Stop Trying to Be Original

Cooking-7

My name is Brandon Shaw, I’m a bass player, and I’m a Pino Palladino addict. (Hi, Brandon)

I got my first taste of Pino’s bass playing on Continuum, the 2006 John Mayer album. I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment would go on to change my life.

If you don’t know who Pino Palladino is, bookmark this article and come back to it after you’ve listened to “Continuum” in it’s entirety. No, start with “Voodoo”. Wait, no, “21”. Ahh! Whatever, look him up later.

Contiuum led me down a Pino rabbit hole. Tears for Fears. The Who. Eric Clapton. MICHAEL MCDONALD. The RH Factor. D’ANGELO.

Rather than continue to list his credits, let’s just suffice it to say, Pino is the man. He’s played on so many records, it’s crazy (552 to be exact). His unique style and unbelievable feel have made him one of the most in demand bassists in all of recorded music history.

And I steal from him constantly.

That’s right, steal. This is the first time I’ve admitted this publicly, but if you’ve ever played with me, it’s obvious. Pino Palladino is my favorite bass player, and consequently, I steal things from him.

Here’s the thing about western music: there’s only twelve notes. Twelve! There’s only so many things you can do with those. Granted, it’s a large number, but it’s limited nonetheless.

“Originality”

When I started taking the bass more seriously, I wanted to be a completely original player. My licks were my licks, man. I came up with them. People would call me to play because I was completely original. The only problem? Yeah… my licks weren’t any good.

In his fantastic book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon talks about this idea. He compares two types of theft: good and bad. Bad theives steal from one source, plagiarize, imitate, and rip off good art. But good thieves on the other hand? They study what they’ve stolen, steal from many sources, credit those sources, transform it, and remix it into something new.

Once I stopped trying to be completely original, it changed everything. I listened to any recording of Pino I could get my hands on. I transcribed his bass lines, deconstructed them note for note, and analyzed how those lines fit into the underlying chords of the song.

Before long, those little bits of Pino started indirectly sneaking into my playing. I would start to play a Pino fill, but adapt it to whatever the song I was playing. Maybe I’d change the rhythm, shorten it, change the order of the notes, or play a similar idea, but with different chord tones entirely. After stealing these little bits from Pino, I could transform them into something new.

The Lick To End All Licks

This brings me to THE Pino lick. The lick that I’ve stolen more than any other lick by any bass player. Pino played it on the song Who Did You Think I Was with John Mayer Trio on the Where The Light Is live DVD, at exactly 1:02. Take a listen:

If I had a dime for everytime I’ve stolen this lick, reworked it, reimagined it, readapted it, transformed it, and remixed it, I would have a lot of dimes (probably enough to warrant buying one of those coin sorter machines). If you’ve ever played with me, you’ve heard some version of this lick. It’s melodic – but in a simple way, rhythmic – but not in a syncopated way, and draws a moment of attention to the bassist without completely stealing the show.

It’s the perfect lick to steal.

Cookin’ Up Some Funk

Being a musician is a lot like being a chef. There’s a finite amount of ingredients (similar to music’s 12 notes). Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, and Nigella Lawson aren’t inventing new ingredients to cook with. They’re using the ones that have always been there, but they do completely different things with those ingredients.

Let’s get even more basic: take In-N-Out vs Burger King. If you order a burger at each of these places, you get the same basic stuff: bread, beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, sauce. But do they taste the same? Not at all! (In-N-Out is clearly better)

In-N-Out hasn’t invented a new ingredient. But by using existing ingredients in varying amounts and in different ways, two chefs can make two dishes that contain the same basic stuff, but have completely different flavors.

Be Your Own Flavor

Everyone has different tastes in music and food. Some people prefer Burger King (and those people are not my friends). But no one likes flavorless food. Use your spices (influences), cook something up new (study and practice), and be your own flavor.

Korean food is delicious. But so is mexican food. What happens if you combine the two? You get the Kogi truck. It’s a world renowned culinary remix that steals, pays respect to its influences, and tranforms them into an entirely new food.

Don’t Be Pino, Be You

I’ve stolen a lot from Pino. But there’s no point in trying to be exactly like Pino. If someone wants to hire Pino, they’re just going to hire Pino. Why the hell would they hire me (a guy who is trying to sound just like Pino), when they can get the real thing?

What’s the trick to good theft? Study the person and the mindset behind what you steal. Get in their head. Try to think like they do. And most importantly: have multiple people that you steal from. Combine multiple ideas from multiple sources and transform it into something new.

My Flavor

I’ve stolen a lot from Pino, but I’ve stolen from a lot of other people as well. Instead of trying to invent new ingredients, I take existing ones, balance them out my own way, and try to make something new.

In the spirit of paying respect to my influences, here’s the ingredients I use to make up my own flavor:

My-Flavor

The Greats Already Do This

I know the thought of “stealing” licks from other musicians may sound like a cut throat, low level thing to do, but it’s not if you do it properly (credit + remix). Great musicians do this all the time. Oh, that includes Pino.

Take the hit song “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” . This song was originally written by Marvin Gaye in 1962, but Paul Young also recorded it in 1983. Young’s version of the song is famous for the bass line that Pino plays right at the beginning. It’s an iconic line that wasn’t in the Marvin Gaye version, and consequently catapulted Pino into the world of session playing.

The best part of this story? Pino stole that line from Stravinsky.

The line that Pino plays on “Wherever I Lay My Hat” was first the bassoon melody at the beginning of “Rite of Spring”. Pino was able to steal a line and transform it into something new that honors the original. He openly credits Stravinsky, check out this brief interview:

Did you watch the end of the video? They took a Marvin Gaye song, slapped a stolen Stravinsky line on top, and remixed the whole thing into a new hit song. Just after this song was released, Pino started getting calls from Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Elton John, and Pete Townshend (The Who). This song is what directly led to Pino’s career taking off. Pino is as much of a thief as I am!

“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”

David Bowie

New > Original

Stop trying to be completely original, because in reality, there’s nothing completely original out there. Instead, soak up your influences, unpack them, steal what you like and leave the rest. Adapt what you’ve stolen for your own purposes, and transform it all into your own new flavor.


This article is heavily influenced by Austin Kleon’s great book “Steal Like an Artist.” You should absolutely go buy it right now. I’m not exaggerating when I say it has the potential to change your creative life.