Dave Holmes

Be Versatile or Specialise?

Be Versatile or Specialise?

When I was starting out, in my early 20's, I was given some great advice: specialise in something, become one of the top players in that area. At the time I didn't pay much attention and just carried on practising what I thought I needed to become a versatile, employable player. I was just happy to be earning money by playing the guitar!

It's an interesting question. Be a jack of all trades or master of one? The more versatile you are, the more employable you'll be and the more likely you'll have the skills to cope with whatever is thrown at you. By specialising in a particular style, you'll be more likely to master it but will you be able to earn a living?

I set out to be as versatile as possible, but as my career developed, I learned some useful lessons.

1) Just a basic knowledge of a style can get you a long way.

2) If an employer needs a specialist, they’ll book one. So, as a versatile 'utility' player, you’re unlikely to get booked for anything that requires a specialist’s knowledge.

3) You’ll only truly master what you love to do.

About ten years ago I auditioned for the London production of We Will Rock You. I've always been a huge fan of Queen and really wanted this job. I had three auditions, all in front of Brian May, the last of which lasted 90 minutes. I'd learned everything note for note, but I could tell he wasn't totally convinced. Eventually he came over, "I'm not hearing the sound and I want to check that it's not the equipment." I handed him the replica Red Special guitar they'd supplied for me to use. Then guitar legend, Brian May, stood right next to me and played a Bb note on the third fret of the third string. Just one note; but the tone, vibrato and emotion that poured out of that one note left me stunned. I thought, "I can play all your solos accurately but if I need to be able to do that, forget it!"

It made me realise that I still had some way to go to mastering my chosen style, which I'd neglected by trying to be versatile. I didn't get the gig, although Brian invited me to dep for the two guys who were chosen, Alan Darby and Laurie Wisefield. My vibrato, tone and rock feel improved by trying to copy these players and I vowed that I would concentrate on developing my own style from then on.

As far as I'm concerned, the worst scenario would be to lose out on a dream job because you'd spent all your practise time working on other styles. So when students ask me how versatile they should be, I usually ask them what they really want to do and suggest they concentrate on that. By all means set some practise time aside for learning different styles to increase your chances of employment and become an all round better musician. After all, you'll always learn by listening to different music. A handful of licks and a knowledge of appropriate sounds will carry you a long way.  But always keep in mind and work towards what you really want to do.

Dave Holmes 26/09/2012

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© 2012 Dave Holmes

Dave Holmes