These days in music, there seems to be this drive to be 'original'. Original lyrics, original tones, original styles, original effects. Well at this particular point in time, with so much that has come before, it's difficult to write or do something that's completely original. But with good judgment and quick thinking, it's not so hard for a skilled musician to take parts from different places and create something Completely different.
Now to preface, I am not a guitarist. I play guitar (simple chords) and sing along and whatnot, but I do not solo or shred or rip or tear on anything with six strings. I am a jazz saxophone player, though, and throughout my experiences as a gigging player, I've found a few things to be true for all musical instruments... or at least 'lead' instruments, like saxes, trumpets, and guitars. What I am going to show you will make you feel guilty at first, but eventually, you may come to realize that I speak the truth:
Part 1: Creating A Solo
How many times have you been sitting at home or in a car listening to music, when you hear a lick or riff that someone plays and you say, hey, that was pretty cool! I know it happens to me quite frequently. Usually it's just a little riff that ends on a nice juicy chord degree, or augments the sound of the solo just so, or whatever. At any rate, it sounds sweet. Well, how many times have you simply shrugged it off, saying I wish I could think of things like that? A few, eh? Well, why on earth did you do that?
The simple truth of the matter is that that riff may have been theirs, but there's nothing that says you can't use it to. Learn the riff. Learn as many cool riffs as you can. Create for yourself a mental 'riff library' of cool stuff that you picked up, and you can pepper these into different solos and fills and whatnot. There's nothing wrong with this at all. But if you feel leery still about stealing someone's riff, then by all means change it a little bit.
Now before I move on, let me define what I mean when I say 'riff' or 'lick'. To me, a riff or lick is a short piece of music. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't be stealing a riff that's longer than two or three measures unless it's a really sweet riff. But then, we don't call it a riff. We call it a quote.
Less so in rock and metal and more guitar-related genres, but fairly prominent in jazz genres is a technique called quoting. Now quoting is a lot like stealing a riff, but instead of just a quick little riff or lick, you're taking an entire phrase and playing it. In the late seventies and early eighties, a popular phrase to quote was the beginning of the Transformers theme. You know, 'Transformers, Robots in disguise'.
In many jazz circles, a common quote is the beginning to Charlie 'Bird' Parker's solo on the song 'Now's The Time'. I myself have been known to quote such famous lines as the riff from 'Sunshine of your Love' by Cream, 'When I'm Sixty-Four' by The Beatles, or 'Seven Nation Army' by The White Stripes. Crowds love it if you throw something in that they relate to. And to take it a step further, if your solo is more on the light-hearted side, there's nothing wrong with using little nursery-rhymes and lullabies as quotes in songs. Again, it gives something for the audience to identify in your solo, and if used in the right context, it can be quite funny (I for one have a technique I learned where I can make my sax 'laugh'. That's always fun if someone does something silly or stupid on stage).
Remember, there's no shame in stealing riffs and lines. Just don't overuse them. And by all means, don't do anything like steal a whole solo. That's just kind of lazy on your part. There's a big difference between borrowing a few quarters and stealing 20 bucks.
Part 2: Creating A Style
Ever notice that if you hang out with the same people all the time, you'll talk like them simply by being near them? Ever notice that if you move between different groups, you may talk differently without realizing it? Well, the same thing happens in music. If you spend a lot of time listening to the same players, you'll start to inadvertently sound like those players.
Now this can be both a good and bad thing. Good because if you sound like, say, David Gilmour or Jimi Hendrix, you're walking in the shoes of gods. Bad though, because you don't sound like yourself. Well, how do you fix this? Broaden your horizons.
The more guitarists you listen to, the better. If you can take aspects of 10 different players and incorporate them into your own stile, then you're already miles ahead than someone who calls themselves 'self taught' and sound exactly like the one or two guitarists that they listen to religiously. Listen to as many guitarists as you can and take their riffs, tones and styles and amalgamate them into yourself. If you do this, you'll sound less like a generic Jimmy Page wanna-be, and more like yourself.
But don't just stop at guitarists. Listen to everyone. Saxes, trumpets, flutes, clarinets, basses, orchestras. If you like their riffs, steal them. If you like their tones, emulate them. My old instructor was telling me about a guy he knew that played guitar, and he had a very interesting style. When my instructor asked him where he got it, the guy said he listened to tenor saxophone players. Why? Well, if you really want to, you never have to stop playing a guitar. But Tenor saxes have to breathe, and just that phrasing, that little space between licks and chops made a huge difference between him and someone like Eddie Van Halen, who Never. Friggin'. Stops.
Attention to detail is important as well. A good thief is an observant thief. You watch the house. You measure the time it takes for someone to turn around. You move your fingers invisibly. A good musical thief is always on the lookout for good riffs and players to blend into his own collection.
And of course, eventually you will start using the riffs and styles you've collected as simple starting points, and expanding on them, taking a lick and going in a completely different direction, or altering it slightly to make it sound totally new. Once you've got enough stolen parts, you (like any good thief) can sit back, relax, and invest in new and exciting musical ventures.
Part 3: Creating A Song
Write your own songs, you lazy bastards.
And that's really all there is to stealing like you mean it. Keep this in mind next time you're listening and next time you pick up an axe, and remember: There's no shame in playing the game.