As a musician on the local level it is a very good practice to become a well-rounded player, particularly if you want to work with any regularity. This becomes even more important if your goal is to significantly add to your earning potential. It doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert in all genres, but at the very least you should be conversant with your instrument in several different genres. This opens up the possibility of playing in variety bands, which is the primary type of group hired for corporate gigs and/or weddings, in other words the better paying gigs. This doesn’t mean that you can’t aspire to being the go to player for blues in the area or, rock, country or whatever. Everyone has a specific area where they’re in their prime environment, their specialty as it were. But if you’re in it for the long haul, and at the very least to supplement your income, it is in your best interests as a player to branch out.
There are many benefits to reaching beyond your initial comfort zone. For one, whatever you learn, and learn well, becomes integrated into your musical language. For instance, if you understand what makes a decent solo and the vocabulary thereof, you might find yourself intermixing some aspects of this into your approach in another genre, like blues or rock. This can provide a different perspective in how you approach your solos that can start to make you stand out from the usual assembly of licks that might comprise someone else’s blues solo. Robben Ford is an excellent example of a player who is highly conversant in blues, jazz and rock forms. He has in fact mastered all three, and while he is perfectly capable of delivering a high octane scorching blues solo he often digs into his multifaceted background to bring jazz and rock influences into his solos and choice of material. In doing so he has created his own vocabulary which is quite rich in chord voicings, phrasing and delivery. When you hear a Robben Ford solo, you know who you’re dealing with.
Listening is also an incredibly valuable practice to improve as a musician, and once again it is important to have an eclectic approach to what you listen to. It is very important to be an active listener as well as a passive one. Most of us listen to a ton of music throughout our days, but most of this is actually passive listening. We’re listening to background music; it’s a soundtrack for our other work, exercise, or whatever we’re doing at the moment. It slips in and out of our immediate attention, but mostly stays in the background. This is passive listening; listening for fun. Active listening is when the music is the absolute focal point. You’re listening with a purpose, to understand what is going on in the tune, how it is structured, how the lyrics work or don’t and why, what the instrumentalist is doing while the vocalist is working, where the solos are and their shapes and colors. All of these things, and more, lead to a better understanding of the art form, leading us to learn from the experience of hearing a piece of music.
So, how does listening play a part in becoming a more well-rounded player? If we both actively and passively listen to a wide variety of musical genres it helps to create an inner pool of knowledge. This is where we start to learn the characteristics that make up the vocabulary of the many different styles of music that we might encounter as a performer. It enriches our background, and gives us so much more to draw on. It exposes us to other areas that might become additional focal points of interest, and in doing so helps to ensure that as musicians our art form is a lifelong learning process. Even a blues bass player can learn and employ what he or she has learned from listening to the orchestral works of J. S. Bach. The man wrote beautifully constructed bass lines that serve the same purpose as a beautifully constructed blues bass line. From looking at Bach’s bass lines, the blues bassist will learn about the values of contrary movement which will make his or her bass lines more interesting to hear, as well as to play, just as an example.
If you have a broad background to draw upon, the chances of working more, as well as maintaining interest in the art, increase dramatically. People do get bored from too much repetition or too few challenges. When you seek out knowledge of differing musical styles, the learning process is engaged, your repertoire increases, and your musical potential does as well. If you want to even be a semi-pro player, it’s going to take work on your part as well as a dedication to both your art and your craft. If you take a gig with a variety band you’re going to be crossing genres, which can both provide for an interesting gig as well as a challenging one. You might face jazz, country, rock, blues, funk and R&B all in the same gig. You don’t have to be Wes Montgomery, Vince Gill, Geddy Lee, Buddy Guy, and Otis Redding to do it all, but you will need to be able to represent the genres with a certain level of dexterity to successfully pull the gig off.