Last Call: What Is Style?
Are you expressing yourself or just wearing a costume?
Scanning the radio as I drove home today, I began to marvel at the banality of current song lyrics. Do we really need more songs saying exactly the same thing in essentially the same way? Oh, baby I need you. You're a dream come true. From the moment our eyes met, I knew I'd never let you go. I love you forever and ever. Ninety-five percent of radio repackages this trite crap, or some variation of “my heart is broken" or “I'm partying with my friends."
Exhibit 1: Katy Perry. Not only do I enjoy her infectiously catchy songs, I'd be open to enlisting her as a sister-wife, provided she and my wife were both amenable to polygamy. That said, although “Teenage Dream," “Hot N Cold," and “Last Friday Night" are really fun, her latest songs don't contain many original ideas. I recently read an article listing the 226 clichés uttered by KP on her current album. I can't help but wonder why she and her writers don't push themselves just a bit more to say something fresh, like they did with “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind." Then I remember ... being original is hard.
As difficult as it is to come up with fresh lyrics, it's probably even more difficult to play an imaginative guitar part. I recently stumbled on a YouTube video by Andre Antunes called Get Lucky | Played by 10 Epic Famous Guitar Players. Over Daft Punk's Bm–D–F#–E progression, Antunes impressively emulates the signature sounds of 10 famous guitarists. The video demonstrates the differences in their styles and got me thinking: What is style and when does a guitarist have it?
Let's define our term. Style is an expression of who we are. An article called “The Style Imperative" on the Psychology Today website explains it well. An excerpt: “Style is ... spirit, verve, attitude, wit, and inventiveness. In order to work, style must reflect the real self, the character and personality of the individual; anything less appears to be a costume."
There are a handful of guitarists most of us could identify in four bars. For example, Van Halen, SRV, Eric Johnson, Albert Lee, Cream-era Eric Clapton, Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, The Edge, and Brian May have their own style, whereas the majority of us are just putting on their costumes. Most of these players started out emulating others, but somewhere along the way, something pushed them to develop a style uniquely their own.
Ever notice how players who have an identifiable sound often also have an identifiable look? That's because they see life as one big art project, but art requires effort and risk taking. Think back to those awkward days in junior high school. It's during adolescence that we start thinking about who we are. We quit letting our parents dictate how we look because that doesn't jibe with the cool person we want to become. We want our outward self to match the inner self we're trying to develop. Because most of us were too unimaginative or insecure to invent a style to express our inner self, we'd study celebrities or the cool kids and work out how we should dress, walk, talk, and comb our hair. Eventually we'd borrow bits from our influences and find what passes for our own style. A few creative souls take the Steven Tyler route and begin “wearing things that nobody wears."
Ask yourself: Do I have a style? If so, what is it? As for my appearance, some people go for thrift-store hip, but my clothes look like they came from the free box in front of the thrift store. I usually cut my own hair, often with disastrous results. I used to dress a bit more garishly until my mother said, “You're 30 and color-blind. You should go with blue jeans and solid white or blue shirts to avoid any catastrophes." Label my style “conservative/homeless."
As far as my guitar style goes, I'm lucky that my cool big brother Mark turned me onto the best music ever when I was a kid. I copped most of my foundation from his collection and Mark Knopfler (my father bought me the first Dire Straits album in 8th grade). For years I sounded like a combination of Albert Lee, Les Paul, Knopfler, and Clapton—as if they were all playing while hung over and experiencing a bit of paralysis in their hands. But every now and then I'd play a mistake I liked, thereby stumbling upon something uniquely my own. I've chased down enough of these to develop something that sounds a bit like a style.
To this day, I'll get lazy or uninspired and just insert patterns somebody else invented. That can be fun for a while, but it's not an expression of anything. It's just filling space, which ultimately makes me feel like an imposter or just another contributor to noise pollution. But sometimes I'll play something—maybe as simple as a held tonic note—and for no particular reason, it seems to outwardly express my inner being. And for that moment, I don't wonder who I am or what I'm doing.