Kill the Clichés!

As recording artists, we all want our music to have its own identity, one that establishes us apart from the millions of others also making music.
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BY SCOTT MATHEWS

As recording artists, we all want our music to have its own identity, one that establishes us apart from the millions of others also making music. Given that fact, why is there a common complaint that too much music sounds the same these days? How can we avoid falling into this vicious trap?

Many of us learned how to play our instruments by emulating musicians we were drawn to. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s called inspiration. Without inspiration, we have little if anything to express through our playing. But what happens when that inspiration goes a wee bit over the line and turns into sheer emulation? It may mean we have learned to play our instruments well, but that we need to find our own identity as opposed to simply copying what came before us.

For instance, let’s take the guitar. Many guitar players are adept at rattling off solos they have learned note for note from their heroes. This practice can teach a musician quite a lot of important things at once such as technique, ear training, dynamics, and construction. Sadly, what will happen all too often is these learned solos become relatively easy to play while the important task of composing something original can be a difficult one. How does one overcome this problem?

I suggest such a player should begin closely studying other instruments besides the guitar. This may seem odd, but the other instruments might very well help suggest musical ideas that are not guitar clichés. It sure seemed to work for Keith Richards when he came up with the signature guitar riff to ‘Satisfaction’ by wanting it to sound like a tenor sax!

This technique can go further than just musical instruments when you apply the same type of study of vocalists. Find out what makes great singers so compelling and experience how they can influence your approach to the guitar. How about guitar solos from a singer’s point of view? Chances are the results will be lyrical.

This subject is a two-way street. Singers can learn tons of inventive ways to sing from musical instruments. Frank Sinatra used to say he got his famous phrasing from horn players, fashioning his vocal style to sound like a horn player. I see a trend forming here: Everyone seems to be a frustrated horn player!

Often, drummers will fall into clichés as well. In the studio, when a drummer is lacking in originality, he or she might play the same drum fills over and over in practically every song. Bring this to your attention in the pre-production phase of the project. Ask yourself: Are you consciously making adventurous choices and interesting rhythmic decisions or are you simply doing what feels natural and comfortable to you? You might be surprised to find out what you are doing in the first place! Try to avoid styles that are indistinct, redundant, and downright boring. Break down each song, work to not play out of habit, and focus on getting what serves the identity of the song best.

We could discuss other instruments (as they all have shop worn clichés), but I think you get the gist. So many times we will play on automatic pilot when it might behoove us to search for the real essence of each song we play and make the effort to capture the exact approach needed to make them all shine. We can’t get lazy and rest on our laurels simply because we can play well—we need to dig a little deeper!

I encourage you to stay inspired and adventurous in your playing. Listen to your heart and play from it. It may be conveying pain, joy, melancholy, humor—anything goes. Each and every song has an emotion, so find that emotion in the music and lyrics, then simply play it from your own personal place. Nobody else can come from that exact place but you. . . .