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Old 09-16-2012, 06:43 AM   #1
kettles
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Unhappy Writing/composing - I could use some help!

Ok here's the thing, I have no trouble coming up with riffs. Every time I sit down with my guitar I tend to come up with at least one new riff or melody. But I have a really hard time actually putting songs together into an interesting, flowing, non-generic structure. In over ten years of playing guitar and drums, I have only about five mostly-finished songs (ie - not as many as I would like!). The music I write is metal-ish, mostly riff based melodic stuff. I spent most of today working on one song, and it's nowhere near complete. I don't know how to create a direction for the song to go in, and it just feels like a stack of riffs thrown together. I record it as I go with Cubase and drum plugins.

The problem is that I just don't really know what I'm doing. I'm a firm believer in the learn-by-doing school of thought and can assume most of my difficulty simply comes from having not done it enough. But at the same time the journey would become a lot easier if I could understand how others go about it, so does anyone mind sharing their experiences with composing music? Do you start each new song the same way, such as starting with a formula and let it evolve from there? Or do you have a specific structure or direction in mind from the beginning?

What is going on in your head when you're composing?

I REALLY want to be good at this. I'd rather be a great writer than a great guitarist

Should I really just stick with generic song structures for now until I get better at combining riffs and creating transitions, etc??

Sorry for the wall of text btw
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Old 09-16-2012, 08:49 AM   #2
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I get my inspiration when I'm walking outside or doing something else (ie not playing guitar). Sometimes I start "jamming" the song in my head and then I come up with another part that fits the song. Don't let your fingers do the writing. Hear it before playing it. And song structures are just bleh. I don't use any "structures." When I have enough riffs that I can arrange as a song, the structure comes naturally. I have two (maybe four) full songs (so not that many of them) and lots of unfinished songs. And they have taken their own time. The first part of the song might have been there for over a year when I come up with another part that fits the song. You clearly don't have any issues with starting a song but when I start writing a new song, I first have a bassline/drum beat/guitar riff/rhythm. And I start building everything over it. All of the parts in a song should have something in common. Otherwise it starts to sound too much like a riff-after-riff song. Good example of using the same rhythm through an entire song is "Mr Brownstone" by Guns N' Roses (3+2 clave). So maybe start thinking that way. Does the riff have a clear repeating rhythm? If it has, maybe write another riff with similar rhythm. Also you could have a bassline and build some riffs over it.

And don't throw riffs away if they don't sound good. They might start sounding good after you add drums and bass. And you can always "fine tune" them. And keep your songs simple enough. There's no point in trying to start writing a 20 minute prog rock song if you can't write a 3 minute song first.
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Old 09-16-2012, 08:59 AM   #3
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I've had a similar problem as well. When I first started trying to write stuff I'd just heard a couple of the longer Maiden songs and 'Master of Puppets' and wanted to write massive flowing narrative riff fests. It didn't quite work out, in the first place becaused I'd only been playing for like half a year and I was trying to write riffs even though I could just barely play the MoP intro riffs, but even as I got better at writing riffs I still wasn't getting very far with structuring stuff like that.

What helped me out in the first place was listening to what other bands were doing. And when I listened, I found that actually quite a large amount of stuff I could think of was using some variation of verse-chorus form. So my first mini-revelation here was that there's no reason to be afraid of 'generic' song structures. In the first place, song structure doesn't dictate the content of the song ideas themselves, but how those ideas are presented through time. If you don't have any interesting ideas, then utilising a massive sprawling song structure with little to no repeats isn't going to help, it'll just make it even more painful for the listener to make it through to the end (Not to tread on anyone's toes but bands like Dream Theater or BtBam have this kind of effect on me).

My second revelation was that even 'progressive' bands like King Crimson sometimes base themselves on the verse-chorus pattern in some way. Take the first track off of 'In the Court', 21st Century Schizoid man. I'm pretty sure everyone knows how that one goes, and if you think about it, the way it goes is actually in some sense fairly 'generic'. It's got three verses which all end on the same refrain leading into the main riff. What makes the song stand out, structure wise, is that for a bridge, instead of a comfortable eight or sixteen bars, they've stretched it out to a massive instrumental section that lasts for a few minutes.

