Musical Influences: What They Are and How to Use Them

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“The blues is the roots and the other musics is the fruits. In keeping the roots alive you yield richer fruits.” — Willie Dixon

As someone who grew up outside of a structured musical environment, the role of influences fascinates me. They shape our tone, technique, and entire approach to playing and practicing music.

I think of influences as any genres, artists, or songs that we devote a lot of our time toward emulating and learning and are clearly heard in our own "default" musical setting.

The choices we make, often when practicing as children, end up defining our style in ways that seem inescapable. And if it wasn’t our own curiosity, it was our parents or older siblings, pointing us toward a particular record or genre.

Our influences and musical inclinations are also shaped by our age, tribalism, culture, personalities, and mood, i.e. a combination of outside forces — an effect known as “inculturation”. Early exposure to these forces shapes the very way we perceive rhythm — some studies show it isn’t innate:  

“In the first six months of life, babies can actually follow the syntax of any musical style — complex rhythms from Turkey or major scales from Europe. If you play something for a baby a few times and make a slight shift, the baby turns its head at that shift. It recognizes the deviation.” [*]

How your musical influences “play” out

Once you move beyond rudimentary playing and get into more intermediate and advanced levels of playing, most of us seem bound to our early influences. When we improvise, we can hear their mark. It’s at the core of how we construct our phrases.

We also can’t separate their impact on melody and feel. Feel is constructed of a myriad of rhythmic and technical nuances that sum up into “the way we sound”, and this is arguably where we recognize our influences most easily.

There are, as always, exceptions. Studio musicians who can seamlessly transition between genres (in a way that feels true to the genre) are incredible, and I have the utmost respect for those players.

On the other end of the spectrum seem to be musicians who cannot escape, or at least cannot innovate, within their main genre. This is often due to weaker songwriting more than anything else, but some musicians, despite how technically and melodically proficient they are, sound wholly derivative.

And then there’s a third crowd, people stuck in a miasma of random voyeurs into genres, never really mastering any particular one, and struggling to develop their own voice. Sometimes this is enabled by actively running away from their influences, which, in a way, removes a lot of benefits of the early work they did. After turning their back on a style, they have to learn new techniques, structures, and styles of playing that aren’t natural to them.

Or they just never put in enough effective practice to be proficient in the first place, but that’s a subjective, blurry line.

This is not a cautionary tale

This is not about spreading yourself too thin, even though I do think that can be an issue. There is so much beauty and value in identifying elements of music (from anywhere in the world!) and then extracting and applying what you love about it to the music you like to make.

It’s also much more productive to reexamine the role our influences play and instead lean into them. To be proud of them. They are a part of your journey, after all, and if they still come from musicians and albums you like to replicate, wonderful, if they don’t, that’s just fine too. By recognizing them, you can take advantage of their strengths and push back against any weaknesses.

With that in mind, here’s some more actionable advice around influences.

How to make your musical influences work for you

#1 Analyze your own influences

“Once an influence can be accurately re-created, it can begin to be digested. This allows the process to start all over with a new batch of influential artists, which in turn creates a vast library of musical techniques and tricks to pull from. As curator of this library, the musician has the responsibility not only to pull the right tricks for the right musical moments, but to pick interesting ones.” [*]

One way we wield our influences is to be aware of the ones we have and the ones we are collecting.

Here’s a fun exercise I tried yesterday: sit down at your instrument, think about your influences, and say out loud, “This is a type of lick or phrase that X would do.” Then, try it. How many can you do? This offers a pretty fascinating look into our influences and is a great way to compartmentalize certain techniques.

You can broaden this to genres as well.

And even better if you can do this exercise chronologically.

For me, I did:

  • Randy Rhoads
  • Jimmy Page
  • John Frusciante
  • John Mayer
  • Julian Lage
  • Django Reinhardt
  • Ariel Posen

For a cool example of this, check out Khruangbin’s influence breakdown by Fender.

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#2 Be thoughtful about what you collect

The logical continuation of this idea is to be mindful about what influences you are collecting right now in your practice.

This is closely related to how I think about motivation in practice. You should practice what motivates you, and you should structure your practice around goals and specific exercises that ultimately lead you toward sounding like how you want to sound — don’t run around trying different practice techniques only because someone told you to.

Think about the songs you’ve been learning lately — what about them do you like? What can you digest and take with you? Are they even getting you closer to your goal?

#3 Don’t be afraid of plagiarizing

People get so scared of plagiarizing, and most of the time this hamstrings our creative process. Everything is derivative:

We are the summation of the music and people that have come before us. While we can’t pull on the string and trace it back directly, the phrases and music we are making have generations of musicians and influences baked in. A lick we improvise may have been uttered or derived from someone who lived an entire life before we were even born. It’s amazing.

And this applies to signature elements of genres as well. There is no shame in using familiar structures. They are familiar because they are fundamental to the act of making music itself. Don’t get hung up and confuse understanding the rules and what gives shape to a genre with copying. They are not the same thing.

Mindful over mindless influences

I’m really just saying you should be mindful about where you come from and what’s influencing you now. The more awareness you can bring to that, the better your practice will serve you.

Good luck!

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P.S. For any bass players out there, here’s a collection of Thundercat’s influences:

  1. “Lady” D’Angelo (Raphael Saadiq on bass)
  1. “You Are In My System” - The System (David Frank moug bass)
  1. “Havoglabotribin” Bernard Wright (Marcus Miller on bass)
  1.  “Strawberry Letter 23” The Brothers Johnson (Lewis Johnson on bass)
  1. “Sunshine of Your Love”- Cream (Jack Bruce)
  1. “Hair” - Graham Central Station (Larry Graham)
  1. “Chameleon”- Herbie Hancock ( Herbie on synth bass doubled by Paul Jackson on e bass)
  1. “Portrait of Tracy”- Jaco Pastorius (Jaco on bass 🙌🏼)

Written by
Nathan Phelps
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