Guitar - General/Writing Original Music

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Question
Hi,
I am writing original music on guitar.  I'm trying to be as original as possible.

If I have a riff that has these notes

E--0--6--0--0---1-1-1-1---

And another band has this riff

A--------------3--2---5---------
E--0---6---0--------3-----------

Is this too similar to the other band's riff?

Also, this riff

E--0--0--1--0---1-1----------

Compared to this bands riff

E--0--1--0--0--1--0--1-------


Then, what about the rhythm to guitar riffs?  Is it okay to use the same rhythm for a guitar riff as another band, when writing original music?
For example, if I play 3 E power chords, and hold each note for a bit, compared to another bands riff that plays 3 D power chords, and holds each note for a bit.  It would be the same exact rhythm pattern for the riff.. 3 slow power chords in a row.
I hope it would be okay to use that same rhythm pattern in my original song, that they use in their song?
Its probably okay, because I am playing different notes, just the same rhythm pattern, for 1 riff.

Please let me know..thanks,
Sarah

Answer
Hi, Sarah!  Great question.  This is a problem many musicians face regardless of their chosen instruments.  Fortunately, it's an easily solved problem.

First of all, using the same notes that others have previously used is unavoidable.  We only have one set of tones we can use that are within the range of the human ear.  These notes, which we label A through G and the "accidental" sharps/flats in between (as well as the microtones that are in-between even those) have all been used repeatedly through history and it's basically impossible to compose a piece of music that doesn't use these.  To paraphrase Edward Van Halen, "We're all workin' with the same few notes."  I'd say don't worry at all about the notes themselves that you're using:  unless you can discover some new ones nobody knows about, you'll be using the exact same ones as everyone else.

Second, most musicians listen to music very attentively and absorb what they hear more readily than folks who don't play any instruments.  It just comes with the territory.  This means that sooner or later, some of your favorite pieces are inevitably going to find themselves sneaking into your own work.  (This isn't necessarily a bad thing - it just means you're in tune to your influences and that's why it can be very easy to tell who a musician has been influenced by.)

I like how you immediately thought to consider your rhythmic variations in your own work, because this is where you will find a great deal of your solution.  Even if you're writing a piece in the exact same tonal key as someone else, and even if you're using the same intervals, adding variation to the rhythmic pattern will make it unique.  As an example, think about how many songs you've heard that were twelve-bar blues and used I-VI-V progressions.  (Probably hundreds if not thousands.)  They can all sound quite different just by virtue of using different phrasing.

To build on your phrasing, let's think about what that means exactly.  "Phrase."  As in "speaking."  Your phrasing literally deals with how you'd say something if you said it verbally, and just translating that to your music.  As you hear a melody in your mind, think about what it is that you are saying or what your words might be if you were trying to express that thought.  Now, see if you can "say" that on you guitar using phrasing.  Some notes will be very soft, some will be pronounced, and the inflections you add using slides, bends, and tremolo mimic the vocal inflections we use when we speak.  This is how some players can be so expressive that they actually make the guitar "talk."

One VERY important thought to consider is the tone you're using and the style you're framing it in.  If, for instance, the song you feel you may be close to is being played with heavy distortion and at a really fast tempo, try using a cleaner, bluesy tone and slowing it down - you'll be amazed at what a difference a tonal change can make.  If the song you are worried about is being played on an electric guitar, try your own riff on an acoustic or a hollowbody (or vice versa).  

The last suggestion I'd like to give you is something I do for my own writing all the time, to prevent guitar-oriented music that I love from invading my own work and additionally to make me a more well-rounded musician overall:  I listen to music that is either totally different that my normal choices or that has little to no guitar in it.  For instance, if I'm working very hard on something of my own (like I am right now!), I may listen to swing music that is brass-heavy, piano concertos, or synth-heavy pop music that is primarily electronic and rarely uses guitars.  By doing this, I'm not only avoiding being a parrot of guitar lines I love, but I'm also absorbing the phrasing qualities of other instruments.  Eventually, these horn lines, bass runs, and violin strains will find their way into my own playing in such a way that they become intermingled with the "standard" guitar stuff and it becomes a new voice.

I sincerely hope this helps you in some way, and if you need further help, please don't hesitate to ask!  

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J Ross Smith

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Find at www.jrosssmith.com! Over 20 years of guitar playing, teaching, building, and modifying; have worked as a touring musician, studio session guitarist, engineer, guitar tech, and guitar teacher. Registered member of ASCAP. Registered member of Freelancers Union. I have a working knowledge of music theory and styles, and a taste for all types of music and instruments. If you have a favorite guitar player or style, chances are I share it! If you have a question I can't answer, I'll rely on experienced and knowledgeable people I know to get the correct information for you, and I hope I can help inspire your playing style and tone. Promotional photo by Sebastian Castillo at Castillo Photography, San Diego, CA.

Experience

Over 15 years of guitar playing, teaching, building, and modifying; have worked as a touring musician, studio session guitarist, engineer, guitar tech, and guitar teacher.

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American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP), Freelancers' Union, IAVA (Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America).

Education/Credentials
I have a working knowledge of music theory and styles, and a taste for all types of music and instruments. If you have a favorite guitar player or style, chances are I share it!!!

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