How many guitarists can you name who you consider to be truly original and innovative? No doubt you can come up with a few dozen, but consider for a moment how grossly disproportionate that number is to the number of guitarists out there. This raises the question of whether it's really that difficult to be original. Have all the good chord progressions, melodies, riffs and licks already been written? Do we stand a chance of saying something new with our music, or are we doomed ad infinitum to recycle old material and lift the sounds and styles of the legendary guitarists who have come before us?
Almost everyone who picks up a guitar starts out by mimicking solos from their favorite guitarists. It’s a time-honored way to develop your library of licks, as well as a good way to discover new concepts and ideas. But if you aspire to join the ranks of the greats, you certainly can't sound exactly like them, and I'm not talking about guitarists whose influences are evident in their playing. Guitar beasts like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Django Reinhardt, and Jimi Hendrix may have borrowed ideas from their influences, but they took those ideas and put their own spin on them, which resulted in music that was unique and revolutionary. No, I'm referring here to people who play the same gear, emulate the same tone, wear the same clothes, write songs in the same vein using the same scales, riffs, chords, and rhythms as their guitar heroes, essentially becoming clones of their idols. A surefire way to make you easily forgettable.
Once you get beyond the beginning stages of guitar playing, your goals should include expressing yourself. After all, isn’t that really what being a musician is about? If you truly want to touch people with your music or make some sort of impact with it, you have to try to say and do something new. The real trick to making music that stops people in their tracks is to take what you learn from your influences and make it your own.
Originality, that certain hard-to-define quality that stamps a piece of music as yours rather than a note-perfect copy of someone else's, is nothing more than gathering all your life experiences and influences and filtering them through your own unique perspective. It originates from within, and doesn't ask that you be different from everyone else, just that you be yourself. Originality is not what you want, it's what you are.
In the history of the world, there is no thought or emotion we can think or feel that someone, somewhere throughout time, hasn't already thought or felt. All of the typical things done on the guitar, pretty much every note or combination of notes that can be dreamed up, everything you might think to do, has already been played by someone before you. So relax. Your job in playing more authentic music is to take those notes, mix them up, and inject your own personality into them via phrasing techniques such as rhythmic variety, bending, slurs, slides and vibrato so that your guitar playing stands out from the pack.
Even if you aren't the least bit interested in becoming the next big thing in the music world, you should still strive to be unique in your guitar playing. Why? Because music is a medium of self-expression. You don't think, act, speak, dance, or dress in the exact same manner as anyone else, so why would you create songs that are note-for-note replicas of someone else's work. The point of creation is to communicate to the world something that is uniquely you. Even if it's just some simple melody you thought up.
While there is no magic formula for originality, the following are some tips to help you in your quest to play music that not only speaks to
you, but about
you.The first step to originality is to get clear on what it is you are trying to express.
Common sense, right? But you might be surprised to know how many people shoot arrows while blindfolded, expecting to land a bull's-eye. If you're unfocused, your music will reflect that confusion. Take some time to craft a clear vision of what you want your music to say. It's not enough to pick up your guitar and randomly improvise some riffs, melodies or chord progressions, then stumble onto some ideas that sound good but with which you have no personal connection, mash it all up, and hope for something momentous to result. At all stages of the creative process, ask yourself what feelings, what thoughts, you want to convey to your listener. Create what you like to hear.
When you are creating something musical, ask yourself what it is you want to hear
next, and not what it is you should do
next. Another obvious and simple concept, right? But again, what is simple isn't always easy. Asking yourself what you want to hear next is natural and instinctive. There are no rules and no limits. Most importantly, it's your true original self that answers.
Some musicians find it difficult to hear music in their head. If you are one of them, what you might try is to first develop a phrase, and then imagine or try to "hear" the next phrase in your mind. Instead of always falling back on some old technique you do well, get quiet and listen to what your mind’s ear is telling you to do. It doesn't matter if what you hear sounds totally different than anything you've heard before, or if it sounds like something you’ve heard a million times. It’s important not to confuse originality with being different than everyone else. Never avoid doing something ordinary or common out of fear that your idea won't be original. Seek to be neither the same nor different than others. Be yourself.
And if in taking this advice to heart you still find your can't "hear" the music in your head, try improvising by using your voice. Create simple melodic ideas by humming or singing anything that comes to mind. Using your voice will free you from always relying on your fingers for ideas. The voice can bridge the inner musical self with the outer musical world. Take your favorite licks and vary the rhythmic feel.
