When you hear John Coltrane, you immediately know it’s Trane. It’s not the notes he’s playing or his dazzling technique that makes him sound uniquely like himself. It’s his sound. Every jazz musician, at some point, ventures into the abyss in search of their own, unique sound. Your sound is what makes you, well, you. But where do you start?
Let’s begin by defining the core elements that determine one’s “sound”:
- Articulation – Contrast Wayne Shorter’s heavy tongue with the light, legato style of Hank Mobley.
- Color/Tone – Joe Henderson’s rich, dark tone stands in stark contrast to the bright, aggressive color of Michael Brecker’s tone.
- Rhythm– Dexter Gordon plays his eighth-notes straight and behind the beat, while Cannonball mostly uses a heavy swing and plays squarely in the middle of the beat. Sonny Rollins loves the off-beats.
- Harmonic Conception – Do they always play a flat-9 over a the five chord on a major ii-V7-I? Do they employ a lot of chromatic runs and enclosures a-la Mark Turner?
Forget About Mouthpieces.
Charlie Parker played on any horn, mouthpiece, and reed combo he could get his hands on, and he always created the same, beautiful, distinctive sound that defines the music we continue to play. How was he able to do this? It’s not his equipment that made the sound. It was his conception.
In order to sound like yourself, you need to have a crystal clear idea in your head of what you want to sound like before you put any air into your horn. So save your money and stop buying new mouthpieces. Instead, find something that gives you a consistent sound and lots of control, and stick with it.
Invest some time in discovering and refining what you want to sound like. Then do whatever it takes to create that sound. Here’s a 5-step guide you can use to guide you through this process.
Step 1. Choose Your Influencers
Pick your 5-10 core influencers and listen, listen, listen! Your sound isn’t going to come out of thin air. It’s should be very heavily influenced by the musicians you listen to. Find the artists who you enjoy listening to and really dig in. They don’t necessarily need to all play the same instrument as you (i.e. it’s ok to check out trumpet players as a piano player), but it helps.
Over many years of searching for my sound on the tenor sax, I’ve been most heavily influenced by the following 8 tenor players:
- John Coltrane
- Sonny Rollins
- Joe Henderson
- Michael Brecker
- Chris Potter
- Mark Turner
- Joshua Redman
- Seamus Blake
These are my core influencers, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to every record I can get my hands on for each of these guys. You need to indentify the core 5-10 musicians who you really dig, and then you need to really dig in. Try to pick a wide variety of players, some classic and some modern, but all that you absolutely love listening to.
Step 2. Transcribe Everything
Demystify your idols. You’ve probably been told, at some point, that you should transcribe lots of solos if you want to improve. But why? Yes, transcription will expand your vocabulary (give you stuff to play). But the real value of transcription is to start bridging the gap between what they played and what you play.
A few ground-rules for transcription:
- Only transcribe solos that you can sing. If you aren’t a little bit sick of listening to the track before you transcribe the solo, you aren’t ready to transcribe.
- Pick solos over standards & blues. This will make steps 3 and 4 easier.
- Write it down. This will also make steps 3 and 4 easier!
- Most importantly, learn to play the solo EXACTLY like the recording. And I’m not just talking about the notes. Tongue where and how they tongue. Tongue how they tongue. If they Trane played sharp on a that high D, you should too! Where they ghost, you ghost. If’ you haven’t followed the first ground rule and you can’t sing the solo, this is useless. Quick tip – try playing along with the recording using noise-blocking headphones, so that the recording is louder than you are.
David Liebman elaborates on his take on this process in this worthwhile read.
Step 3. Identify Triggers
Look for stylistic keystones. This step is less conventional, but it’s the key to unlocking your ability to truly imitate your idols. Every player has a few idiosyncrasies that can be used as triggers to get you to sound like them. I find that identifying a few triggers for each player will give you a quick and easy way to code-switch, and it’s a device you can exploit if you want to immediately start speaking their language.
For example, Coltrane loved to glissando up to his palm keys. For an example, check out his solo on Blue Train around the 2 minute mark:
When I want to channel Trane in the practice room, I know that I can simply gliss up to a palm key note to get me started. The key here is not using these triggers as cheap devices to sound like the player you have transcribed. Instead, think of the triggers as a stylistic cue that allows you to access their style.
Step 4. Get Inside their Head
Now that you’ve got their style down, it’s time to figure out why they chose to play these notes in the first place. After you’ve transcribed a solo, can play it exactly like the record, and have identified one or two idiosyncratic keystones that let you quickly channel their style, you are close to being able to imitate. However, stylistic imitation is only one dimension of what they are playing. You need to analyze the solo to start synthesizing how the player is making decisions on which notes and rhythms to play over which chords. Once you understand the harmonic and rhythmic choices they’ve made, you’re ready to start getting inside their head.
You want to use your transcription as a vehicle to start playing like the person you transcribed and find their sound. One exercise I’ve found particularly helpful is to switch between playing the transcription and improvising in their style.
If you followed the ground-rules and picked a solo over a standard, this becomes a much more straightforward exercise. Again, make sure that you aren’t simply trading 4s with the transcription in your own style You want to play as though it’s one continuous solo, where you are finishing their lines and creating new ones that make sense in the context of the solo. Try alternating 4s, 8s, choruses, etc. If you are having trouble improvising in their style, go back to the triggers you worked on in Step 3
Repeat steps 1-4 for each of the 5-10 players you identified in step 1. At this point, you should have realized that this is going to take a while. This is a journey, not an exercise.
Step 5. Them + You = Your Sound
Add your secret sauce and blent it all together. You’ve gotten inside the heads of your idols. Over time, you will start adopting different aspects of each of these players’ styles, and you can pick and choose your favorites to emulate, in your own way. You will also have your own original ideas and personal journey that will hopefully permeate your playing. Perhaps you have been deeply influenced by Indian music and have spent countless hours playing through ragas, trying to emulate the sitar on your horn. What will make you sound unique is the combination of all these factors.
There is no secret formula to developing your sound, but the 5 steps above should help offer a framework to get you started. Although you want to sound like you and not be a clone of somebody else, it’s important for your playing to be deeply rooted in the history of the music and be relevant. By not focusing on 1 single idol, you avoid turning into a “clone” of any single player. Instead, you will start to develop your own, personal, firmly-rooted sound.