I first picked up the guitar when I was about seven years old in 1976, and I remember when I had just a few years of playing experience under my belt, people were already saying to me, "You shouldn't try and play like other people. You should play like yourself."
Well, how could I possibly do that? Sure, I knew the chords and scales at that point. And I'd certainly sat down with the recordings of some of my big influential guitarists at that time -- people like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, and so on -- and did my best to try and figure out how they got their tones, how they performed certain techniques, and so on (by the way, I never did figure that out with Jimi, but I digress). But if I couldn't even play what my own heroes were doing, how could I expect to perform with any level of originality?
The simple answer is that I couldn't. It's like asking a toddler to write a novel while he or she is still learning to speak.
ABOVE: Yeah, that's me (center) in 1980 at age 11 after one of my first gigs with two of my friends. Trust me, I didn't have my own sound just yet, though apparently I could fret a barre chord at the 12th position, which is nice.
It Takes Time
Developing a musical sound or playing style of your own is one of the hardest things for any musician. The one thing it takes is time, because until you allow yourself to be a sponge, soaking up the music of many great players who came before you, it's unlikely that you'll be able to form a basis for your own sound. How long does it take? That's a different answer for everyone, but the one thing I can tell you is that unless you devote time to listening to what's been done before, you're unlikely to create anything new that's worthwhile.
Listen to Different Kinds of Music
Let's say you really love metal. Hey, we do too. But you may find that there are aspects of guitar or bass performance in other kinds of music like jazz, coutry, funk, and so on that will allow you to have a step up on other guitar players who only listen to metal. More importantly, the combination of your heroes of metal along with the influences from other kinds of music might just end up giving you something that no one else has: your own sound.
Analyze and Combine
We all love turning up the radio and banging our head to our favorite bands. But that's not really the way to listen which is going to help you. You need to REALLY listen. What is the guitarist doing? What sort of guitar do you imagine he/she is using? What kind of amp? What kind of effects? Is the solo too loud in the mix, or too quiet? Are those triplets or dotted eighth notes in that one fast run? This kind of listening isn't necessariy as carefree or enjoyable as the "head bang in your car" kind, but it will be much more valuable to you as a player.
The real ticket to getting your own unique sound or vibe happens when you start combining different elements of the players you love. Perhaps you really like the chugging rhythm guitar of James Hetfield (Metallica), but also like the ethereal, textured playing of a guy like Stephen Carpenter (Deftones). Does that mean you have to choose one or the other? No, it means to create something new, perhaps you find a way to combine them both into something unique.
Just the Start
This short blog is just the beginning of advice we'll be giving on maximizing your creativity. Come back to the ESP site often for more details information on becoming your own musician!