This kind of trick seems to be pretty common among a lot of borderline progressive bands like say, early Fates Warning. If you listen to a track like 'The Apparition', it's three verses with a refrain, but the track ends up as nearly six minutes of Archy goodness, because they've expanded the introduction out to a minute long, and the 'bridge/solo' section has been extended by quite a bit more than usual. Vektor seem to do it a lot as well. Thinking about it yesterday, though I haven't listened to in in a while, most of the material on the first King Crimson album seems based around a verse-refrain structure with some lengthy instrumental sections floating around which push the songs beyond your average radio friendly chart toppers.

One way of doing it yourself I suppose would be to start with writing some simple songs using a pretty standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge/solo-chorus structure. When you've got that down, begin with trying to expand ideas out. Add a long introductory section, expand the bridge/solo section or add some kind of coda section. I don't know how much this will help you but it makes some sense to me. I might add some examples later if you're interested/can put up with my Fates Warning fanboyism.

But basically the main thing to take away is to try and see what the bands you listen to are doing. That's always a good basis to build on rather than flailing around with trial and error.
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Old 09-16-2012, 10:49 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nietsche
I've had a similar problem as well. When I first started trying to write stuff I'd just heard a couple of the longer Maiden songs and 'Master of Puppets' and wanted to write massive flowing narrative riff fests. It didn't quite work out, in the first place becaused I'd only been playing for like half a year and I was trying to write riffs even though I could just barely play the MoP intro riffs, but even as I got better at writing riffs I still wasn't getting very far with structuring stuff like that.

What helped me out in the first place was listening to what other bands were doing. And when I listened, I found that actually quite a large amount of stuff I could think of was using some variation of verse-chorus form. So my first mini-revelation here was that there's no reason to be afraid of 'generic' song structures. In the first place, song structure doesn't dictate the content of the song ideas themselves, but how those ideas are presented through time. If you don't have any interesting ideas, then utilising a massive sprawling song structure with little to no repeats isn't going to help, it'll just make it even more painful for the listener to make it through to the end (Not to tread on anyone's toes but bands like Dream Theater or BtBam have this kind of effect on me).

My second revelation was that even 'progressive' bands like King Crimson sometimes base themselves on the verse-chorus pattern in some way. Take the first track off of 'In the Court', 21st Century Schizoid man. I'm pretty sure everyone knows how that one goes, and if you think about it, the way it goes is actually in some sense fairly 'generic'. It's got three verses which all end on the same refrain leading into the main riff. What makes the song stand out, structure wise, is that for a bridge, instead of a comfortable eight or sixteen bars, they've stretched it out to a massive instrumental section that lasts for a few minutes.

This kind of trick seems to be pretty common among a lot of borderline progressive bands like say, early Fates Warning. If you listen to a track like 'The Apparition', it's three verses with a refrain, but the track ends up as seven minutes of Archy goodness, because they've expanded the introduction out to a minute long, and the 'bridge/solo' section has been extended by quite a bit more than usual. Vektor seem to do it a lot as well. Thinking about it yesterday, though I haven't listened to in in a while, most of the material on the first King Crimson album seems based around a verse-refrain structure with some lengthy instrumental sections floating around which push the songs beyond your average radio friendly chart toppers.

One way of doing it yourself I suppose would be to start with writing some simple songs using a pretty standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge/solo-chorus structure. When you've got that down, begin with trying to expand ideas out. Add a long introductory section, expand the bridge/solo section or add some kind of coda section. I don't know how much this will help you but it makes some sense to me. I might add some examples later if you're interested/can put up with my Fates Warning fanboyism.

But basically the main thing to take away is to try and see what the bands you listen to are doing. That's always a good basis to build on rather than flailing around with trial and error.

Yes. Start with a simple structure and after that you can start improving the song (add those cool little things that make it sound awesome). 20 riffs in one song just bores the listener (I had that kind of feeling when I listened to Megadeth's Peace Sells album). You have to repeat some of the themes at least once. Also try writing with your friends. Usually when somebody asks you to arrange his song, it feels much easier. Many of our band's songs have two to four riffs per song (and variations of them). And that's enough. (We are an instrumental band.)
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Old 09-16-2012, 01:31 PM   #5
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When I write, I write with the intension to throw it away. If I try writing thinking that it's going to be a masterpiece, it ends up as crap. Repeat the process A LOT and once in a while you will write something good.
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Old 09-16-2012, 02:09 PM   #6
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if you want to go for non-generic song structures, you have to come up with other structures to fill its place, or else you'll make songs that go nowhere. when you come up with a good riff that inspires you to write a song from it, first think about why it's good and what it makes you feel. it can be something as vague as "mystery" or "anger." then decide on how you want to use that idea as a part of the larger narrative, the song. maybe in the next section you want to try and explain the mystery, or calm the anger. learn to build chords so you can recognize what emotions you attribute to what chords and progressions (since at its heart, music is just a bunch of moving chords). learn to develop ideas that you want to dwell on by using parallel motion, harmonizing, and other music theory tricks. so instead of thinking about chorus-verse-whatever, try thinking about structure on a narrative level.

