Hit you over the head with the Blues Hammer
Illustration: John Merigliano

The ‘Blues Hammer’ Syndrome

The ‘Hammer’ of the Blues Gods

Studying musical cultures from around the world (or even from our own backyard) is a voyage of discovery. It activates our curiosity and challenges our notion of what defines music. As a result, we become more receptive to new ways of hearing and, in turn, we respond by setting out to learn this new music. Most of the time, we do this by imitating our idols. This could be, for example, learning a guitar solo note-by-note. Unfortunately, this approach can also quickly lead to a very bad and common habit; one that I like to call the “Blues Hammer Syndrome.” The syndrome leads to a lack of authenticity, hinders your musical development, and demonstrates a lack of respect for musical heritage.

An Acceptable Vernacular

Copying styles can provide you with patterns for playing and improvising. In a limited way, going through the motions of learning a solo or some “licks” can unlock the instrument for you in that you’ll pick up a vocabulary. But, it’s not your vocabulary.

“That whole thing of replicating what others do is a siren call. The sirens lure you to the rocks of unoriginality.” — Stewart Copeland

Therefore, these habits can become a kind of vernacular whereby all of your friends are playing the same licks. When you do this, you deny yourself the opportunity to dive into the origins of the music that you are imitating to really appreciate or understand it. You are just copping the best parts. Worse yet, you are not taking any steps forward in your own musical development because you are covering the same ground over and over again.

Move Over Rover and Let Jimi Take Over

Here’s a common example, illustrated by a scene (first 20 seconds) from Terry Zwigoff’s film, Ghost World (2001). For me, this moment in the film clearly articulates how some great musical languages have been presented in a mediocre way. In the scene, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a dyed-in-the-wool Delta Blues enthusiast and record collector, takes Enid (Thora Birch) to a local bar to catch an original blues act. Our lone guitarist (think Robert Johnson) presses through his final solo acoustic tune. With the exception of Seymour and Enid, his authentic blues playing is ignored by everyone in the bar in favor of watching sports on TV.

Our blues player finishes his set, takes a bow, and disappears into obscurity. Seymour could not be happier that he was able to catch this legend’s set and wonders why no one else is listening. Enter “Blues Hammer,” a local blues rock outfit of pimply teenagers. Watching their entrance, we hear our suburban boy yelling about “picking cotton in the fields all day” and rattling off some standard bluesy licks on his guitar. The crowd abruptly abandons their sports TV for the livelier performer. Dancing ensues while Seymour looks on in utter confusion and dismay.

“It’s just that when you’re playing in standard tuning all the time, you’re sounding pretty… standard.” — Thurston Moore

The Problem with Copying

You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with Blues Hammer? They sounded great and everyone loved them!” Sure, there’s nothing wrong with the “Hammer” in and of itself. I certainly would have grabbed a beer, sat down next to Seymour and, in a friendly way, suggested that he lighten up a bit. “Blues Hammer” is doing fine and they were probably paid well for the gig because they brought warm bodies into the venue. My main beefs with “Hammer” center around the issues (mentioned earlier) of authenticity, personal development, and a respect for musical heritage (or lineage).

Your Musical Lineage

We learn from others. They, in turn, learn from others. We learn music from our teachers who have passed along information from their teachers. We will pass on a part of their teaching as well. The classical conservatory is an orthodox version of this type of education. At Juilliard, you are going to study with teachers who made a name for themselves in their respective fields. And they have studied with teachers who were outstanding, as well. Connecting yourself with that lineage is an amazing honor and opportunity. “Blues Hammer” is the blueprint for the way a lot of us learn how to play music, adopting tired and worn-out tactics from a musical genre that has a rich history. And it goes nowhere. Your lineage does not have to be connected to great players. You just need to recognize where you come from. This will give you a better idea of where you want to go.

Do Your Homework

If you want to learn a new musical style, go to where that music is played. Get to know what these clubs smell like. Listen to the way the performers play. Meet some musicians and ask them questions. If you cannot do that, find a teacher who can guide you and recommend relevant listening. If you cannot do that, listen to records on your own and immerse yourself in the culture of the sound. Go to the library (“What’s a library?”) and do some research. Read about the context and the culture in which this music is situated. Yes, you can start with the internet. Moreover, if you don’t take an actual trip to the library and spend some undistracted time among the stacks, your ability to internalize this new information could be hindered.

This approach will give you a deeper understanding and respect for how a certain type of music came to be. Every new piece of information you bring into your own musical habits will stave off the “Blues Hammer Syndrome”. You’ll gain respect for musical traditions and lineages (even if you decide to break with those traditions). By then you’ll begin to develop a distinctive and authentic sound.