Shopping Cart

item - £0.00

You have no items in your shopping cart.

Subtotal: £0.00

Great musicians steal

I first heard the ‘good musicians borrow, great musician steal’ quote from Corey Christiansen during a master class at the Jazzwise Summer School. Corey was talking about how musicians develop vocabulary by imitation. The first step is to reproduce a phrase from a favourite recording. But don’t stop there; you want to aim for complete ownership. Get that phrase down so well that your version becomes the definitive one.

Think of what Ray Charles did when he recorded ‘Georgia’ compared to Hoagy Carmichael’s original recording. Or look at how Aretha Franklin stole Otis Redding’s 'Respect' and made a number one hit with her version. Jimi Hendrix reinvented Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along Watchtower’ so that even Dylan began playing it Hendrix’s way.

There is a great quote from Clark Terry which is the epigraph of Hal Crook’s How To Improvise: ‘Imitate, assimilate, innovate’. Too often we begin the imitation stage but lose interest before we complete the process of assimilation. But the real creativity comes once you take ownership of your material. Only then can you recast it in a different setting where it can have enough resonance to eclipse the original source.

Take ownership in three easy steps

Step 1: Map it out Before you start working on specific vocabulary, choose a particular song form to focus on e.g. a standard song, a blues, or minor blues. Having chosen your form, you need to break it up into manageable chunks. Start by writing the chords out in a grid, 4 bars to a line as (as Lionel Grigson and Conrad Cork recommend). If you don’t have the chords already, use a computer program like Transcribe! to figure them out. Or search for a fakebook or play along which has the chord changes for your song.

Once you have the chord progression written out in a grid you can add to your roadmap by writing roman numerals over the chord to identify the harmonic building blocks of each 2 or 4 bar section (see Hearin' The Changes and Insights In Jazz for example roadmaps). Most standard songs are built using three types of short or long phrases:

minor, dominant or major chord vamps (1 to 4 bars) major or minor II-V vamps (1 or 2 bars) major or minor II-V-I (2 or 4 bars)

Step 2: Steal away This is the fun part: gather as many recordings of your chosen song form as possible by your favourite artists and keep listening until you find the phrases you want to steal. Do this outside the practice room, anytime you get a moment to listen to music. Be selective. Go through your song roadmap phrase by phrase, until you identify at least one phrase to learn for each section of the song. Also consult transcribed solos and books of jazz patterns and licks for inspiration. Only work on phrases you want to keep.

Step 3: Do the Frankenstein Now for the spadework. Use Transcribe! to learn your phrases until you can reel them out on cue in a few different keys. Then test yourself with a play along recording. If your phrase occurs in bars 5 to 6, play nothing before and after your phrase. See if you can come in on cue in the right place. Repeat this several choruses in a row as the play along repeats. Resting is as important as playing. While you wait, aim to deliver each phrase with all the confidence and apparent spontaneity of a stand up comedian answering a heckler. It may be a stock phrase, but confidence, timing and delivery is everything.

Consider starting from the end of your roadmap and work back non-sequentially over 2 choruses, leaving 4 bar gaps. This will give you opportunity to cover the whole song form but also rest and listen to the context before you play each phrase. Eventually, you end up with a ‘Frankenstein’ solo made up from stitching together your favourite phrases.

Now you are ready to think about the ‘innovate’ part of the process. It’s time to play with your phrases, apply them to new situations, and use them as a springboard for developing your own melodic lines.

This method for learning vocabulary is based on Corey Christiansen’s approach developed in the Essential Jazz Lines series. Each book includes transcribed phrases grouped by type plus excellent play along tracks to help you learn them using the above method.

More tips for imitating Have fun when you are imitating. Be irreverent and don't be afraid to play around with it. Think of a young child imitating a parent or teacher. They don't worry if it will be good enough. They cheekily copy what they hear. They do this instinctively without hesitation. They also play around with it - both exaggerating and distorting impressions, and deviating from the original catchphrase.

