This column has (and will continue to) focused on ideas that can help you to discover your own unique voice, but for this month I wanted to go in a direction that may seem contradictory.
First, a little anecdote: When I first starting learning music, all the rock and roll musicians I admired wrote their own material, so I assumed that was a prerequisite. I was always trying to write songs, but they invariably sucked. Later on, when I became interested in jazz, I observed that there were quite a number of great musicians who didn’t write much of their own material (Miles Davis is a poignant example). So I figured I could still pursue music as a performer, and gave up on the idea of composing. That’s when I started “hearing” things (and I don’t mean voices coming from kitchen appliances, I mean melodies, lyrics, rhythms and chord sequences that turned into songs). Songs started coming out of me unbidden.
If you’re searching for your own style, maybe what’s stopping you from finding it is the very fact that you’re searching for it. Maybe if you relax and just play, you’ll discover that you already have a sound of your own. The paradox is that we want to have our own sound so badly that we don’t know how to stop trying to have it and just let it be.
Here’s two ways about it: first, focus outside yourself. I remember a rehearsal w/ the great drummer Matt Baranello, in which he told the guitarist “I don’t listen to what I’m playing; I listen to what everyone else is playing. Listening to myself doesn’t give me any information, since I know what I’m playing. I have to listen to everyone else to k now what to play.” (Of course I’m paraphrasing).
The other thing, which is actually related, is to think like a listener rather than a player. Listen to the ensemble you’re playing in, and decide what you would like to hear from the bass as a listener. It might be a simple bassline, it might be a crazy face-melting lick, or it might be silence. Try not think about what you’re going to play, think more about what you’d like to hear, as if it’s another player whose work you’re enjoying. Ironically, by taking yourself out of the focus, this can allow that elusive quality that is “your sound” to emerge.