the more you mess around, the more you'll build up your instinct for expression, and maybe you'll be able to think of an abstract idea and come up with music from that. but for now, work from riffs.

(this is just the ideal i strive for, i'm not experienced by any means =P but, it's worked well for my recent songs)
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Old 09-16-2012, 02:44 PM   #7
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Some great tips here. I'm a bit like MaggaraMarine in that I come up with all my riffs and song ideas in my head usually at work and then forget them by the time I get home to a guitar. And I'll have some riffs sort of sit around for a while before I use them too. When you come up with a riff try to think about what part of the song it is, that helps me structure it, because then to write the rest I'll imagine a riff that leads into that one or a riff that comes out of that.

Something else that helped me a lot was identifying what other riffs my riffs sound like. Then you can sort of mimic the structure of a similar song. I know people who will literally take a tab of someone else's song and replace each riff, I've never tried that specifically but there's no reason that wouldn't work.

And I think pwrmax brings up a good point too. I had this idea once to try to write music for video games. I found that when I wasn't trying to write for band it was way easier because there was no pressure. I wrote almost an entire song's worth of material in 5-10 minutes.

Just keep at it, after a while you'll get a method down. I figure it's more important to spend time getting you're songs right than just trying to write a lot of songs.
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Old 09-16-2012, 09:57 PM   #8
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Here's my advice:

Listen to the silence.

What's going on in my head when I write music is I am listening very hard. I am trying to hear, in my head, the music that i want to hear coming from my guitar.

I won't say I always hear it in my head, first, sometimes when I'm stuck I jam around. But my goal is always to hear it in my head, first. Once I hear it in my head I'll spend a long time trying to find the sound I just heard, to actually make the guitar make that sound.

Sometimes I'll be trying to find the sound I hear in my head and in looking for it, I'll play something else that sounds cool. I'll make a note of it, but I won't stop looking - only once I've found it can I go back and make a decision about which is the right choice. (To say "oh, that's not the sound I was looking for but it's cool so I'll use it" is lazy unless I can make both sounds, at will.)

The other thing I would say: find the hook. Until I have a hook I don't have a song.
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Old 09-17-2012, 06:13 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kettles
Do you start each new song the same way, such as starting with a formula and let it evolve from there? Or do you have a specific structure or direction in mind from the beginning?


It varies. I'll go through patches of trying the same approach a lot, then I'll go through patches of trying different approaches (starting with words / melody / harmony / riffs / beat / bass-line / song-structure / a general idea of how I want the thing to sound).


Quote:
Originally Posted by kettles
What is going on in your head when you're composing?


It depends which bit of the composition I'm writing (title / lyrics / melody / harmony / structure / arrangement / recording / mixing) and whereabouts in the composition process I am (getting ideas to write about / writing the first draft / revisions 1 - n / final draft)

If I've decided what I'm going to write about and I'm just beginning to write something new (or I'm going for the riffs-first approach) there may not actually be a great many words going through my head. To all intents and purposes I may just be playing guitar and stopping occasionally when I play something I like to record it / write it down. If I'm revising some lyrics I've written I may be thinking about ways to vary the meter so it doesn't sound so boring. If I'm getting towards the final draft I'll probably just playing through the song (maybe recording a scratch track) to see if any bits strike me as needing improvement before I start committing to recording a full version.

If I'm writing melodies that will either involve me just randomly singing whatever comes into my head (if I'm going for a melody-first approach), or singing the same lyrics different ways (if I've written the lyrics before the melody) or trying different musical phrases over the same chords (if I've written the chords before the melody)

Sometimes I'll jump in both feet first & plug the guitar in, have a few beers, play & sing whatever comes into my head (sometimes over a beat, sometimes not) and then edit out the good bits afterwards.

