In an era of music streaming and randomized auto-generated playlists, one can easily get lost in the millions of musicians and groups and their discographies. However, one thing that helps us seek out the songs we love is an artist’s signature sound. The book This Is What It Sounds Like by writer Susan Rogers delves into what makes us love the music we love, in which Rogers explains the seven “sweet spots” we all use to determine whether we like certain music or not. Rogers’ list includes a song’s melody, lyrics, rhythm, and timbre — as well as its novelty, authenticity, and realism.
All of that, combined with the rawness of listening to music live, still doesn’t answer the question: What’s in the making of a signature sound? Our “Will Not Fade’s 2022 in Review” post highlights the many bands across different genres, from the prog and post-rock The Prog Alliance Tour to Avantdale Bowling Club’s jazzy hip-hop set. Part of the joys of listening to live music is enjoying a band’s sound, the live instruments, the vocals, and their energy. In this post, we’ll attempt to look at certain aspects of music that can help musicians create their signature sound:
It is not possible to talk about The Beatles’ signature sound without mentioning the Fenders, the Gibsons, and all the amps and pedals used throughout their different tracks. Case in point, Far Out Magazine‘s feature on iconic George Harrison moments noted that his use of the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” marked a shift in the latter half of the Beatles’ discography.
Later, this inspired the Rolling Stones to start featuring sitars in their song “Paint It Black.” Jimi Hendrix also decided to use a Fender Stratocaster — upside down. This not only created a signature sound but a signature look as well. Guns n Roses’ Slash has an inseparable image from his Gibson Les Paul, but like Hendrix, it’s because of how he plays it as opposed to what he played. Clearly, the instruments a musician utilizes are a starting foundation for their overall sound.
Aside from the instruments, a musician’s equipment is equally important to creating the sound we eventually hear. Over the years, musicians have come to rely on specialized equipment to help create their music. Jimi Hendrix’s iconic guitar tone results from his pedal setup—a wah pedal, a fuzz pedal, a Uni-Vibe pedal, and an Octavio pedal. All of these helped create Hendrix’s odd-sounding, hypnotic swirly guitars. Like pedals and guitar amps, an artist’s microphone can affect their sound. Shout4Music demonstrates how many microphones available today can serve different purposes depending on the sound you want to produce.
Still, some microphones—like the Shure SM58—are such classics that they have become an industry standard and a favorite among music’s iconic names, from The Who to Paul McCartney, for their clear and crisp audio. Indie bands, meanwhile, may use equipment you may have never seen before. A notable example is Julian Koster and his singing saw — a bow on a traditional handsaw — for Neutral Milk Hotel. The equipment the artists use can be considered the unsung heroes of signature sounds.
Certain artists have a particular sound that you quickly associate with them a few seconds into a song. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees didn’t know he could sing in falsetto until he did it in “Nights on Broadway,” eventually establishing the Bee Gees’ trademark falsetto sound. And when you think of Mariah Carey, you may think of her whistle tones, the same applies to Freddie Mercury’s belting and use of the mixed voice. Not everyone has a signature vocal sound, but the ones that do will often stick out to you because the technique is present throughout their music.
Of course, it’s not all stylistic. Ray Charles’ music is known for his growls and shouts, stemming from his gospel and jump blues background from the 50s—a time associated with emotional, soulful songs. Often, vocal techniques such as improvisations can transcend the importance of lyrics and may be why we can quickly identify certain songs. Overall, an artist’s vocal technique establishes their color as performers, creating music that is unique to them.
Guest post written exclusively for Willnotfade.com by Amy Cayenne
Photo of Tides of Man at dunk!festival 2018 by Will Not Fade