Tips for assimilating Eventually you need to know your material by ear independent of key. So it's also helpful to know what chord tones the phrase start and end on, as well as the harmonic context (eg short II-V). Try clapping and singing material before learning it on your instrument. You might try playing it on a different instrument. Once you start to absorb it, test yourself by choosing a recording at random and seeing if you can use any of your new phrases by ear. There is a sliding scale for nailing new material based on how many people are listening. You might play it great in your own room with no one listening. But can you play it just as well for a teacher, examiner, audition, small audience, large audience, recording session, live radio or tv broadcast?

Copycat Caveats Of course there are caveats with this copycat approach. Above all, keep your wider goals in mind and remember that this is an exercise for the practice room not the stage. Imitating and stealing is a means to an end. Use it to open your ears, increase your vocabulary, and find your own voice.

No one is really interested in a straight copy, however convincing. So learning to express yourself authentically, and finding something new to say is ultimately more important than perfecting the art of imitation. The point of stealing material is to make it better. Put it in a new context and use it express your own individual aesthetic. As T.S. Eliot once wrote:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. T.S. Eliot, 'Philip Massinger' The Sacred Wood, (New York:, 2000)

Thanks to Nancy Prager for this quote and for researching this source of the 'great poets steal' quote.
Buy Now

We Also Recommend

8 thoughts on “Great musicians steal”

  • Simon

    That's a deep way to know a song, not sure I would say they were 'easy steps'...but then again there aren't any shortcuts. To give it so much attention I think you need to love the song you are working with - it is like a relationship. The nearest I came to this approach - which was to work with it and it only, nothing else for several months - was with the song La Fiesta by Chick Corea. Since I am not a professional musician I needed to spend the time to get it into my system so I was free enough to play it in front of 150 people. It also meant I could (sort of) enjoy the performance.

    • Hugh Gledhill
      Hugh Gledhill May 3, 2012 at 10:38 pm

      @Simon - thanks for sharing your comments and experience! You are right it's not a quick fix, but this approach can work at a basic level. For example, you can start by using it with the first 4 bars of a basic blues. Vocab led approaches offer a way of diving in to 'let theory follow practice'. So you can imitate phrases and play around with them without needing advanced jazz theory or chord/scale knowledge as a prerequisite.

  • Paul Moylan

    Unfortunately there is too much of the first part of this approach and not enough of the innovate part leading to a situation where most people are sounding the same as each other. Of course we all teach this approach but it is fundamentally killing the music. We need to spend time finding the innovators and encouraging them to blow the vocabulary apart because even free jazz now sounds cliched very often.

    • Hugh Gledhill
      Hugh Gledhill May 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm

      @Paul Moylan: Thanks Paul, many readers will agree with this! On the other hand, innovation often springs from knowledge of what has gone before. It's interesting how many great innovators start out imitating someone else. From this article, Bob Dylan was a Woody Guthrie imitator, Otis Redding wanted to be Sam Cooke, and in his early years Ray Charles did his best to sound like Charles Brown and Nat 'King' Cole. The inspiration to imitate artists, sounds and records seems to be one way that many true original artists form and develop their own identities.

  • steve

    A great inspiring thoughtful article and one to refer back to as one assimlates the process of learning jazz improvisation.

  • John Elliott

    We use 8 bars per line, not 4. This is important for internalizing songs which are usually in 8-bar sections. The 4-bar sheet music way is not as good as true Grigson grids. Often the bricks are 8 bars long. E.g. Perdido.

  • Nick

    Hello James,Although I'm enjoying your brdekaown of various scales one can implement over a dominant chord, I have one suggestion.You don't have to work hard to swing 8th notes. Most books on jazz music tend to promote this concept of accenting every other note when phrasing 8th notes.Any note value can swing. It's all about accents. Playing on one particular part of the beat is ridiculous. Clean, even legato phrasing is key.Just a suggestion.Peace Keep Swinging,Andre Hayward

Leave a Reply