Most often what's going on in my head while I'm writing is that I'm listening (either to the sound of the words, or the sound of the instrument).
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Old 09-17-2012, 05:44 PM   #10
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Tom Hess has some cool articles that help with writing killer riffs and also with the composing side. I donít gain anything by promoting him, I just want to point you in the right direction.
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Old 09-18-2012, 03:33 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by kettles
I don't know how to create a direction for the song to go in, and it just feels like a stack of riffs thrown together.


What style of metal are you writing in? There are lots of riff-based melodic styles! Who do you like to listen to?
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Old 09-18-2012, 06:19 AM   #12
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Guys thanks so much, this has been great reading about all of your different perspectives. This current song I'm working on is getting closer to finished (even though I don't know where 'finished' is yet, haha) and I have learned just a couple of little things in the last few recording sessions that will make the next one easier. Specifically, the way in which ending one riff on the right note can help flow into the next riff, without even needing a deliberate transition. Another thing I learned is just how valuable a good drum fill can be in setting up the next section. This is quite funny as I am primarily a drummer, but have been so focused on writing for the guitar that I have neglected the drums somewhat.


Still keen to hear other insights if anyone else feels like sharing.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Sleepy__Head
What style of metal are you writing in? There are lots of riff-based melodic styles! Who do you like to listen to?


Honestly, everything. But mostly melodic death/thrash, and a lot of punk. Not a fan of breakdowns at all. This one of my favourite bands, I love the riffs and the sound, but the song forms are kind of boring, which is why I want to get more adventurous with structure:





Other metal bands I really get into are Maiden, Darkest Hour, and pretty much anything from Sweden. But right now I'm listening to Buddy Rich....
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Old 09-18-2012, 08:05 AM   #13
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Well I would say that if you're struggling with the "this is just a collection of riffs" problem one approach to getting over that is to work out (or analyse if you prefer) how some songs you like are structured. Break the thing up into sections (verse / chorus or section 1/ section 2 / section 3 - however you like) and then imitate that structure. Metal songs are often 'just a collection of riffs' and there can be very little to link the riffs together.

For example:

Benediction - West of Hell


Code:
0.00 - 0.26 - Riff 1 - Verse A - 12 bars INTRO 0.26 - 0.45 - Riff 2 - Breakdown - 10 bars 0.45 - 0.50 - Riff 3 - Short chorus - 2 bars 0.50 - 1.07 - Riff 1 - Verse A - 8 bars VERSE 1.07 - 1.16 - Riff 3 - Chorus - 4 bars CHORUS 1.16 - 1.40 - Riff 1 - Verse A - 2 bars TURNAROUND Verse A - 8 bars VERSE 1.40 - 1.57 - Riff 3 - Long Chorus - 8 bars CHORUS 1.57 - 2.13 - Riff 4 - Verse B - 4 bars TURNAROUND Verse B - 4 bars VERSE 2.13 - 2.23 - Riff 5 - Bridge - 4 bars BRIDGE 2.23 - 2.39 - Riff 4 - Verse B - 8 bars VERSE 2.39 - 2.47 - Riff 3 - Chorus - 4 bars CHORUS 2.47 - 3.03 - Riff 1 - Verse A - 4 bars TURNAROUND Verse A - 4 bars VERSE 3.03 - 3.10 - Riff 6 - Outro - 2 bars OUTRO


The song is just a collection of riffs, but repetition of those riffs and the position of that repetition creates the structure. Two riffs (1 & 3) create the majority of the first 2 minutes of the song. You don't need masses of riffs unless you're going for the Dillinger Escape Plan method of songwriting.

The verse, chorus and bridge are built around different notes (verses and breakdown are built around D; chorus is built around E, bridge is built around D#), and use different rhythms to help define the sections.

If you feel like you've got 'just a collection of riffs' what you might have are too many riffs. Take the strongest ones and use them for your verse / chorus - either exclude the leftovers entirely or use them as links / transitions / the bridge. Once you've got a basic structure in place it's easier to elaborate it than to try and build an elaborate structure to begin with.
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Old 09-18-2012, 08:45 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kettles
Honestly, everything. But mostly melodic death/thrash, and a lot of punk. Not a fan of breakdowns at all. This one of my favourite bands, I love the riffs and the sound, but the song forms are kind of boring, which is why I want to get more adventurous with structure:




How about experimenting with variation? When a riff returns to the song, have it changed somehow: tempo, rhythm, key, bits chopped out of it, harmony added ... if the variation fits in with an overall change in the song so much the better.

