I’ve been blessed to be in Nashville touring, recording, and writing for the past six years. I am a relative newbie to the scene here, but in a town where dreams are made and crushed every day, six years could be considered a lifetime. As I navigate the seemingly impassable obstacles of this business, I constantly hear about players landing gigs, sessions, and situations that make the hair on the neck stand up—going on tour with Peter Frampton or Ryan Adams, or getting hired to do the new Willie Nelson record. Musicianship, a little good ol’ boy networking, and all luck aside, many of these players can chalk the big gigs up to one truth: They have a “thing,” something that makes them who they are. It’s a unique trait every artist wants, and we as players aspire to have.
What Is a “Thing?”
This cannot be narrowed down into one specific
category, but can run the gamut of characteristics.
You can be the P-bass player with a
solid groove and tasty licks to complement the
song. Duck Dunn, anybody? He’s got a thing.
You can be an over-the top effect and speed
player that does everything big—hello, T.M.
Stevens. He’s also a snappy dresser to boot.
Speaking of dress, Slash, aside from the signature
hat, has his signature tone.
You can probably run down the list of your
favorite players and find that one thing—a lick,
a tone, a distinctive persona—that makes them
your favorite. But how did these players get
to a point where they separated themselves
from the pack? Rarely is it an overnight process.
There are times when players explode
onto the mainstream and make us take notice
(Flea’s opening bass lick on “Higher Ground,”
for example), but many times we’re able to
watch the development of a style, such as following
U2’s The Edge for a few records, as he
delayed, chopped, and chimed his way into
our guitar vernacular.
I will say this—no matter how fast or slow
it takes to get there, you can’t force it. The
thing has to happen, and it can’t be a one-off
lick. You have to have follow-through and
substance to elevate a good tone and decent
licks to a great thing. Most of all, it has to
come from the heart.
Developing Your Thing
What is it you do that makes you special? You
may be able to change the channel on the
remote with your feet, or make amazing blueberry
pancakes, but that only helps your home
life. If you are looking to break away from the
pack, you need to find your voice in order to
be heard. Many technically great players out
there are not unique because they haven’t
found something that separates them from
everyone else. The key, of course, is being you.
Imitation is great, but add your own spice to
the soup. You know all the licks, but where you
put them is also part of your thing.
Who are your influences? What made you start
playing in the first place? Answer those questions,
and you’ll have a pretty good start in
finding your way. Now take those influences,
and do a little reverse engineering. What made
those people want to play? Who did they listen
to? Somebody had to get into Chuck Rainey’s
head to help him become Chuck Rainey. If you
dig deep, you’ll find a whole new world of players
that inspired your heroes. Take that research
and add your own heart and soul to the mix.
How can this translate into real value? Well, if
it’s purely money you seek, then you should
seek elsewhere. If you want to bring your thing
to a bigger table, then pull up a chair. Let’s
say there is a producer making a record, and
he has a specific sound in mind. He’s doing
a concept record, and walks into a club one
night—the night you happen to be playing. It
sounds like a long shot, but in a small town like
Nashville, it’s not a long shot at all. You don’t
know that he’s there, and maybe, just maybe, if
you are doing your thing, you may be the next
“cat” in town. There are more industry folks
walking around this town than you can shake a
stick at, and if you stand out, it will be noticed.
The important thing to remember is that they
like you for not sounding like everyone else.
There is musical life outside of Nashville, of
course. The internet has revolutionized the
ways we live and do business. The web is now
a great way to focus your efforts on showcasing
your playing style to the world, and maybe
land a breakthrough gig. Many management
companies do their research for new players
through social networking and video sites. Even
if you aren’t looking to play with major touring
acts, local players are checking you out as well
to see if you fit what they are looking for—keep
that in mind when setting your pages up.
We have to forget the glitz and the glamour
for a few minutes, because nine times out of
ten, there is none. Just like tomorrow, success
in this business is not guaranteed. But that’s
not why we are here. Something deep inside of
us ignited a passion for what we do, and that
passion is the reason for all the gear we buy,
and the reason you are reading this magazine.
Keep that fire burning and don’t lose sight on
your musical goals. It is that passion that will
ultimately help you find your thing.
Steve Cook is currently fortifying himself in the back of
a tour bus, awaiting the low-end revolution. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org until the coast is clear.
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