Diving For Pearls – The origins of style

Bill Evans, jazz pianist

Artistic identity is not something chosen. It’s something exposed over the course of a creative lifetime. Beware – you won’t always recognize your stylistic eccentricities as the gems they are.


I think having one’s own sound is the most fundamental kind of identity in music. But it’s a very touchy thing how one arrives at that. It has to be something that comes from inside, and it’s a long-term process. It’s a product of a total personality. – Bill Evans

A drummer’s personal style evolves over the course of his musical lifetime, developing along two separate but interweaving paths. Growth along one path is purposeful, guided by the image we keep in our head of the player we hope to become. Along this path we decide who our mentors are, how to hold our sticks, and what musical styles to play. Growth along the other path is unconscious, guided by impulses deep inside our mind and body. Along this path our playing acquires its most distinctive qualities, peculiarities that betray our unique artistic identity in any musical situation. The more we understand and respect each of these paths, the better we are at cultivating our individual artistic voice.

Heroes & Idols

Our first creative personas are almost always borrowed. Long before we ever sat behind a set of drums, most of us already had a clear idea of the drummer we wanted to become. In my case, that drummer wore tights, platform boots, and cat make-up. Like lots of drummers my age, my first major influence was Peter Criss of the legendary cartoon-glam rock band Kiss. Truth be told, I wanted to be Peter Criss. I even suggested to my guitarist friend, Joe, that we form a band called Kiss 2. Joe thought that plan had dicey legal implications, so we settled for enlisting two buddies to join us in a lip sync performance of all four sides of Kiss Alive II, complete with sequined costumes, face paint, a drum set made from foil-covered ice cream containers, and low tech pyro.

My next guiding light was that paragon of prog rock percussing, “The Professor,” Neil Peart. I was in 6th grade when Neil entered my life, and soon after I formed my first band, Outrage – a power trio, just like Peart’s band, Rush. Our three-man set-up was no coincidence; we were all Rush-heads, and we did everything we could to look and sound like the group we loved. Our bassist played a black Rickenbacker 4001, and our guitarist played a blonde Telecaster, just like Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson did. Our set-up included a set of Moog Taurus Pedals – an exotic foot-activated synthesizer made popular by its featured role in the Rush hit, “Tom Sawyer.” Thanks to an early Christmas present of Remo Roto Toms, my kit ballooned to 8 pieces (more than half way to Neil’s 15!), and each drum was fitted with the very same Evans heads my idol used. I played only Zildjian cymbals, as Neil did. I crafted a set of chromatic chimes out of copper pipes so Outrage could play “Closer To The Heart” authentically. And when Neil went electronic in the late 80s, I did too, incorporating a single SDS1 Simmons pad.

Emulation and imitation are how we first find our way around our instrument. More than that, impersonation is a first draft at defining our own style. Modeling our playing after our heroes is like playing dress-up as a kid; with every new outfit we discover what feels right to us and what doesn’t. The more players we try on, the more we learn what we want our own playing to sound like.

We can learn all kinds of things by mimicking our heroes, and not only when we’re beginners, but throughout our entire musical lives. But copying at a distance has his limitations. At some point, most of us seek out a good teacher who can explain to us one-on-one how to pull off all the crazy things we hear our idols playing.

Teachers

A guitarist I once met told me that he would never take formal lessons because he was afraid his teacher would suck all “individuality” from his playing. It’s a common fear, but it’s unfounded. The only person who can silence your creative voice is you. In fact, deciding to take lessons from a good teacher is an important step in developing your personal playing style.

For one thing, a good teacher will make sure that you have a solid grasp of technique. Tempo, meter, syncopation, dynamics, composition, melody, coordination, endurance – the more skills and understanding you possess, the more creative options you have to express yourself in your own way.

Also, a teacher can help refine your style by educating you about your instrument – about the musical potential of each element of a drum set, about how the material a drum or cymbal is made of influences the instrument’s tone, about how striking drums and cymbals in different ways elicits different sounds.

A drummer’s creative identity can develop a lot with the help of a teacher’s input. A good teacher understands that technique and knowledge aren’t ends in themselves, but rather exist to serve a player’s individual artistic vision A good teacher also understands that in order for a drummer to fully realize his personal playing style, there are some things he must figure out all alone.

Going Deep

Teachers help us realize our artistic vision by making sure that we grasp the fundamentals of our art, and by showing us the capabilities of our instrument. But even great teachers have a hard time seeing what makes a student’s playing truly distinctive. In part, this is because the very quirks that make a musician’s playing special are frequently diagnosed by teachers as technical shortcomings, and understandably so. We can easily imagine Keith Moon’s teacher preaching the merits of restraint to the rambunctious young drummer, or B.B. King’s teacher complaining that the blues prodigy spends too much time wailing away on the root note, or Bob Dillon’s vocal coach suggesting straight up, “Bob, perhaps you should stick to the harmonica.”

The most compelling elements of personal style are not learned in a conscious way. Instead, the qualities that define a musician’s sound emerge as a bi-product of years of rigorous practicing and performing. Ironically, the longer we strive to become that perfect player we imagine in our heads, the more we become something much more special – a player with personality and soul. Bill Evans, the great jazz pianist, put it this way:

I never strive for identity. That’s something that just has happened automatically as a result, I think, of just putting things together, tearing things apart and putting it together my own way, and somehow I guess the individual comes through eventually.

Like Bill Evans, most musicians set out for one creative destination, only to arrive somewhere different, somewhere closer to home. Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin wanted only to make music that sounded like the black American blues giants they idolized – Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin’ Wolf. Instead, they revolutionized rock and roll by coming up with a new way of interpreting the blues, a hybrid of American blues and British popular music.

Style is not something you can force. The distinctive traits that become the hallmark of an artist’s style originate deep down in his subconscious psyche and in his bones. They develop like pearls, little irritations in the artist’s soul that grow more exquisite the longer they fester. And like pearls, an artist’s unique qualities are imperfect gems, rugged formations that tell the story about the hidden place from which they came. Your artistic identity is not something you choose, it’s something you expose over the course of a creative lifetime. Beware – you won’t always recognize your stylistic eccentricities as the gems they are. Very often, the qualities that make your playing special are the things that make you cringe when you hear them on playback. Be careful what you erase from your playing. It might be your soul.

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