Finding the thing that sets you apart
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.