Developing a style is a common topic among guitar players of all levels. We adore the guitar greats not only because they are great musicians, but also because they have a style that characterizes them.
Each one of us can tell our guitar heroes just by listening to them jam over a track or even play a few bends and chords. The ultimate goal for many of them is to be as unique as they are.
In this article, I will share with you my approach to developing a guitar style and some tips that might help you.
What is considered a guitar style?
A style has many definitions, but the most general one is the sum of all elements that make you unique and different.
A style can be very specific and cover only some techniques. For example, it’s easy to tell David Gilmour bending as his style and tone are unique. A guitar style could be the overall sum of all your lead and rhythm playing; your note choices, your pauses in between. It could also be your tone and what you do with that. Tom Morello is the perfect example of creating a style based on tone and guitar fx. The Edge is another example of a “sound painter.”
Overall a guitar style is what you decide to do with it. However, even though it is a trademark of each and everyone, most of the time a lot of work is needed to discover and nurture it.
How to develop a guitar style?
What has worked for me might not work for you, but some routes and tips can be universal and serve every guitarist, no matter the genre.
Start with what you listen to
As Guthrie Govan said in one of his interviews, “ Copying from one source is imitating, copying from 100 guitarists is research.”
Take what you want and can from your heroes but don’t obsess about making it 100% right. The small differences and sometimes “mistakes” are what might eventually make up your style. If you listen to a certain kind of music or guitarist, take what you like and merge it into your own everyday playing, take their songs and change up the chords, phrasing, key, etc. to make up something new and interesting.
Borrow from other genres
The history of music is all about borrowing and adapting. The best example is how rock musicians took what it needed from blues and made it faster and heavier to create rock n’ roll, classic rock, heavy metal, etc.
Don’t forget that the Beatles were the favorite band of many pioneers of metal music! That tells a lot of how much you can borrow from other genres.
Try to learn songs by ear
Learning by ear is the greatest exercise that leads to the best mistakes. You might get the notes right, but you might end up playing them in a different place on the neck. That is a great way of starting to develop your own style.
A mistake is not one if the next you play is the right one. Jazz players have been saying that for many decades now!
Borrow from another instrument
When learning a song don’t only focus on the guitar. Learn the bass, vocal melody, and everything else you can learn.
If you are blessed with the knowledge of playing many instruments that transmit that knowledge to Guitar. Allan Holdsworth, a hero of fusion and probably the most renowned guitarist of the genre, wanted to play Saxophone but couldn’t afford one. That led to him playing a lot of legato lines and aiming to have the least amount of attack possible with the pick. The closer to a Sax he got, the more unique he became.
Hard work is always the main ingredient
I highly push young guitarists to practice not only so that they can learn everything they want. but so that they are prepared when inspiration hits. My personal experience from playing is that the better I got at it, the more I could distinguish different styles and blend them into what eventually became my own. Great guitarists evolve in time and so does their music. Without putting some hard work behind it you might end up playing just “wrongs” and not with a style.
Leave gear for last
Nowadays, all the possible gear you want is available, sometimes even at low prices. That was not always the case and some players developed a whole career from their tonal preference.
This does not mean you have to get the latest gear, it means to experiment with different choices of gear and push some limits. Eddie Van Halen turned his standard Marshall in high gain machinery using a small piece of gear used by electricians and engineers on other non-musical equipment. After that amp builders caught up and delivered the amp he needed right from the production line.
A final thought on developing your guitar style
Ultimately it’s up to you to figure out what works best. The last piece of advice I want to give is to work on developing your ear and mastering what the guitar offers, the fretboard, and your techniques.
The drills from the fretboard geek app could be a great use. I highly suggest you sign up for a free trial and test them out first.