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Is Imitation a Good Way to Learn Guitar?

Is Imitation Bad?

The word ‘imitation’ usually carries a negative connotation. Imitation goods are seen as cheap copycats, imitation artists are seen as inauthentic and uninspired. However, when it comes to learning the guitar, is it necessarily a bad thing to imitate guitarists who you admire?

In short, learning, even copying, from other artists is a great way to learn guitar. This happens all the time - jazz guitarists copy licks from other jazz musicians, as do rock and pop guitarists copy chord progressions and voicings from one another. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and inevitably as you listen to other artists, you will be influenced by their music both consciously and subconsciously.

However, sole imitation leads to you becoming a carbon copy of another artist, often on an inferior level. After all, why would anyone listen to you if they could just listen to the original artist?

Imitation vs Modeling

If imitation makes you a boring copy of another artist, we need to transcend it to the concept of modeling. According to Grove Music Online, modeling is:

‘The use of an existing piece of music as a model or pattern for a new work, in whole or in part. Modeling may involve assuming the existing work’s structure, incorporating part of its melodic or rhythmic material, imitating its form or procedures, or following its example in some other way.’

We can see that this definition shapes modeling as an advanced form of imitation, where certain elements of an existing piece of music are retained while others are developed upon.

If you model other artist’s music intelligently, you will end up retaining key ideas in the music such as melodic shape or rhythmic pattern, while building upon it with your own original musical material. This is where you get the best of both worlds - you are applying the best practices of your favorite artists, thereby making them your influences, while injecting your own creativity onto those practices to make them unique, even improving upon them.

The Process: Imitation toward Modeling

All that being said about the appeal of modeling, that doesn’t mean that imitation is to be cast out as a bad practice. In fact, imitation is the ideal way to go about the learning process.

The best way to truly internalize a musical phrase is to copy it exactly. This has been the way it’s been done in many musical cultures for thousands of years. In South Indian classical music, in Balinese gamelan, in various African drumming traditions, young musicians simply imitate their masters through constant immersion in the music, sometimes without any cognitive understanding of the music itself. They simply watch, listen, and follow, often without verbal instruction of any sort.

With the accessibility of video footage and audio recordings on the internet today, this process has become so much easier. You no longer need to spend hours, day after day, at your guru’s abode or with your drumming community to get constant exposure to the music. You practically have a guru in your pocket in the form of your mobile phone.

Don’t take this for granted! Listen to recordings and imitate the guitarists and musicians you admire.

Once you’ve internalized the piece of music through imitation, then you are in the best position to begin the modeling process. Take elements you like, alter others, discard some, create your own original music.

Do you use Imitation?

Have you personally used imitation in your learning process? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to see how widespread this method of learning is today.

And I hope you have learned something valuable today. I wish you all the best in your music learning journey and until next time, I’ll see you again!

By Neil Chan


The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.


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