Developing a Personal Playing Style

Hello fans and fellow players,

This is Bob Hempker subbing for Bobbe Seymour.

I’d like to talk about us developing a certain feel for a personal style of playing. If that sounds a bit confusing, another way of putting it would be the path that we follow in becoming a unique, individual player with our own signature style.

Like it or not, our personality comes out through our playing. We’re stuck with that and there’s really nothing we can do about it except to allow it to flow and use it to our advantage.

I’ve had so many people who have asked me to show them how to play a solo note for note and I have to ask them, why they would want to be me and not themselves.

In the beginning, we all seem to pick out a particular hero or group of heroes. We get absorbed into trying to emulate their styles and many of the solos that they play. I think this is a great thing in the beginning stages as we are falling in love with our instrument.

I’ve always been of the opinion that part of becoming a great musician is falling in love with your particular instrument. It’s that love for the instrument that takes the work out of learning and turns it into play. Work is what you do because you have to. Play is what you do because you want to. It’s love that makes the difference.

As we progress musically, we develop our minds and our ears to where we hear melodies, chords and groups of notes in our own unique way. Rather than to ignore this subliminal level of perception, we need to allow it to flourish. We will always be throughout our playing career a composite of all our heroes, but our own distinctive style will emerge as we progress.

To really feel what we play can’t be taught, it has to be experienced. When I was working with Loretta, I would learn the Hal Rugg solos from her recordings, but after playing them a few times my mind would wander in different directions and I would end up playing them my own way.

In the last 30 years, there have been very few solos that I have copied note for note from anyone. I have stolen a few licks from people and I’ll continue to do so, but I don’t copy things note for note anymore. I feel it’s enhanced my creativity and made me a better, well-rounded player.

Something for you to try is to take a prominent steel guitar solo that everyone can recognize such as Tom Brumley’s Together Again solo or Lloyd Green’s Farewell Party solo. Start into the solo from the way you copied it from the initial recording, then unlock your heart and soul and allow the solo to flow the way you feel.

This will do more for your playing than copying a hundred licks. There’s an old saying that mediocrity thrives on standardization. There is a lot to be said for that. If you play a passage in a song different than the way someone else did on a recording, that doesn’t make it “wrong”, that makes it your solo.

Try approaching whatever you’re going to play in this manner. You will take yourself and your musical ability to a new dimension. Try listening to all genres of music. It doesn’t have to have a steel guitar in it for you to learn something from it.

Expand your listening to more than just steel guitar players. Listen to guitar players, piano players, fiddle players, horn players, anything that has something different to offer your ears. You’ll be amazed at how different you will begin to approach playing your own instrument.

I would like to mention what we call signature licks which are passages of notes placed in different parts of the song that make the song recognizable. This is an extremely important part of commercial style playing which is the kind we all get paid for.

Those signature licks need to be there when you’re playing a commercial gig. We can play however we feel anywhere else in the song, but we need to play the signature licks as they were in the recording.

Even the singer recognizes them and there will be times when we’ll be playing behind a singer that doesn’t have the best timing and they have to hear walkups on the bass and the signature licks to the song to know when to come in with their phrases.

If you find yourself in a recording session, it’s part of your job to come up with a signature lick for the song. Many hits would have never been hits without their signature licks.

A good example would be Jim Vest’s signature lick on Vern Gosdin’s “Set’em Up Joe”. Pete Drake’s lick on Johnny Rodriguez’ “Pass Me By” is another one. How about Pete Drake’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E” lick on Tammy Wynette’s hit song. There’s also Lloyd Green’s lick on Freddy Hart’s “Easy Lovin'”. This is enough to give you an idea.

I hope these opinions of mine will give you food for thought and help you expand your thinking about your instrument and playing. In the words of my original hero, the immortal Jerry Byrd, “Keep your thump-pick hot.”

As I’ve said previously, one of the best ways I’ve found to get myself thinking outside the box and inspire myself to take my playing in different directions is listening to Bobbe’s CDs because Bobbe has always gone his own way. His style is very prominent and I can’t help but find new ideas each time I listen to him play.

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