Say a phrase you're working on has straight eighth notes. Try changing some notes to triplets. Change the note values, hold some notes longer and some shorter than the original phrase. You might also try varying the note sequence. Change the pitch of one or two notes. Change the order of the notes. Play the riff backwards. Change both the pitch and order of the notes. Play around with the licks you already have in your arsenal to come up with something new and different. Let your fingers be moved by the beat and the rhythms in your head and heart. Phrasing, improvising and songwriting are the main application skills in music.
Don't fall short in these areas. No matter what your abilities are at this point, make room in your practice schedule to work on these skills alongside chords, scales, theory, and everything else. Don't wait for that elusive day when you think you will have mastered the guitar to do so. Incorporate these skills into your practice sessions now.Expose yourself to a wide variety of music.
Expose yourself to all kinds of music, not just the genres you typically favor. Take in a few indie bands. Drop by a record shop that specializes in rare music. Buy some records that maybe haven't sold well. Just because a band isn't popular with the masses doesn't mean they aren't good. Find out what you've been missing.Don't limit yourself to music when looking for musical inspiration.
There is an infinite wealth of inspiring ideas to be had in other forms of art. You can draw inspiration from literature, science, nature, different religions, foods, cultures, etc. Most importantly, look inward to your own emotions, thoughts, and desires. Forget about rules for awhile.
If you don't want to play chords, then don't. If you don't want to have the typical bass, guitar, drums, and singer in your band, then don't. Have a keyboard player, or a cello, anything you can think of. Play how you want to play and don't concern yourself with what other bands or people think. Don't let your creativity be impeded by the internal judge. Remember, when it comes to matters of self-expression, anything and everything goes. Experience life.
Go out and do stuff, get into trouble if you need to, anything that gets the juices flowing. If you don't experience life, then what do you have to write about? Lyrics, and music in general, are so much more vivid and effective if you actually experience some of what you're writing about. Experience breathes life into your words and music. Play around with your instrument.
If you have written song after song in normal standard tuning, then change it up some and try alternate tunings. Or change from playing electric to playing acoustic. Go from strumming to fingerpicking, and then fingerpicking to tapping. Hit notes with less or more of the pick. Experiment on your instrument. You never know what cool things you might discover. Less is more.
Don't try to be Eddie Van Halen with a million changes in your songs. Again, be yourself. The Ramones, Nirvana, The Sex Pistols, even the Beatles all had simple songs in their repertoires. No matter how expert you become on your instrument, don't ever hesitate to go back to the basics. Remember, melody rules. No matter how the song is structured or its degree of complexity, people are always drawn to a good melody.Don't concentrate solely on covers
. The tendency to want to copy your idols is very common. If you look at the amount of guitar tablature that's out there on the internet and published monthly in guitar magazines, you realize there are a huge number of guitarists who want to learn songs note for note. And if you happen to be part of a cover band, playing a song exactly the way it's written, or as close as humanly possible, is often essential. After all, the goal of a cover band is to duplicate songs accurately. Too much deviation from the recorded version might bring the wrath of your audience down upon you.
But the more covers you play, the less original your work is going to be. Your ability to play what you're thinking and feeling at any given time will suffer. In order to be original, you've got to break away from your heroes and influences. It's perfectly natural to emulate the guitarists you most revere when you're starting out, but at some point you need to develop the ability to think for yourself and play new parts and rhythms to your favorite songs. Take a chance and put your own spin on a tune. Van Halen's cover of "You Really Got Me" sounds nothing like the version by The Kinks because Eddie decided not to make an exact copy of the original. He knew people would rather hear his sound instead, and he was right. Get comfortable treating familiar tunes with something new and innately you.
And if you're in a cover band, try working some original material into your sets. Start slipping one original tune into each gig, then add a second and a third. Before you know it, you can work it so that over half your set is original material. Keep in mind that no matter how authentic your rendition of "Smoke on the Water" may be, no one is going to wave money in the face of a musician who is a competent cover artist. Think fresh and new.
That being said, it's a lot scarier to play something totally new and original for an audience than it is to play something that's familiar to them. But don't always opt to play it safe. Put yourself out there.
When next you hear that lick, that sound that gives you chills and transports you to another place, remember that a musician who found his or her own voice is playing it. Each and every one of us has been gifted with creativity and originality. As a guitarist, make it your goal to talk to the soul of your listener through your own unique style and sound.Image: Seregor, lead vocalist/guitarist for Carach Angren, performing at Kabaal am Gemaal on 5 May 2010. Photographed with a Canon EOS 5D.