Originality - The Holy Grail?

Every guitar player strives for originality in their playing and in their songwriting -- or do they? If you ask a guitarist whether originality is important to them, most will say, "Yes, I always try to be unique, and to express my individual personality in my playing." But how many guitarists can you name that you would consider to be truly original and innovative? There are dozens, but compared to the number of guitar players out there, the number seems quite small. Is it that difficult to be original? Does it seem like all the good chord progressions, melodies, riffs and licks have already been written? Does the modern guitarist have no choice but to recycle old material and/or cop a famous guitar player's sound and style? Is the goal of originality simply a modern day version of the quest for the Holy Grail?

The Hero Factor

One problem many musicians run into is a tendency to worship their idols and influences. For one guitarist in my neighborhood it was Jimmy Page. This guy studied guitar for the express purpose of being able to play any Led Zeppelin song yet written. And he achieved his goal; he started a Zeppelin cover band called Bron-Yr-Aur and he looked and played just like Jimmy Page, right down to the double-neck guitar.

What's wrong with this? Well for this guitarist, absolutely nothing; he was doing exactly what he wanted. But aren't there times in your life where you spent way too much time copping a particular guitarist's style, and finally realized that your own playing suffered? Your original playing, that is -- your ability to play what you are thinking and feeling at any time. Many times this is done to cover a feeling of inadequacy on the instrument. You may have heard a brilliant song by Eric Johnson for example that was so incredible it made you feel like quitting guitar altogether. So then you get inspired to learn the song yourself, as if to say, "It's a great song, but I can play it just as good as Eric if I practice." You master the song, then a few weeks later someone plays the new Steve Vai record, and suddenly you feel inadequate again, and set about trying to learn Steve's best stuff.

The tendency to want to copy your idols is very common. If you look at the amount of guitar tabulature that is 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. It's not enough to play a song in your own style, it's gotta be authentic, accurate and just like the record. You can even buy video tapes that analyze a particular guitarist's style, use of effects, amplification, etc., just so that you can play the way they play (as close as humanly possible).

Is it any wonder that originality may suffer in the determination to prove that, "I can play anything Yngwie can, only faster...?" Not to mention the possible loss of self esteem when you find you can't play as fast or as wildly as your current favorite guitar player. If you see yourself this way you should realize that even a guitarist as noted as Pete Townshed was ready to quit music the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix play a concert. Pete was quick to recognize however that his career did not depend on proving to the world that he was a better guitarist than Jimi Hendrix. He knew he could continue to do his 'thing', whatever it was, and continue to be a successful musician (as he already was). He sensed he had strengths in songwriting, arranging and overall creativity that would overcome any perceived lack of sheer artistry on the guitar.

You must realize that in order to be an original, you've got to break away from your heroes and influences as quickly as you can. It's fine to cop licks and stuff when you're learning, but you need to develop the ability to think for yourself and play new parts and rhythms to your favorite songs. Worrying incessantly about playing a song 'just like the record', is not going to help. Take a chance and put your own spin on the tune. Van Halen's cover of the Kinks "You Really Got Me" sounds nothing like the Kinks version, because Eddie decided not to copy the sound or licks from the original version. He knew people would rather hear his sound instead.

Once you begin feeling comfortable with treating familiar tunes with something new, you'll be able to start experimenting with finding your own 'sound' -- whatever that may be.

Cover Bands

Let's face it, a good number of musicians get their first taste of playing live in cover bands. The goal in a cover band is to learn the latest songs as quickly and as accurately as possible. Too much deviation from the recorded version means you've failed in your task of duplicating today's hit records. What happens over time is you start to get very good -- good at replicating music off the radio. You develop a skill in an area that won't help you to create or find an original style. And if you can make a living playing in cover bands, there is even less incentive to break away and develop your own voice on the guitar.

If you find yourself going from one cover band to another, it's possible at some point that you've convinced yourself that playing music for a living is better than not playing music for a living. In other words, you'd rather play anything just to be playing and get paid, even if it means your own music will never be developed and heard. You may also be telling yourself that someone may be so knocked out by your authentic rendition of "Hey Jude", that they'll offer you money to come into a studio and record some new music. Let me tell you, anyone who has money to wave in front of musicians is looking for something new and fresh, not simply a competent cover artist. You have to look for ways to do your own thing, whether it's to work in some original material each night into your set, or rearrange hit songs to fit your own strengths as a player. One band I know started squeezing one original tune into each night's gig; they soon added a second, then a third. Working this way, after a few months, they found over half their set was original material and their audience had grown as well. What seemed impossible was possible by solving the problem with a creative solution.

