Original Sin

Hi all, I want to take a quick break this month from technique based columns to discuss something that has been on my mind lately. Namely, what does it mean for one's playing to be considered original?

It can't mean that there is no connection between a musician's playing and their influences. It also cannot mean that the player is entirely breaking new ground with every note that he or she is playing; there are only twelve notes after all, at least in western tonal music. So what do we mean when we say, "Wow, that guy's playing is so original"?

I think that what we really mean is that we don't immediately think of a particular player when we hear them play. If we were to do some digging, I'm sure that we could trace just about everything being played to a relatively small group of influences. For instance, let's look at Jimmy Page. Most of us would agree the Led Zeppelin was a groundbreaking act. No one had ever heard anything like them before they came out right? Not so fast, if you look at Jimmy Page's influences, you will quickly discover a huge love of blues, rockabilly, and English folk rock - all elements that are extremely present in his music. You can draw a nearly straight line from his influences to what he did later in his legendary career.

Jimi Hendrix tops most guitarists' lists as a player who was transcendent and visionary - a player who was decades ahead of his time. Look a little closer and you will see many R&B influences, as well as a huge Albert King influence. His playing was riddled with references to the impact these greats had on him. Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Satriani both cited Hendrix as a major inspiration to their playing. Does this mean SRV and Satch are a rip off of a rip off? Of course not, every player I just mentioned is absolutely deserving of all the adulation that they receive.

But what chance do the rest of us have if even these groundbreaking artists were unable to become completely separated from their influences? I think that the notion of avoiding our influences completely goes against our own natures. It is akin to trying to deny having blue eyes because your parents had blue eyes. Our influences are our musical parents and they shape us into the musicians that we eventually become.

Of course there are always going to be examples of people going overboard and just out right copying the player that they love. Those players will usually get over their copycat-itis once they mature as musicians and their influences broaden. I truly look at music as a lineage.

Speaking for myself, I consider Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, Reb Beach, and Alex Lifeson to be my musical parents. If you dig further back into the people who influenced them, you will find many of the same players I mentioned earlier, as well as, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Robert Fripp, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, David Gilmore, and Larry Carlton. In a very real way, I consider those players my musical grandparents. Playing that shows the influences of these greats, while not directly quoting them, is paying homage to our musical lineage. It is the combination of the different people that inspired us that defines our own unique style.

As Hendrix, Page, and Van Halen have proven, it is possible to pay tribute to our heroes while simultaneously moving our music into the future. Besides, as anyone who has ever been to a spoken word open mic night in San Francisco can tell you, just because something is original that doesn't mean that it's good. I couldn't tell if that chick in the neon pink combat boots with the chin ring and the Snoopy tattoo on her forehead was decrying free market capitalism, or reading us her shopping list through all of her incoherent braying. All I could think to myself was, "Wooh, O.K., well that was certainly original!"

Scott Allen is a 1996 graduate of the Musician's Institute, G.I.T. He currently teaches guitar to 65 to 70 students weekly at Northridge Music Center.

His latest CD is entitled "III", featuring his impressively fluid playing, with a style marked by an incendiary sense of phrasing.

Scott Allen