Instead, I tend to concentrate on the rhythm of the songs, and the way the players use their instruments. This is most likely an example of an occupational hazard; as a DJ, I’m far less concerned with whether the people on the dance floor are singing or rapping to the lyrics to what I’m playing and more concerned with them actually dancing. (One obvious exception – if I’m feeling bold enough to break out Bohemian Rhapsody, I certainly want to see the dance floor filled with people busting out their best Freddie Mercury renditions)
This got me thinking recently about how identifiable the sound of certain performers is. For the purposes of this posting, I’m not going to discuss vocals – clearly, many performers have their own distinct voices, and in popular music the vocals are almost always front and center in the mix. Instead, I’m going to reflect on a few of my favorite artists who possess that unique ability to create an instantly identifiable sound… when you hear it, you know it’s them.
At the risk of paraphrasing Dave Grohl when commenting on John Bonham, he once said that anyone could build a drum kit just like Bonham’s. You could get the same exact drums, the same sticks, with the same set-up, and record in the same studio. And yet, you wouldn’t sound like him. Creating a signature sound isn’t just about the instrument itself; there are plenty of guitarists, for example, who play Fender Stratocasters. There’s only one Eric Clapton.
John Bonham is fresh on my mind these days. Jimmy Page is once again re-releasing the Zeppelin catalog, but he’s including never-before-heard versions of songs, with alternate takes, and some “new” songs as well. I’ll admit I’m that much of a geek that I’ll notice a different guitar part or bass line in different versions of songs, but what’s really great about this additional music is hearing John Bonham play new and different songs in different ways. Hearing his snare drum on Jennings Farm Blues (basically an instrumental, harder version of Bron-Y-Aur Stomp from Led Zeppelin III) reminded me that no other drummer sounds like him. As a frustrated garage drummer myself, I’ve spent many an afternoon pounding away at Kashmir and, although I can play a crude version of the song, I’ll never sound like Bonham. Take a listen to Whole Lotta Love, with the drums isolated:
No blog by me about music would fail to recognize my passion for all things Genesis. I’m a huge Phil Collins fan, and he certainly is an artist with a sound all his own. Admittedly, he owes much of his sound to producer Hugh Padgham, but combined with his musical fills and his ability to play all styles, he’s crafted a sound all his own. We’ve all heard the drum fill that highlights In The Air Tonight, but consider all the other artists he’s played with: Clapton, Philip Bailey, Robert Plant, Peter Gabriel, Adam Ant, Frida… the list is long and impressive. In each performance, he refused to lean on what he’d typically play, instead playing to fit the song.
Guitar players can certainly have their own sound. In addition to the aforementioned Eric Clapton, consider two other famous Fender players: Carlos Santana and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd). The sound of the instrument may be similar; however, combined with their own musical personalities, they too have created their own sounds. No one sounds like Gilmour on Comfortably Numb, and Santana carves his own niche on performances like the one he gives on Smooth.
It’s interesting to note that technology can sometimes get in the way of the individualism performers bring to recordings. In the mid-‘80s, the new big thing was electronic drums. They were supposed to offer a plethora of different sounds, thus eliminating the need for expansive drum kits. Unfortunately, the early versions had but a few sounds, and instead of every drummer sounding different, they all began to sound very similar. Listen to the big-time drummers of that era: Neil Peart (Rush), Alex Van Halen (Van Halen), Stewart Copeland (Police), Phil Collins (Genesis)… they all started sounding the same. Many drummers gave up the idea altogether, while others continued to be proponents of the new drums as the technology improved. Neil Peart, another drummer with his own sound, still uses electric drums to great effect.
I’d be curious to know if anyone who reads this has their own musician who they can spot from a mile away. Do any artists have a sound that speaks to you?