Taking What You Do, And Making It Your Own.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

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“It’s all been done, it’s all been done. It’s all been done before.”

- Bare Naked Ladies

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So what have you done today?

I used to labor under the mistaken impression that I was going to create music that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. Today, this seems pretty unlikely. I’m not less interested in being creative, but now I’m interested in doing what’s authentically mine;  taking music and expressing who I am with it; taking what I do, and making it my own.

About ten years ago, I was the main guitarist for a large (now monstrously huge) church in Cincinnati called Crossroads. The head pastor complimented me on my guitar playing one day, and asked me why it was that the music seemed so much better when I played with the band. This was no slight against the other musicians, all of whom were fantastic players, but he recognized that I brought something extra; special; other. It was nice to be recognized.

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My answer, after I thought about it, was this:

When I play a song, I don’t think of it as someone else’s music anymore. I think of it as MINE. It’s MY song to play. In that 3-4 minute window, I take the fullness of who I am, and how I feel at that moment, and I project it out through my guitar into the universe as notes and sounds.

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Let’s go back in time…

Over the years of honing my craft, I discovered a few things that worked well for me. I distilled things from my assorted influences, and put them all together to create a nice little niche for myself to occupy. In fact, I was so successful at this, that in a city full of superb guitarists, I still get asked to join bands, work on projects, etc, when there are hundreds (maybe thousands) who can probably play circles around me.

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These guys aren’t impressed with me at all.

YouTube and Instagram illustrate to me every day that the top level of my technique is pretty mediocre compared to what a planet of bedroom guitarists are doing these days. I have no illusions about my skill/talent. But I am confident of my niche.

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Maybe this is common, I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know. No one can play guitar like I do. Lots of people can play guitar, and they might even play similarly (Many are vastly superior!), but none of them can bring what I bring. So when I go out on stage, I’m convinced that what I play is worth being heard. It’s mine, and no one can play it like I can.

How do you get to that musical know-thyself point? It’s a little like learning to hail a taxi. You stand there waiting for one, and finally one stops. Over time, you get better at hailing those cabs, and then more of them become available. Pretty soon you’re just jumping into the street, and a taxi is right there to take you where you’re going. It takes time and practice, but it happens.

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That doesn’t mean every idea is great. Not every taxi automatically takes you to the coolest location in town. You’ll need to know your way around, and choose the right locales.

Here’s a taxi I jumped in to-  Last year, it seemed like a fun idea to play Van Morrison’s classic hit “Brown Eyed Girl” with minor chords instead of major. The whole thing started off as a joke- a prank to play on drunk bridesmaids who requested the original, to see if they could tell the difference. Well, the idea took off, and with a little massaging, it became clear that I had landed on something really interesting.

Morrison’s original basks in the glow of pleasant nostalgia, driven by simple bread-and-butter chords. Changing the music to minor chords upends the whole mood, and makes it a lament for lost love; lost youth; lost innocence.

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I find this transition remarkable. You can listen here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVFSO-2WwMY

Anyone can do this sort of thing, but this particular thing was MY idea. The same approach goes in to all the guitar parts I make up for other songs. I hear what’s there, and I react to it. I hail the taxi, and take it to my destination. I take what I do, and I make it my own.

What will you do?

 

3 thoughts on “Taking What You Do, And Making It Your Own.”

  1. Call this an addendum.

    True story-
    My old band had made it just-about as far as you could hope to go. We were in New York, playing a showcase gig in front of Warner Brothers, Sony/BMG and Arista (maybe others I have forgotten). If we did well, we hoped to sign a record deal. the stakes were high!

    The TSA had reasoned that my pedalboard case needed to be investigated. It was a 30 pound case full of wires, circuits, and small power supplies, and I had taped the latches shut so they wouldn’t pop open. I don’t fault them for their caution. They even left me a nice note to let me know they had visited.

    Whether related to their investigation, the rigors of travel, bad luck, or all of the above, a wire connection failed. I was able to get my sound out into the room, but certain functions weren’t available. There was no option for repair.

    I had a long painful “you suck” conversation with myself, apologized to my bandmates (all of whom were nervous and experiencing technical issues of their own). I really felt like I had let everyone down. Oh, I was so sullen, worried and despondent!

    Then this glorious voice of wisdom spoke through all of the noise, and said, “If you weren’t good enough to do this on your merits, they would have told you by now.”

    Good golly, that voice was right. Yes, I had developed a clever effect mechanism, and yes, it got used pretty extensively. But no one in the band doubted my capabilities. In fact, I was the main feature of the band, after the singer of course.

    So I went out on stage, and confidently played like I do. People cheered. The place even spontaneously erupted at the conclusion of one of my solos. Women smiled at me appreciatively. Men nodded respectfully. And then the head of Sony/BMG’s A&R introduced himself, and began communications with us.

    To make a long story short (too late for that, I know), I needed to hear that my unique contribution was sufficient. It wasn’t an issue of not having been told I was good. It was that I needed to know it was good BECAUSE I did it.

    And I wasn’t a soft young boy entering the new world of music wide-eyed and naive. I was a grown man with a lot of experience.

    So, it is my opinion (for whatever it’s worth) that there are probably many people out in the world who could stand to know that “doing what YOU do” is more important than just doing the thing itself.

    Now go. Do your thing!

  2. I’ve felt for awhile now, maintaining some semblance of sanity as we age requires listening and acting on that little creative urge deep inside all of us. Hard in this adult life of mortgage payments and raising kids, paying taxes, with little free time. Making the time for it, so key. Easy path is simply to ignore and go about your day. So rewarding, however, when you scratch that itch. Paint that watercolor you’ve always pictured. Write that story that’s been creeping at the edges. Or turn a classic tune into something truly remarkable (for me, I much prefer your soulful version, but then I always prefer a good lament ;-). Even if the keyboard your typing on, or brush your painting with, is the only one who will appreciate your efforts, the satisfaction of knowing you created something, incomplete as it may be, is enough.
    Great stuff! Cheers

    1. Great thoughts, Tom.

      The point of art is not to be successful, it is to express one’s self. If the fear of failure drives us into doing something safe and/or imitative, we’ve only painted the room yet another shade of beige.

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