Stealing From Other Musicians

Okay, stealing isn't quite the right word but it grabbed your attention, I do not mean stealing money or possessions from a musician but more their musical ideas.

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Okay, stealing isn't quite the right word but it grabbed your attention, I do not mean stealing money or possessions from a musician but more their musical ideas. The musical ideas I would suggest stealing will be the ones that make you smile. I've often seen in musicians that when they hear a lead line or harmony or a certain rhythmic idea or anything that's so cool they can hardly believe it, they have a tendency to just laugh. We know no other way to react and just laugh, and it's a beautiful moment when it happens. So steal these ideas, the great ones, anything you hear and think "man, I wish I could play that," take it, it's yours.

Inspiration or influence is going to be the best way to term this and in fact there is a distinct difference between stealing and influence and it's all in the way you use the "stolen" information. When the subject comes up about original ideas and the influences that other players have had on us, I think it would pan out that we are an amalgamation of our influences. Everything you've ever heard has had some form of influence on you, whether it is sounds you dislike or sounds you do like, this is especially true when it comes down to your "heroes" or "idols" in the world of music. This coupled with your ever evolving taste and interest in various types of music is going to make up your own unique "voice" or character on the instrument.

Transcribing is going to be most useful vehicle for stealing ideas, my reason for suggesting this is that I feel the ideas get further engrained in our ears when we go through the motion of listening in finer details and trying to unlock and replicate the sounds we are hearing. The latter point there, replicating, is another reason I feel transcribing is very beneficial. If you can hear a certain sound on a track and be able to play it back accurately on your instrument, then hopefully the same will occur when you hear a melody or certain chords in your head when improvising or composing and in the same manner, be able to produce those sounds on your instrument. You could also use instructional material such as written lessons, sheet music, instructional videos or a similar educational medium to gain the information from the musician but the main point is not how you get the information but what you do with it.

Here's the difference, stealing would be to take the idea and play it exactly how you heard it and probably in the same context. If you do this in very small amounts, or in portions, you could get away with it be referred to as a 'hat tip' to a certain musician rather than a rip off but that's ultimately down to you. I would recommend that you don't just take the idea and use it in its original form but contort it and adjust it to suit your own tastes. If you can break down the idea and discover out how it works and what about it you particularly like, then take that and use it in your playing. It might turn out to be that the player is using a certain polyrhythm such a 5 over 4 feel that you enjoy, in which case you can extract just the time feel and rhythm because the notes are not as important to you and apply the rhythmic idea to your own playing and your own note choice. It might be that the player is accenting and leaning on a colour tone of the chord that you particularly enjoy, such as the 9th of a chord. It could be literally anything of thousands of possible details that drew you into that certain idea but it will be down to you to try and extract the part that you like and work out how you can use the extracted idea in as many different playing situations as you can. If it's a rhythmic idea can you play it with a basic major scale, or use it with certain arpeggios, keep the rhythm but play it staccato? If it was certain melodic shape or phrase can you adjust it to play a minor version, or a major version? How about a diminished version? My point being that you should try to use the full potential of the idea and make the idea that you love as versatile as possible so it can serve you well in the heat of the moment when you need that super-hip "something" to pull out of the hat at the pinnacle moment. If you do this with every great idea you hear then I strongly believe that you will really enjoy the sound of your own playing because it will be rifled with great ideas that you thoroughly enjoy and by way of manipulation (and hopefully transcription) have earned the right to play.

There is a small danger of sounding too similar to a certain player if you only steal from one guy (or girl), so give some thought to the resources you take influence from and try to vary your sources. I think after a long period of time you will be able to use bits and pieces from the plethora of ideas you have gained over the years and piece them together to form your own ideas that sound quite far away from the peers of which you've taken inspiration from. If you constantly learn new things from new people and make full use of putting your own creative spin on the extracted information then I think you will have no trouble sounding original and unique.

My final point to you is to try and advise you not to be narrow-minded with your musical sources. If you play guitar try not to limit yourself just to other guitarists to steal from. In my experience I've often found that sax players have a really unique way of phrasing ideas, and a lot of pianists have such a holistic and creative understanding of the inner workings of harmony. Utilise as many different types of music and musicians as you can (as per your own tastes and preference).

So just remember the difference between stealing and taking influence from, is the ability to put your own spin on the ideas you love and then be proud to wear your influences on your sleeves.

About the Author:By Steven Martin, www.stevenmartinguitar.com. If you enjoyed this, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    badfish_lewis
    So basically this has nothing to do with stealing and your recommendation is to essentially transcribe parts of songs so you can replicate the idea in your own songs? Am I getting that right. I think people already do that naturally; what you listen to is going to come through in your playing in some form or another.
    mp8andrade
    Unless you hated what you have listened to.
    link no1
    Even in things that I hate, I often find there is at least one thing about it that I like. You could still end up using that 'one thing' in your own stuff.
    Elintasokas
    Fortunately, stealing doesn't go hand in hand with consistency. You may steal one idea from a superior composer, but you can't keep up such a high standard unless you really posses the skills.
    Steven-A-Martin
    Thanks to everyone for having a read! If it gives at least a few people some cool ideas and inspiration then it's worth writing. Let me know how you get on with some of these ideas!
    _tim*
    This article is great. I was thinking about it recently, am I a stealer or is it just inspration ? Thanks !