Destroy Your Heroes

Unfounded fears in the realm of songwriting. This article will help you navigate a common problem faced by guitarists when writing music.

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One problem, or perhaps excuse, I have often heard from many a musician who profess the desire to write songs is that their efforts always ends up sounding like their favorite bands or artists. I chalk this up to creative growing pains because as derivative as you think you are, you'll never play, write or peel a potato like your idols. And that's a good thing. Here's why:

Every single person on the planet is constantly influenced by everything around him or her whether or not they know it, or admit it. The same applies to music. I owe a lot of the musical preferences (that I'm aware of) to radio and that's something many people can relate to.

As a guitar player, I wouldn't have made much progress if it weren't for the work of others who came long before I did. But whether you're a modest fan or you like to wear your influences on your sleeve (literally), don't act like you have none. That's just being a douche. Douches have no friends because nobody likes douches except p-ssies...

I remember once in the studio, my friend asked the band's guitarist what his influences were and the guy actually said he had none but that he listened to a lot of classical music. I'd like to include that this guitarist's music had to have been the freaking encyclopedia of lead guitar licks featuring a veritable crap-ton of sweep-picked arpeggios.

Now regardless of what this guitarist might have thought in his head, he was not the first guy to do these things. But that's okay! We're all products of our time. What makes you a douche and sets off everyone's BS meter is if you deny that simple reality. So get that straight first and instantly feel the self-imposed burden of hyper-originality evaporate.

You only get better at things you spend most of your time on. If you only write music when you get "inspired", you will probably not get any better anytime soon. If the song you're writing sounds like a bad Tool cover then you are merely experiencing some "growing pains" in your writing journey that you will eventually outgrow (sooner than you think). Finish the song and move on to the next one.

While I do think it is good exercise for your songwriting muscles and creativity, constantly trying to avoid sounding like an influence can seriously derail the progress of a song, especially for a beginner. You are what you eat musically. Recognize it. Embrace it. If you can't respect your own musical personality, who will?

Some songwriters just starting out are scared of plagiarizing a known artist but unless that is your goal, it actually becomes very hard to do (especially for an entire song) once you've been writing for a while (and a "while" could mean weeks, months or years depending on how often you write). Obviously you don't want to just rip off someone else's work but after the first few times you get stuck with a similar sounding riff (it's gonna happen) you'll start to develop your own rules for dealing with this.

Let's say you write a new riff on the guitar but it reminds you of your favorite Aerosmith, Danzig or Huey Lewis (I couldn't resist) riff. You want to be original so you alter your riff so much that you only succeed in ruining it. Follow my personal protocol for overcoming this common quandary:

1. Tweak your riff for 1 hour (2 if yer green) to see if you can find a more unique version that you actually like better than your original riff AND the famous riff you're trying to avoid copying. You might be surprised at what you come up with. But if you can't find anything better...

2. Replace your original riff with the famous riff and if the famous riff just feels the best for that section of the song then just go with it and look for ways to disguise it. But I'm not talking about the riff itself. Just the addition of adjacent sections and vocal rhythms/melodies can effectively disguise a famous-sounding riff in your song. Recording yourself (which I strongly recommend anyways) will instantly make this apparent.

If you want to get better (and more unique) in your songwriting, you've got to write. You'll start many songs and probably finish less but it is important that you do finish as many songs as you can. This takes discipline but it will teach you form and presentation as well as help you develop a style. Otherwise all you'll have are riffs and ideas. You need to complete whole songs to grow as an artist.

Songwriting gives you the chance to perfectly express how you feel in ways only music can convey. Even if you fear sounding like your influences, as long as you consistently write music from your gut, you'll increasingly notice how much you sound like, well, yourself.

Remember, it's not just musical influences that appear in your songs. It's every place you've been, every person you've met, every dream or fear you've ever had. There's simply nobody else who can make music like you.

And that's beautiful.

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Have any songwriting tips to share? Tell me in the comments!

[For more great tips, tricks and a veritable think-tank of information for your musical journey, head on over to Cool Drifter Music Motel.]

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Dean Washburn
    Rather than say 'people do this and that', I'm gonna reflect on myself here instead. I find when I'm 'jacking-off' on the guitar (As Marty Friedman puts it) I find on many occasions I'll play some good, somewhat, orignal if not at least different sounds, combination of chords or licks. However my worst habit is deep down I'll say 'Nah it doesn't sound like this guy or that guy' or i'll be like 'This would only work if I could play as fast or fluent as this guy' So to summarise, I find I restrict myself, the guy I should be, because I want to be like all those great musicians who inspire me. So in future I'll try to acknowledge that more often and hopefully I will be more like me rather than that guy And I advise those of you struggling to reflect on yourselves and do the same
    Battery Chicken
    Great article, whenever I write I'm always in the "this should be the greatest song ever written!" mode and when it falls short, which it always does, I throw in the towel. I really have to allow myself to fail in order to learn.
    blakesco
    Yeah man! A friend once told me Zakk Wylde even said you can't hit it out of the park every time... Do your best and own it. Own every single note you make!
    BrianFantana
    This can really help me out a lot! Friends have said my riffs remind them of Tool, and then i always try t change them. I will use your tips instead to embrace that.
    blakesco
    hahaha--happens to the best of us bro. If I think about it, I can listen to my favorite songs by my heroes and tell each of them "hey that song sounds like _____. Back in the 90's, Flea from the Chili Peppers publicly criticized Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme for ripping them (RHCP) off. Nuno responded by saying that you could totally trace RHCP's music to Hendrix and James Brown and added that he loved the Chili Peppers but that we're all derivative if you think about it. A truly original person is someone who grew up in a box. Metamorphoses need time to happen. And they will.
    ezkamenrider
    I had this discussion once with the vocalist of one of my bands. He was worried that he'd write something too "Judas Priest-y" since he's a huge fan of the band. And I always told him not to worry. It could sound like Judas, but it would be his interpretation of the Priest. I had this same fear before, and the more I wrote, the more I could see the way I was handling my inspirations. One of our songs has a section that sounds like Sabbath, but that's it. The song as a whole has nothing to do with Iommi and pals, and I'm very satisfied with the way I made something that honor my influences and still sounds like something only I could do. The time I ripped off Def Leppard's Ring of Fire without ever hearing the song, on the other hand...
    raihidara
    Man I accidentally rip off stuff all the time. One of my first songs has a vocal line that is exactly the same as the chorus in RHCP's Aeroplane. I never heard the song until about 2 1/2 years later
    blakesco
    hahaha--happens to the best of us bro. If I think about it, I can listen to my favorite songs by my heroes and tell each of them "hey that song sounds like _____. Back in the 90's, Flea from the Chili Peppers publicly criticized Nuno Bettencourt from Extreme for ripping them (RHCP) off. Nuno responded by saying that you could totally trace RHCP's music to Hendrix and James Brown and added that he loved the Chili Peppers but that we're all derivative if you think about it. A truly original person is someone who grew up in a box. Metamorphoses need time to happen. And they will.
    jaybrink101
    Let's face it, there's really no such thing as a totally original song. The G-C-Em-D chord progression has been bastardised so many times, and on one occasion a friend of mine wrote an acoustic song called Doctor Doctor, the next week Bullet For My Valentine released Fever, and Bittersweet Memories had the exact same verse melody and about 2 or 3 notes different in the chorus. Mental. I think the best thing to do is embrace your influences, make them eclectic and then channel them all. So I combine Post-Hardcore, Rock, Acoustic, Metal, and Space Rock and take it from there. It sounds pretty unique.