Rock music is a strange and unusual genre. Its sound derives from simple combinations of basic musical ideas that have remained popular for sixty years. So it’s no surprise that modern creators of rock music have a hard time coming up with something that hasn’t already been done.

A few weeks ago I turned on the radio to hear a song I’d never heard before. It had a smooth rock groove and it struck me right away that I had no idea when the song was from. As hard as I tried I could not determine whether the song had only just been released or if it was forty years old.
There was nothing in the music, the production, the lyrics or the sonic makeup that helped me determine its year of creation, so at the end when it was announced to be a record by The Grateful Dead from sometime back in the ’70s I began musing on what it means to be original. It seems to me as if every band is starting to sound like every other band. Almost any record I listen to seems to reverberate with echoes of Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones.

What does it mean to be original? Is originality even possible? The book of Ecclesiastes would suggest that the quest for musical, or any type of originality, is a futile one: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Does that give us a biblical license to go ahead and copy, verbatim, anything we like and claim it as our own? Nah, that’s probably not the best idea. Even though people generally accept that true originality is as rare as unicorns they are also quick to criticize, or at least notice and compare, when someone sounds a little too much like someone else.

So, as musical and/or ukulele performers, how do we deal with this puzzle?

In the early stages of learning I encourage new musicians to copy like crazy. I believe that my self-taught efforts to try and sound like my favourite singers was the best teacher I ever had. So do copy the artists that you most wish you could be like. And then seek out and copy the artists who influenced them and so on. Eventually you’ll know when it’s time to go your own way and create a sound of your own.

For you don’t really want to look like your heroes. It’s far better to SEE like them. The key to originality is in stealing artistically.

And people will start referring to you as an original not when you create something new but rather because you use what already exists in a way that reflects your own inner spirit. For, when all is said and done, that is truly the only thing about you that can be said to be unique anyway.

© Ralph Shaw 2016