I started out playing music on electric guitar and soon enough found a more congenial home on bass guitar – which I still play professionally – before branching out into other things… such as writing this blog.
During my first few years of playing the bass, I never consciously imitated anyone, although I was influenced by the players and music I loved. I thought that by not imitating, borrowing, and stealing from the great players I admired, I would be original. I thought imitating would prevent me from developing my own voice.
Well… I don’t think I sounded exactly like anyone else, that’s true – because I didn’t know how to! And when one zeros in on one person and slavishly imitates them (not the worst thing, if you choose well and grow out of it), sounding exactly like someone else can happen, for a time anyway. But I also didn’t sound like anybody.
This is because I had scant depth in the language and history of my instrument. When I needed water I didn’t have a well to draw from (that’s the history part). I didn’t realize it but, while thinking I might be inventing a new form of transportation, I was mostly trying to re-invent the wheel – and usually none too elegantly.
When you develop your personality, you start by imitating the people around you; often your parents. You learn to speak by parroting them and whoever’s around. In that way you develop enough language to begin to communicate with anyone else who speaks that language, ultimately in a relatively sophisticated way.
What if, instead of imitating, you learned your language from a book? Or if as a kid you were just around one person all the time? You’d know the nouns and verbs but little of the variations, inflections, and vernacular that make language so expressive.
We develop our way of speaking – and non-verbally communicating – by trying to sound just like people around us… and then eventually taking what we like from that and mixing it with whatever else we encounter that sticks… In time, this turns out to be our ‘voice’.
I’m sure you saw this coming paragraphs ago, BUT… the same thing is true with Songwriting. Imitate. Borrow. Steal. Study. Analyze. LEARN. That’s how writers get better (other than just writing, which is the reason for all of this and the most dependable way to improve).
Don’t be afraid that you’ll be less yourself if you take from writers you love. Take the time to become familiar with at least some of the things they did – intimately familiar. Take a look back. If there’s a writer you like, check some of their songs out… close up. And ask, who did they like when they were getting it together? Check them out. And who did that person like…?
For some songwriters there may come a point where they leave their influences completely behind (I can’t think of any) and they’re in a country of their own. There are also times when you need to stop listening to a particular influence to get their voice out of your head and move on. But even some (most? all?) of the greatest songwriters are still willing – happy – to be influenced.
Imitate. Borrow. Steal. Study. Analyze. LEARN.
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