Practice Makes Perfect?

Most guitarists can probably play a three-octave major scale in five or six seconds. Do you think it would be more original to play it in four seconds? How about three seconds? What if you could play those 22 notes in one second, wouldn't you be a great guitar player? Hmm?

What's the problem with playing a scale faster and faster? The problem is it's still a scale! It might sound cooler played at hyper speed, but it's not very original is it? Yet guitarists are fascinated with scales, well beyond the first year or two of practice that's needed to learn the instrument. They'll blaze up and down the neck, playing impressively fast scales! On top of that, they will look for new scales ("watch me play this three octave Hungarian-Lydian-Snake-Charmer scale...") Guess what? It's still a scale! Here's a wake-up call: except for the guitarist who is slightly less 'talented' than you, and who wishes he could play the Half-Diminished-Pitch-Axis-Dweezil scale as fast as you can, the rest of the world is bored to tears by scales. The more you practice scales beyond the first year or two, the more likely it is that half (or more) of your 'style' will be nothing more than scales played at hyper speed. We've probably all done it at one time or another, but if you're still doing it, you need to stop - now!

Here's a concept - melody. Here's another concept - dynamics. Here's a third concept - soul. Take any one of these three concepts and try to imagine how they might help you in developing an original style. Let's see -- if I take a scale and subtract a note or two and played some notes longer than others and played some notes shorter than others and played the notes in a non-sequential fashion -- why, that's melody, isn't it? What if I played the notes with different amounts of force or hit notes with less or more of the pick (gee, you might have to slow down a bit to hear the difference) that would be a way to use dynamics, right? What if I actually listened to what I was playing and let my fingers flow to the beat and rhythms in my head and heart - that'd be playing with soul, wouldn't it?

Final question: do you really want to continue to play scales? If the answer is no, either get a drummer or a drum machine, get a groove going, and just relax and play where your fingers and your mind want to take you. What do you do with the perfectionist inside of you who wants to show off what you've practiced? Take him out back and shoot him.

Fear Of The Unknown

It's a lot scarier to play something totally new and original for an audience than it is to play something familiar and understandable. If you can play in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan, you will be appreciated by fans who love that sound and who really wish Stevie was still with us, making records and touring. But you'll also be dogged by people who realize what you're doing, and will see you as trying to capitalize on Stevie's death. Having to deal with ongoing criticism about being nothing more than a copycat should make you reconsider the 'safety' of playing familiar material. Sure, it's possible no one will understand your original music, but at least it's your music, and a lot of people appreciate originality for originalities' sake. You'll be appreciated as much if not more for trying new things than if you are simply trying to prove you can 'play as good as Stevie Ray.'

Every person on earth has been gifted with creativity and the capability to be original. In order to conquer the fear of the unknown you've got to practice your creativity as much as possible. At times you have to consciously say, "In this part of the song, Carlos Santana would have played it this way. I'm going to play it completely differently." You might try several variations, all of which are radically different from those that sound too familiar to your ears. We are all essentially the sum of our influences, and there are times when you have to really work hard to shake the most influential roots out of your playing to get to a style which is truly original.

The Search For New Chord Progressions

You'll probably be glad to read this. Have you ever played a chord progression and wondered if it was something new? You can rest easy. At this point in the development of Western music, every progression of chords has been already been explored, written and used - frequently. One of the reasons you can't copyright a chord progression is that they are one of the building blocks of our music. It's accepted that the chord progression that you use in a new song has been used before at some point. It may be impossible to prove exactly when and where, but it's been done before. Think of the thousands of blues songs that are simply written using G, C and D. The difference in all songs with the same chord progressions boils down to the melody and the lyrics. You need to spend all of your time focusing on those areas and no time at all in a search for a 'new' chord progression. They just don't exist. An additional tip: you might choose progressions that are more unfamiliar to your ears, in order to take your music (riffs, melodies, etc.) to a new place. But you've got to make the determination as to what is unfamiliar and what is too familiar.

What Is Your Quest?

By now you've realized that there is no magic formula for originality. But we've identified several tendencies that make it almost impossible to even have a shot at developing an original style. If you make it your goal to be as original as possible in your playing and songwriting, you need to review your own tendencies to see if you are perhaps paying too much homage to current or past guitar heroes. Turn your heroes into role models instead. Learn to be inspired by what they have accomplished, but don't fall into the trap of learning every lick and solo of your favorite guitarist. Also, spend a lot of time playing, literally forget scales and exercises, and just improvise. If you do it long enough, I guarantee you'll find what you seek.

Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.

He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.

Guitar Haus