Counterfeit Culture: How the world of signature-everything is killing the identity of today’s musicians – and why

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Counterfeit Culture: How the world of signature-everything is killing the identity of today’s musicians – and why

music emulation
(Image: Greyson Joralemon)
Words by David Ellis

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery for your own music playing?

I remember the first time I learned what a Music Man guitar was. I was sat in the living room with my then girlfriend in a house in the Perth suburbs, watching a DVD of Dream Theater. My 14 year-old self gaped at the TV, and watched Petrucci’s masterful hands playing incredible passages – inspiring me to play better, faster, and more cleanly. And I knew, in that moment, I needed that guitar, and that rig to play like I wanted to – like John.

Read up on all the latest features and columns here.

After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

The John Petrucci Neural plugin is impressive – but does it help or hinder?

GAS! (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

That (unfinished and often misquoted) proverb led me to owning a series of different amplifiers, guitars, and effects pedals – all in pursuit of what I thought was the ‘perfect tone’. A carbon-copy of that Petrucci sound. Hell, I even hunted down a 2290 rack delay.

This is not a new tale. The endless pursuit of tone, the unrelenting journey to emulate the ‘perfect’ sound of your heroes – it is a tale as old as time.

And you know what, it’s only gotten easier, and cheaper. Want to sound like May? There’s an app for that. Vai, or Satch? A click away. Gilmour? No worries. Hell, even some Sgt. Pepper’s era Harrison isn’t an issue for the likes of companies like Neural, Positive Grid, or Fractal these days.

With the community surrounding these undeniably fantastic products, you can literally sound like just about anyone you want to. Just download a patch, plug in, and away you go. Or if money is no object, buy the signature guitars, amps, pedals, and sound exactly like the person you’re trying to. There are literally no limitations.

So, what’s the problem?

In today’s world of signature everything, from amps to beard oil, it’s easy to not sound like you.

If you look back on the industry greats, they never really had a signature model. They had a signature sound. Their favourite Strat, or Les Paul, plugged it into their favourite amp. Their sound was created through years of trial and error, swapping tubes, trialling different pedals, different pickups, strings, cable lengths, and whatever else they thought affected their sound.

Their tone, and it was their tone, came from what they liked. Or in some cases, what suited the song they were playing. The results were some of the most iconic sounds in music history, so much so to the point that millions copy them today, and even try to put that tone in a pedal.

From Matt Bellamy’s insanely complex approach, to the Edge’s FX-laden wizardry, right through to plug-and-play Clapton, these guitarists created something unique, and this is something which is being lost today, because people are too busy trying to emulate rather than prototype.

Matt Bellamy (Muse) has a unique guitar and sound which makes him identifiable in a crowd – and you can as well.

A copy of a copy of a copy…

What does that leave us with? Putting aside the fact that most ‘signature models’ are basically just standard models with tweaks, it leaves us with ‘new’ music which is, essentially, a pastiche of yesteryear.

A lot of metal these days is a copy of one of the big four, progressive axe-wielders are Dream Theater knock-offs, rock and blues guys can only go about five words before they utter ‘Bonamassa’, and country players sound a lot like Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson.

Creativity essentially dies, at the hands of the ‘perfect’ emulation.

When you have exactly everything that your favourite musician has, you can perfectly emulate what is being played by them. And at that point, what comes next? With a lack of limitations, you don’t have to innovate, you don’t have to adapt and problem solve. You cruise.

Gibson make great guitars. But are their signature models really going to help you define your own schtick?

Invention’s Mother – necessity

You see, it’s these limitations which give us creativity. Take Mick Gordon for example. His masterful work that was the DOOM soundtrack was born out of limitations imposed on him by the company who had employed him to do the music for the game. Learning how he could create incredible results using odd effects and methods was born out of someone saying ‘no guitars’. And that in turn, has now influenced an entire sphere of music.

DOOM: Behind the Music delves into the mind of Mick Gordon and what he had to go through to overcome the restrictions placed on him for the DOOM soundtrack.

Without limitations, I imagine the result would have been nowhere near the meme-generating and face-crushingly amazing collection of music we got. And, for Mick, emulation still played a part.

But for him, it was a finishing touch, or a building block. While emulating your heroes is a great way to get started, it’s not where you want to end up as an artist. Sure, take influence, and learn what you can. But don’t just copy what the guy next door is doing.

So what should I do?

Don’t get me wrong – if you want that signature model amp or guitar because it’s what you want, then go for it. They can be great instruments. But before you drop the money, ask yourself the question ‘is this really me?’

I myself still own all my Petrucci gear (and a lot, lot more). But mostly I play EBMM Axis guitars now because they’re more me. I run through Australian-Made Reynolds or MI Audio amps, and use a plethora of weird and wonderful pedals from el-cheapo to uber expensive. And you know what? People compliment me on my tone, my sound, my feel more now than they ever did when I was copying someone else.

You see, an instrument should be a blank canvas for you to paint your masterpiece on, not the already completed oil painting by a maestro that you have to painstakingly restore. Can you get that with a signature instrument, and by copying someone else? It’s doubtful.

It’s true – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – that mediocrity can pay to greatness.

Don’t be mediocre – be yourself.

And be great in your own right.

For the good kind of music emulation, check out Nembrini’s guitar amp emulator plugin to get the sound of your favourite amp, not your favourite musician.