Finding Your Own Voice On Your Instrument

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Mike Dekleva Home Studio

I spent years, I think, trying to be someone other than who I really was as a guitar player.  In the 80’s, when I was learning how to play the guitar, it was all about technical virtuosity.  Guitar playing was more like an athletic event than a creative venture.  I think guitar players can become seduced by the idea that the meaning of being good on the instrument has something to do with virtuosity, speed, shredding, and the like.

While I admired players like George Lynch and Edward Van Halen, I was never very good at their approach to guitar playing.  So on my first instrumental EP, “Synergy,” my goal was to be very melodic and vocal-like with the guitar melodies for each song, and with the guitar solos.  I tried to approach the melodies and solos like a singer would approach them. I wanted the melodies and solos to serve the song.  Perhaps for the first time, through the process of making “Synergy,” I shed the self-expectations of trying to be a technical virtuoso, and instead, truly embraced who I was on the instrument.  The irony was that many of the music reviews of “Synergy” lauded my technical guitar playing abilities!”

With this background in mind, here are some tips on how to approach soloing and creating guitar melodies that will hopefully allow you to find your own voice on the instrument.

Think Like a Singer

I have found that one of the most powerful approaches to creating melodies and solos is to think like a singer.  If you are faced with the task of creating a guitar solo over a section of a song, then I suggest that you set your guitar on its stand, listen to the music, and sing a melody that sounds natural to you.  After you have created a melody with your voice (or in your head), then pick up your guitar and find that melody on the instrument.  This approach helped me create more organic, musical melodies, and kept me from falling into the “muscle memory” rut that we all develop when we noodle around on the guitar over a chord progression.

Write Good Chord Progressions

Often, it’s the context of the guitar solo that matters.  A guitar solo over a bland chord progression might sound (you guessed it) quite bland.  But that same guitar solo might sound powerful over an interesting chord progression.  In fact, a melody of just two notes can sound intriguing and can take on different characteristics and hues, depending on the character of the chords underneath those two notes.  As my friend and guitar teacher Robbie Calvo once said:  “Let the chords to the work.”

Here’s an example of this concept in action:

While this tip might not seem useful if you are playing over a pre-determined chord progression in a song, it can be very useful when you are composing music.  In that context, where you are actually writing a piece of music, trying developing engaging, colorful chord progressions to play over.  That approach, in-and-of-itself, should enhance your guitar solos, even if those solos are simple.

Focus on the Little Details

Another lesson that I learned from my friend Robbie Calvo was to take those aspects of your playing that you like and really develop them, and abandon all of the other stuff.  One example might be to develop a signature approach to note vibrato.  Before recording my EP “Synergy,” I loved applying vibrato to a note, but I did so in a loose, haphazard way.  So I worked on my vibrato technique and was able to develop a consistent, signature method of applying vibrato to a note.  I learned that my natural approach to vibrato was subtle, and that by selectively avoiding vibrato on certain notes, the application of vibrato to other notes in a passage of solo or melody really stood out.  And the really great thing about working on vibrato is that we all will develop an approach that sounds unique.  Everyone has different hands, and different approaches to playing notes, so how could vibrato between different players be anything other than unique!

Stay Off the Downbeat

Another concept that I learned from my friend Robbie was to start your phrases on a beat other than the downbeat.  I was surprised how often I would start a guitar solo or phrase on the downbeat of 1, and in listening to other guitar players, that seems to be a common approach.  I discovered that when I moved the first note of my phrase across the bar – for example, starting a phrase on the “and” of 1 – it completely opened up melodic phrasing choices that I would not otherwise have thought of.  And you don’t have to limit yourself to starting phrases on the “and” of 1.  Try starting your phrases on the “and” of 2, the “and of 3,” etc., and see what happens!

I hope that these tips on developing a signature guitar style will be helpful to you.  If you want to hear these techniques in action, take a listen to my first EP, “Synergy.”  And if you want to learn more about powerful phrasing concepts, then I highly recommend my friend Robbie’s TrueFire course, “Power Phrasing.”  And please feel free to contact me at mike@mikedeklevamusic.com, with any questions or comments about this blog post, or about my music.

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