Honesty Over Originality

Feb 11th, 2010
This post was originally written on the StevieSnacks.com blog.

Did you ever hear something you knew was just absolute crap, but people seem to repeat it as if it’s fact?

“Stop trying to sound like _____.  You should try to develop your own style on guitar”

Heard that one?  It’s like somewhere, there’s a guitar Bible, with the 10 commandments for guitar, and one of them is “Thou shalt develop a unique style”.

What a bunch of crap.  You want the truth?  Here is is.

Originality is awesome. It is of great importance if and only if you care about it, or if your career depends on it. But the value of originality is not self-evident. Honesty is so much more important. And trying to be original just to placate the ‘originality police’ is a waste of time.  You’ll never have enough joy from being original to mask the disgust you’ll have for yourself when you realize you’ve only been doing it to avoid criticism.


Let’s talk about originality. What is it?  

Originality is doing something that’s not been done before. Originality is an awesome thing if you care about it, and a necessary thing if you want to make it big in music.

People who care about originality see this as an artistic pursuit. To create art that has not been created, to make something new. That’s an exciting, and difficult task. But it brings some people a lot of joy.

For others, originality is a necessity.  Take John Mayer for example. He was a SRV clone before he ever made it big playing acoustic songs. But he knew that he would never get signed to a major label because he sounded just like SRV.

He put down the blues, wrote some catchy pop tunes, got signed, and now does whatever he wants. Throughout that process, his playing has taken on a somewhat distinct personality.

Whether he cares about originality or not, it’s a necessary part of what he’s doing. If you want people to remember your name, buy your music, and come watch you in concert, there needs to be some element of ‘you’ in there.  That’s just a fact.

Impersonators and tribute bands are exceptions, but their entire career is based on the art of imitation, so it’s not quite the same as someone who writes their own songs, all the while trying to sound exactly like another artist.


What about honesty. Where does that fit?

Some people just don’t care about being original. They don’t care about being artistic, they just want to play the ### guitar. For some, the highest compliment you can give them is “You sound just like _______”. Because that’s what they care about.  That’s honest.

I’ll be the first to admit, at this point in my ‘career’, I could care less about being original. The only thing I care about is playing exactly the way I want to. That’s honest.

When I first discovered SRV, I thank God that I didn’t talk to very many other guitarists. I had no idea how cliche’ it was to learn his style.  Everything you see on this site would not be here if I had experienced the criticism that some are subject to.  Thank God I was free to do what I wanted, ignorant of the ‘originality police’.

From that point on, there was two kinds of music. Music I could listen to, and music I had to play. Pretty much everything except SRV went on the listening side. It is very hard for me to listen to SRV, without having my guitar in hand.

When I began dissecting certain parts of his playing, I was attracted to the mathematical precision of it. That probably sounds terribly un-artistic, but that’s just how my mind works

The logical breakdown you see in my lessons is a reflection of that. Maybe some people see brilliant colors and visions when they hear his playing. While I certainly get caught up in the music, inside my head, the gears are turning.

While I listen, my mind is seeing licks fit together like pieces of an equation. I visualize where on the fretboard they’re played, and the movements needed to play them. This is what I love. That’s honest.

Beyond Honesty

There’s a deeper level of honesty than admitting that you love imitation.

What happens when you’ve committed most of your time to learning someone’s style of playing, but then you begin to hear things in your head that you know that person never would have played?

At that moment, your honesty is put to the test. Do you throw those ideas out because you now feel an obligation to imitation? Do you ignore them because “That doesn’t sound like Stevie”?

What I’m trying to communicate here is that you need to be honest in everything. Be honest in your imitation, but also be honest when your mind’s eye begins to focus on something outside that imitation.

Go where your heart is telling you to go with your playing. If the only thing you can think about today is sounding exactly like SRV, then do it. Perfect that imitation. 

But tomorrow, if you play a lick that doesn’t sound quite like Stevie, don’t throw it out. Don’t discount it because it’s not something he would have played. If you like it, keep it.  Be honest.


If you love originality, pursue it. But if you’ve bought into the lie that everyone needs to have an original style, and imitation is what you really love, you’re wasting your time. A clueless, ignorant imitator is happier than you because at least that person is doing what they love.

That’s honest.