How Important Is Originality?

There’s lots made of originality. “So-and-so is good, but they aren’t doing anything new.” Thinking about the last century of popular music, or any music, really, and it’s hard to think of very many truly original bands, let alone guitar players. There are only so many Zappas and Hendrix’s and Eddie Van Halens to come around. And yet, there are a million really, really good guitar players whose music I love. I certainly distinguish between playing music that’s original and having a unique voice. The former is not a factor in whether I enjoy particular music, but the latter certainly is.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” – Steve Jobs

I’ve been a fan of blues for a long time. I would argue that there hasn’t been much original in blues in many decades. While I have a pretty broad personal interpretation of the genre – I’m not a purist – I do think that if it strays too much it’s not blues anymore. Just like rock and roll became its own thing. Does that mean there haven’t been any great records in 50 years? What about Muddy Waters’ 70s material? Was SRV doing anything original in the 80s? What about Buddy Guy’s 90s albums? What about Gary Clark Jr.’s live double album from a few years ago – that was cool as heck. I recently saw Billy Gibbons’ Big Bad Blues band in 2018 and it was one of my favorite shows of the year. None of this is original, but it’s still great listening. All of these players have a unique voice, have something to say, and they say it with passion and conviction. That’s what I care about. That’s what connects with me the music. When it comes to new blues, those are the things I listen for.

Here’s a bunch of new blues. I don’t know if there’s anything really original here, but there’s great music!

Genres seem to arc – there’s the initial creation of something new by combining things in new ways (jazz, rock and roll, metal, hip hop); then there’s the growth to mass appeal and wide creation; then there’s the descent into niche as the genre’s offshoots gain in popularity.  This seems to be the natural way of things. Genres morph into new genres, elements are combined and fused. Influences build upon influences, and some fade away. All along the path of that arc, great music is created. That’s what matters.

Don’t get me wrong, when truly original artists come along it can be a beautiful thing. Then again, it can also be terrible. Lots of original stuff has gone by the wayside without a ripple in mass consciousness. It’s not that originality isn’t a good thing. It does seem important that music evolves, grows and explores. It’s just not a factor in what I like and don’t. Then again, I’m the kind of guy who can listen to Electric Ladyland for the thousandth time an still love it!

Image result for eddie lang
Eddie Lang, Jazz Guitar Pioneer

Lately I’ve been listening to Eddie Lang & Lonnie Johnson records, as well as a lot of Soft Machine… so you can probably tell I don’t care a lot about whether music is new or old, popular or not… original or not. I don’t know if either Eddie Lang or Soft Machine were particularly original in their day. They didn’t invent jazz or psychedelic rock, but they did have unique voices within their genres. I suppose they were pioneers. They helped the existing genres explore and evolve. They’re a link in that chain. Ultimately, they created great music that stands the test of time, and that’s what I’m drawn to.

How important is originality to you? What does it mean to be original? How do your listening habits align with the arc of genres?

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