Letters to a Young Musician: Finding Your Sound, Part One
How should you find your sound?
Well, every hand is different, ever nail strikes the strings at a slightly different angle. So if you play long enough, your sound will eventually emerge somehow. There are rules, but they can all be broken. For example, I file my nails to a shape that is “wrong” according to some experts.
I think there are two elements to “your” sound. The first is the sound-production itself, how your fingers strike the styring, where they strike the string. Many guitarists don’t make use of the many different sounds one can coax from the nylon strings and the box. That length of guitar from the fretboard-side of the soundhole all the way to the bridge is rich with different sounds. This can also help with the tuning of the guitar. Sometimes plucking the string in a different position will sound more in tune. (I recently watched a Julian Bream video and was impressed at how he would bend this note in a chord here and that note there…he was always aware of the pitfalls of a fretted instrument and the well-tempered scale)
The second element is what you play. Some guitarists are instantly recognizable, like Carlos Santana for example. Other have a more chameleon-like approach and it takes a while to hear their personality. One is not better than the other. Just different.
Finding your sound is a little bit like finding what you should do for a living, or finding your place in life. It seems to come to us of itself, almost sneaks up in the dead of the night. One day we wake up and from then on we wear our heart in our melodies. Maybe finding your sound has a lot to do with finding yourself and finding yourself comes out of being natural. In the West, natural refers to whatever humans have not manipulated, controlled, or despoiled. That’s a dualistic view. It separates humans from nature. In the East, what is natural is what exists according to its true nature. There is no separation, no dualism. That also means that there is no despoiled nature devoid of humans to return to.
What is your nature? What does your nature sound like?
I discovered that at the core of my melody is a slightly melancholy feeling. Even when I am expressing happiness you will find a few notes that speak of longing. But, that is as much a part of me as my crooked right index finger – it turns to the right and because of that turn the nail is perfectly parallel to the string. A flaw may become a pearl in time.
Don’t forget to practice. And keep thinking about what your nature sounds like!
Ottmar Liebert was born in the old Roman city of Cologne, Germany, situated on the Rhine river, famous as the birthplace of the surrealist Max Ernst and as the locale of the longest running Kolsch party in Europe, the November Carnival. At age 11, he bought his first guitar, a Hopf, a classical model, for which he paid under $100 US.
In 1978, Liebert took the Paris-Moscow Express from Cologne to Moscow. “The sound of the rails is still in my head from that trip,” he says. A year later, he flew to New York and spent the next 7 years on the East coast, mostly in Boston. In Spring of 1986 he arrived in Santa Fe where he currently resides.
Since 1990, Liebert has released a total of 23 albums, including live releases. His debut album, Nouveau Flamenco, sold double-platinum and has become one of the world’s best-selling guitar albums. He currently records and travels with his band, Luna Negra.