I’ll come right out and say that when I hear a cool riff, I’m going to outright use it and then put my own spin on it. The thing is that I am also pretty indiscriminate as to where that riff might come from. Posted below is a video of Return to Forever’s performance of “Sorceress” from 1976 that I’m going to come back to throughout this post.
The first time I heard that live cut of “Sorceress”, the one thing that stuck out to me was Stanley Clarke’s bass line from about 1:00 minute mark on the dot. And the things that stuck out to me were:
1.The actual tone of Stanley’s bass. That indescribably chunky, crunchy, metallic tone of his Alembic was something that absolutely cut through the mix in a way that – at least to me – was particularly attractive
2. What Clarke was actually playing. That short, repeating riff where he would seem to clomp along the G#, G and F of his E string and then to round out an 8 bar passage, make his way up the neck for a short, snappy, metallic-sounding fill.
The latter is what I borrow from time to time, that clompy sounding and feeling riff. Granted – not everywhere needs it – but in areas where the groove is particularly slinky and particularly tight, one of the first things I’ll remember is this Return to Forever footage and the sound of Stanley Clarke in that particular something. There was just something about that sound, that feel and that way of playing that stuck and made me think, “I can use that”.
More often than not though, it doesn’t wind up just like that. Instead, like all music is, it winds up getting twisted to fit the musical situation I happen to be in. Whether I’m playing in a different key, or I experiment playing with those high, snappy fills on beats 2 and 3 and returning into the riff on beats 4 and 1, I’m still summoning the essence of that riff.
Now, this is one instance that I happened to think of at the time of writing this. There are certainly other examples, and I’m certain that if you’re reading this you’ve found yourself in a similar situation.
I suppose the moral of this story is that riffs are riffs: they are meant to be re-interpreted and reused and reworked by all who can do so. If for some reason you grimmace that you’re “stealing” another player’s style or their playing style, I don’t recommend you linger on that feeling. There is blatant copying which is more akin to lacking originality and the ability to develop your own sound; there are covers where your goal is to sound like the original player and everything else is up to you for interpretation.
Take what you can and look at it for what it is: an idea. And ideas are meant to be played with, broken, re-assembled and broken again. Go out and break some stuff.