Hot Licks: How to Develop Your Signature Riff
This classic "Talkin' Blues" column originally appeared in the pages of Guitar World.
Guitarists who improvise in any style-rock, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, metal-have to have an arsenal of hot licks to draw upon. Little tricks which, played at just the right moment, can elevate the music to another level and blast an audience right out of their seats.
All of my favorite players have their own signature licks that kill me every time I hear them. This is what inspired me to take up the guitar in the first place.
The secret of using licks effectively is to apply them in such a way that they don't just sound like a bunch of rehearsed, fast licks. The key is to use them tastefully, and follow the "less is more" concept of getting the most mileage out of a single, well-placed lick.
One of my favorite ones is not at all fast; it just sounds really psychedelic! I learned this one from Jimi Hendrix, and it's illustrated in FIGURE 1A, complete with left-hand (or in Jimi's case, right-hand) fingerings. Note the use of reinforced bending. This lick is in A and it's very effective when used in the context of a slow blues. FIGURE 1B shows the same lick in E.
Here's another hot lick that I think most guitar players probably already know (see Figure 2). I use this lick in the title track from Ledbetter Heights; and it never fails to get the crowd going. I've included left-hand fingerings for this lick as well. I always kick on the wah-wah pedal when I'm playing this part, 'cause it makes it sound killer!
FIGURE 3A depicts a similar lick which I also learned from Hendrix. It's from his version of the song "Come On (Part 1)" from Electric Ladyland. FIGURE 3B is also reminiscent of the FIGURE 2 lick, and is played on the G and B strings. Both licks alternate between the middle, index and ring fingers.
One of my all-time favorite guitarists is Albert Collins, who was known for his expressive string-bending. FIGURE 4 illustrates a lick that is inspired by his playing. Collins' playing introduced me to, among other things, the concept of bending the fifth up one-and-a-half steps to the minor seventh, as I do here with the B-to-D bend and release.
Here's another fast lick, inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan, that I like to use in the keys of E or A (see Figures 5A and B, respectively). I like to play these within the context of a slow blues, but they really can be used just about anywhere.