When you hear a great Blues player for the first time, what is it that makes you stop what you’re doing and zero in on the sound? You may initially be struck by the tone, the tonality or the rhythm but it’s usually the way the notes are being expressed that draws us in. The sound of the Blues is familiar to most people even if they can’t put a name to it. It is the way the musician personalizes the notes and expressions that makes us want to take a closer listen. The feeling and emotion being expressed touches something in us that we can relate to and makes us feel good.
Every great player has their own sound and way of expressing it. BB, Albert and Freddy King all use the same notes, use the same techniques and play fairly similar guitars through the same kind of amplifiers, but each one sounds unique. It is the instinctive elements of musical expression that personalize the sound. This takes years to develop. Most people start off imitating their favorite players and then create their own interpretations and express the notes differently. The more of yourself you put into it, especially the way you speak and sing , the more identifiable your playing will become.
There is a process called imitate, assimilate, innovate, which has been used and described by many great players and teachers over the years – because it works! To speak a language, you need to learn letters, words, phrases and sentences which are commonly used and understood to be a part of the language. In Blues, this means learning by listening and then mastering notes, rhythms, chords and playing techniques.
Bending notes is a good example. When you hear Albert Collins bend a note and put vibrato on it, you can immediately tell it’s him. When Peter Green plays the same notes, he sounds like himself rather than Albert Collins. Same goes for Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or any other great blues player.
When you sit down to practice each day, set aside some time for developing your own voice. Get one of your favorite licks and experiment with different ways to vary it – different rhythms, time feels, tempos, tones, amp settings, faster or slower vibrato, playing it backwards, varying techniques (slurs, slides, bends, staccato + tenuto, accents, different keys, different positions on the fretboard (e.g incorporating open strings) etc.
Then try playing the lick over a backing loop or along with a recording and improvising with the notes. Stretch the lick, shorten it, repeat bits, leave some out, etc. If you do this even five minutes a day for a month, you’ll find out a lot about your style, preferences and what you need to improve or learn more about. If you do it for several months, you’ll be well on your way to establishing your own voice and having an identifiable style.