There's an old saying that goes: "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Well, if that's true, and flattery were against the law, I should be serving a life sentence somewhere by now! This brief article deals with music as a "language," and might succeed in illustrating just how significant a role your influences can play in learning that language.

It still amuses me when I ask a player about their influences, and they say "Oh, I don't listen too closely to or imitate anyone, because I want to be unique." Wow! Get a clue, eh? Fortunately, I hear this less and less nowadays, possibly due to the fact that so many successful artists give credit where credit is due, and are honest about the path that led to their success. Whether it be Charlie Parker stealing every known solo of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, Albert King's influence on Jimi Hendrix, both of their influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan, Charlie Christian's impact on Wes Montgomery, George Benson's connection with Wes, Grant Green and Hank Garland, Art Tatum's influence on Oscar Peterson, Eddie Van Halen learning every early Eric Clapton solo note-for-note, Chick Corea stealing from every notable pianist you can name, and on and on. Is there a pattern that emerges here? I think so. The most innovative players of our time are the ones who simply have stolen the most, and in the process developed such powerful, unique language skills. The "innovators."

You know what's really kind of funny? Ever hear a guitarist, bassist, or songwriter with very little, if any, influences? As a teacher, I've seen my share of this. Actually, funny is the wrong word. More like sad or pathetic is appropriate. Kind of like a child who was never taught by his parents how to speak the English language. The result? Very limited communication.

Now, the point I'd like to make at this time involves you, and making solid decisions about whom you choose to become your influences. And I should further define influences as those that you actually do imitate, study, and learn from, and not just listen to for your own pleasure.

When my students ask me about making important decisions such as this one, I usually tell them to go after any artist that really "rings your bell." I have a personal criteria for this. It may not be the same as yours, but I'll share it with you.

Though I generally consider myself to be easy to please and not too critical, there are three important traits that an influence of mine must share. First, regardless of the style of music, the artist must play with "feeling." This is sort of a "no-brainer" trait, because most decent players do play with some kind of emotion. The second, however, deals with "intensity." With many artists that exhibit a high degree of intensity, I usually don't need to hear more than a few notes, sometimes as little as one, to feel the power and get the message. When I hear someone play with intense feeling, I know that I'm witnessing something special. All that's left for me, at this point, is the amount of harmonic and rhythmic "imagination." This trait, combined with the other two, makes for a "world-class" player, someone who keeps you guessing just a little and continually coming back for more. Now this might be my personal criteria for choosing my own influences, but it all makes perfectly logical sense to me. Steal from the best. Because in this case, crime pays!

"Coach's Corner" is an ongoing addition to Vision Music. The purpose of these brief articles is to share philosophy, offer practical insights, and to enhance your musical studies.

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