse our brains in our favorite tunage, the more that winding, gray blob of a sponge is absorbing all the musical information being poured into it. And, if we’re not careful, the next time we pick up a guitar that sponge may very well reflexively wring it all back out to the world like someone else’s filthy mess that should’ve gone down the drain.
No one can escape this phenomenon. Every piece of music we hear affects how we play. To hear is to remember is to repeat. Or at least that’s what our brains are wont to do. If it worked for someone else, our minds seem preprogrammed to think it will for us, too. But for those who really want to push themselves, to try to evolve from rather than regurgitate their influences, I’d posit that one of the healthiest attitudes we can cultivate is one of contrarianism. Not in everyday life—no one likes being around someone who’s always disagreeing or interjecting just to score debate points or prove their mental gymnastic abilities. Everyone will just think you’re an asshole and you’ll lose all your friends (and probably your job, too). Rather, I’m talking about contrarianism in our musical reflections.
Next time you write a riff, lead, or progression, ask yourself, “Is this how everyone else would play it?” If the answer is, “Yeah, kinda,” then start exploring how the core idea you like could be expressed more compellingly. It doesn’t necessarily take drastic measures to make something mundane your own. The “how” of it can apply to everything from the time signature to the feel—rushed, laidback, staccato, etc.—to the note choice, scales, and chords, which notes you emphasize, the picking or plucking technique, vibrato approach (or studied lack thereof), the foundational sound you’ve dialed in, and the combinations and settings of your effects.
In my own writing I recently struggled with this very problem in a laidback Im–bVII–IVm progression with these nice little melodic transitional licks between chords. From the very beginning I really dug the gist of it, but not long after I wrote it I kept feeling like it seemed too straight-ahead and vanilla. I decided to try more aggressive dynamic contrasts with my picking attack, but that only felt more lame—like I was trying too hard. Eventually I realized a gentle, almost lazy fingertip strum—kind of like something Thom Yorke might play on nylon-string if he were drunk—gave the verse a more intimate and dynamic feel, while combining cavernous reverb and semi-seasick echo (via my Ibanez Echo Shifter’s modulation circuit) with vibrato that crisscrossed the modulation at varying rates not only fixed the pedestrian problem but subtly complemented the tune’s lyrics. Voilà—problem solved!
The two things you have to remember when you’re having these compositional-assessment conversations with yourself is that 1) you have to be completely honest, and 2) sometimes it takes quite a bit of experimenting to find the right fix. It might take minutes or hours or weeks. What matters is that you commit to staking your claim and don’t settle for the same ol’ same ol’. You can call it being contrarian for its own sake, but in the end it’s really about discovering the more nuanced you.