Sometimes it's good to shorten the number of repetitions of a riff in series after the first time.

If you're stuck where to go next with a song, keep listening to the last bit up to where it ends. Quite often when I do this my brain fills in what it wants to hear for the next bit.

Build up a library of riffs, give them meaningful names. If you're totally stuck have a listen through them and maybe one will fit.
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Old 09-18-2012, 01:00 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kettles
But I have a really hard time actually putting songs together into an interesting, flowing, non-generic structure.
Should I really just stick with generic song structures for now until I get better at combining riffs and creating transitions, etc??


Your problem is that you're trying too hard not to be "generic".

Everything has been done before... and that includes song structure. There's a reason there's a list of them in every songwriting book you'll ever read, you know.

Breaking that format is like trying to write a novel without using pages. Chances are, you're not the uber-revolutionary who's going to turn the songwriting industry on its ear with a brand-new format... so use a frickin' chorus, already, and stop agonizing over the fact that it follows the verse, just like everyone else.

I went to see a J-Rock band last night, and just because I could tell where all of the fills were going to come didn't make the music any less awesome.
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Old 09-18-2012, 01:44 PM   #16
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Everything has been done before... and that includes song structure. There's a reason there's a list of them in every songwriting book you'll ever read, you know.

I couldnt disagree with this more, everything hasn't been done .
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Old 09-18-2012, 01:54 PM   #17
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I couldnt disagree with this more, everything hasn't been done .


I would actually agree and disagree with both of you. See, the melodies from the ancient Cantus Firmus have been used throughout history by hundreds (if not thousands) of composers, and you see the same with modern progressions. The thing is, it's not what you use, it's how you use it. You could change up a few notes here and there, add a little motif, some harmony, different rhythm, melodic variation.. my point is, while it is true that pretty much everything has been done (to a certain degree - after all, we only use a certain amount of notes), it's all about how you develop your ideas and put them in context. I'd say things like thematic development, form, rhythm, context et cetera contribute much more to the originality of a certain piece than which basic chords they use.
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Old 09-18-2012, 02:17 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by z4twenny
I couldnt disagree with this more, everything hasn't been done .


I was generalizing. Since the OP hasn't really explained what they consider "generic" in terms of song structure, I didn't have much to go on. In general, though, I'm pretty sure that no matter what you do, your song is going to follow some common songwriting conventions. It's going to be broken into sections. It's (probably) going to have a melody.

Honestly, whenever I listen to a band that's trying too hard to be "different" I can't even follow what they're doing. I remember seeing one local band live once... all of their songs seemed to blur together into one interminably-long set. I couldn't tell where one began and another ended. It was just too confusing.

'sides, the OP's admitted that they can't figure out how to break the mold anyway, so it's probably a safe bet that they simply can't do it with their current level of skill.

So, OP; what's "too generic"?
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Old 09-18-2012, 02:33 PM   #19
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Nobody can be so different from everybody. Because if you are too different, your music will sound like crap. And I think all music you write has something to do with the music you have listened to before. Because why would you write metal if you hadn't even heard metal music before? Also if you "start" a new genre, it's because you got fed up with the existing music and wanted to do something converse.

But we all use the same notes and same rhythms and same chords. Every chord progression (that sounds good, and even those which don't) has been used. It's all about how you combine rhythm, melody and chords. And so what if a band that exist has written completely the same song. The songs you hear on the radio sound almost the same and that's because songwriters have noticed that using certain chords and melodies satisfies the regular listener. They don't even want to hear something new. C G Am F, that's all you need (or whatever combination of those chords).
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Old 09-18-2012, 05:30 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by MaggaraMarine
Nobody can be so different from everybody. Because if you are too different, your music will sound like crap. And I think all music you write has something to do with the music you have listened to before. Because why would you write metal if you hadn't even heard metal music before? Also if you "start" a new genre, it's because you got fed up with the existing music and wanted to do something converse.


Very true.

Rock in roll was born from the blues - a bunch of people loved playing the blues, and they kept digesting it and making it their own, and all of a sudden it wasn't the blues any more - it was rock.

And if you approached that one way you ended up with Chuck Berry, and another you ended up with Led Zeppelin. But you can't call either of those guys unoriginal even though they're both HIGHLY derivative.

That's the way music works.
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