Those Times When It’s Good to NOT Play Like Yourself…

Can we all agree that it’s a good thing when guitarists and bassists cultivate their own style? Even a jaded old cuss experienced music journalist like me still gets a thrill upon discovering a new player with a startlingly original voice.

I am not any of these people —but I pretended to be them.

But there are times when it’s worth pursuing the opposite approach. (And not just for pragmatic reasons, such as the likelihood that you’ll get canned from your cover band gig if you mix it up too much, or the fact that the jingle client can’t afford to license that Black Keys song, but will happily pay you to record something “similar.”) Sometimes disconnecting your ego and completely immersing yourself in another player’s point of view can make you a better, and paradoxically, more original player. (I’m reminded of a Marc Ribot interview I once edited where the brilliant guitarist talked about learning Chuck Berry songs, clams and all — the “bad” notes, he suggested, were as much a part of Berry style as the “good” ones.)

I had a chance to take this idea to an extreme a few years go when writer/composer Elise Malmberg and I collaborated on a massive internet hoax: a bogus website alleging to be the 50-year history of a “legendary” indie record label. Clubbo Records is easily the most obsessive-compulsive project I’ve undertaken. The site features hundreds of pages of music, bios, photos, and memorabilia memorializing dozens of fictitious artists. Even many external links are fake — we just made a lot of little mini-hoax websites.

(Example: We licensed a photo of a beautiful ’60s blonde in a leopard-skin coat, which inspired a story about Ava & the Avalanches, the best known group of the Swiss Invasion. We wrote a story about how wearing the coat for the photo shoot horrified her, and launched her on a life path of animal activism. Where would she be now, we wondered? Running a big cat rescue charity, of course! Which inspired more than a few queries from journalists, including one from the BBC, asking to put us in touch with the non-existent Ava. And Ava’s signature “hit,” “Ski Baby Ski” has been licensed over and over, most recently for the silly Jonah Hill comedy The Babysitter.)

I played most of the instruments on the fake tracks, and the vocals are by Elise (sometimes pitch-shifted to sound like a man), or by a series of guest singers, some fairly well known. And man, was it a fascinating guitar experience, approaching each track as an entirely different player. I could be a Israeli Southern rocker in the morning, and a teenaged death metal dude in the afternoon, and then come in the next day and be a ’60s punk or a ’70s pop-country session smoothie. Much fun was had.

Part of the fun was being forced to put aside my own notions of “good” and “bad” playing, and just trying to play my best from another player’s point of view, even if said player didn’t actually exist. And when the smoke had cleared, I found that I’d learned tons about playing in different styles, insight I never would have acquired otherwise.

Has anyone else had vaguely similar experiences? When having to play things that fell outside your usual style wound up brining new ideas and energy to your “real” style?

P.S.: All the credits on the Clubbo site are also fake, down to the names of non-existent session players and fake copyright years. But if you’re curious, you can find the real credits on this secret page.

5 comments to Those Times When It’s Good to NOT Play Like Yourself…

  • JH

    Its what you have to do doing session work I guess in a way. Gotta give em what they want, not what you want. It may be a fine line, but the line is there.

  • I joined an Elvis band ( simply because it was a style I’d had little to do with, plus the challenge of creating a niche for the guitar in an already sonically crowded band.  It’s made me think more creatively about arrangement, chord choices and construction, and I definitely think my lead playing has improved as well.

  • Oinkus

    Yeah I think it was Reb Beach said in an interview that in the studio they didn’t like him using so many notes and to play something “like Clapton” which he did and got it in one more take. Studio work can be harsh and brutal if you can’t move out of your own skin.I try going to Songsterr and just grab a random tab and play whatever comes up , since I don’t listen to any newer music at all it is almost always a complete surprise and new experience. Try it you might learn a new technique or just play something different you learn to enjoy.

  • I did a blog post a couple of weeks back where I tested out the Big Muff Pi with Tone Wicker and ended up doing a grunge/stoner rock pastiche because that’s what the pedal told me to do.  I never play like that, but I had a blast doing it.  I absolutely thrive on being pushed out of my comfort zones.  Often I’ll grab a random note just to “throw myself off the dock” and create a problem to solve.  You can click on my name if you want to check out the demo, and there’s an article about this very subject to boot.

  • Peter

    Not much to add about the real topic here other than yea-uh, but this post did cause me to waste a night stay up way too late listening to Bleep, Devon Shire, Yorgi, Clipper Cowbridge et al. And having nocturnal fantasies involving Marilyn Kaye.

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