Musical Theft: The Art Of Stealing Gracefully

Original riffs are good, but there's no shame in 'borrowing' from other places.

Ultimate Guitar

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.

128 comments sorted by best / new / date

    you have the shitties ideas on the planet. Of course you will be affected by what you listen to, but on a subcontious level, not blatantly copying. I dont think laughing with a saxaphone is cool either.
    Good Article, taking something from a song is good as long it is not in the same genre, sound or context as a song, and it genuinely goes well with your song.Of course if you steal a whole song and only change it a bit, everyone just laughs at you.
    This was stupid you shouldn't steal a well earned riff or lick that a guitarist has happily found and invented. It is not hard to have original ideas and you must be lacking in the artistic department if you can not think of your own material. That is why there is only one Clapton and one Hendrix because they were original. If we had everyone ripping eachother off we'd have 10,000 emo greenday ripoffs and less creativity. If you are running short of ideas stop listening to music and explore the hell out of every creak and fuzz in you guitar until you own that lick. Bad article as i know a band who ripped off all the chords and riffs of Danni California and just wrote new words. That's not rock'n'roll baby!
    Beethoven was deaf!
    Only in the later part of his life.
    We need to get over copying the likes of Hendrix 40 years ago. Im sure if he was alive he would be pissed at so many plagurisms of his style.
    No way, Jimi would be proud that his style has survived for 40 years, more than almost every modern professional musician ever. And Nobody is carbon copying each other because of this. This article is posted to help people not carbon copy each other but still be affected by their music.
    wow, im glad you wrote this article cuz the other night me and my friend were sittin around and attempting to write a song and we wrote somethin that we took riffs from all over the place and we decided not to do anything with it because we felt guilty for stealing. but not anymore!!!!!
    that sucked. Jazz quoting is different to passing off other peoples work as your own. it shows respect for what comes before you, not stealing riffs to make money and shag girls.
    Amen to that.
    Steph Bets
    that sucked. Jazz quoting is different to passing off other peoples work as your own. it shows respect for what comes before you, not stealing riffs to make money and shag girls.
    PjX71 : Heh, like Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Boston's More Than a Feeling?
    Actually, if you listen to them in succession, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sounds a lot like Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla".
    [Creative Name]
    phoenix_88 wrote: nice article. i agree especcially with the solo example... frusciantes solo in dani california (nevermind the verse controversy) is purple haze reworked and its pretty brilliant in my mind.
    It sounds like purple haze as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix he said so in an interview...
    It has been said that there are no more original thoughts as they have already been thought before. Same with a guitar lick, say you come up with a kick ass idea for a lick, sweet you think, you hit it big it is so good. Then it comes out that in 1962 that SAME exact rif was on an album by some one you never heard of? Did you steall it? Is it any worse? How many rifs are based on blue scales or Panatonic scales? Is that a rip off? Does all of that sound the same? Crap! Begg, borrow, steal, make it your own, but realize that it could be a tune hummed by a slave building the pyrmids.
    Remember that, ultimately, all creativity is inspired by something outside the creators mind. Obviously it just doesn't pop out of some empty space in our heads. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all "steal" ideas from other people and the world around us. Creativity is merely the act of processing those influences and experiences through our own unique minds, not the act of getting something for nothing. Claiming you are totally "orginal" suggest you could come up with the idea of music on your own. In reality, if you ignored all possible influences, you would probably amount to nothing more than plucking a few out of tune notes on a rubber band.
    it seemed like part 1 and 2 contradicted themselves... steal riffs then incorporate more genres so its more original, still 9/10, great article
    There's stealing and there's creatively copying.
    So where do we draw the line? I can understand if someone created a song that had a similar chord progression to another, or was the same song in a different key, as long as it's not deliberate. It happens. The author is suggesting that instead of taking the time to write something themselves, they should just take something that already exists and change it slightly. He's not suggesting that the work of others should be an influence, he's suggesting that you should take their work, change a note or two and call their work your own. Lazy, and plagiarism. And yes, I did read the entire article because I found it hard to believe that someone would actually encourage people to plagiarise the hard work and creative expression of other artists.
    Lol I like how a bunch of these people are like "OMG, you're lame... Stealing songs is wrong!" Like they're the most creative guitar players in the world. The author doesnt intend for you to pass another's work off as your own. Just to simply take a riff or a lick and embellish it until it suits your style. There's a difference between stealing the tapping part from Eruption and the RHCP use of a NEARLY identical chord progression to "Mary Jane's Last Dance". There's stealing and there's creatively copying.
    De Mad Yoke
    The main riff in My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama and Foxey Lady are the same but in different keys!
    nice article. i agree especcially with the solo example... frusciantes solo in dani california (nevermind the verse controversy) is purple haze reworked and its pretty brilliant in my mind.
    Just remember though never to steal from Americans, atleast not too obviously... if they listen your music and can catch a hint of their music in it... being in a bad mood that can cost you tons of money.
    good article. It eases the guilt.....hahaha yeah who ever said you couldn't take the tapping part of eruption and put it in your solo..i did! But then we got rid of the solo when i realized i hadn't written it myself. Anyway yes good article.
    yup, great one. First one I'll give a 10 to because you have a good insight into finding your way from others' paths. I find that when I learn a riff of someones I learn a new way to use notes. It's all about that, you learn what you like and you learn how other people use the information of music. great read
    yeah, i like taking a short lick from a song that seems rather insignificant to that song, but sounds good, and making it into a main riff for my own song. So i can see what you mean.
    Another example, "Johnny B. Goode", by Chuck Berry, and "Roll Over Beethoven", by The Beatles, and a Beach Boys song I can't think of off the top of my head - they all have the same intro, but they're all famous songs. Actually Roll Over Beethoven is a Chuch Berry song that they covered.
    ever heard of "obla di obla da" by the beatles? listen to ":why dont u get a job?" by the offspring. case closed
    Creating your own style is the best thing that can ever happen for a guitarist, plenty of people at my school call me shit, that's mainly because I can play the comfortably numb solos and they can't! But also because I don't just cover one band over and over, and I kinda create my own licks, well, steal them and mix them, anyways, way to go dude, you got it all in one article. 10/10
    Again, let me point out that this is primarily meant for live performances. Quotes are an homage to the writer, and something that listeners can relate to. and to DJ_Inferno, another person's work can be an expresson of yourself at the time. Take for example, the lyrics to 'Goodbye Cruel World' by Pink Floyd. I quote them every once in a while when they fit with my mood, because they express poetically an idea that I have and a feeling that I'm feeling. It's the same idea. and for the record, it's impossible to write something that is perfectly original, even by half-bars. Someone has played that before. 'Nothin' you can play that can't be played...' -The Beatles
    i dont know how everyone is ok wid stealing someone else's riff... i find it sick and twisted....playing the guitar for me about expressing myself... and when you are expressing yourself you dont take other people's stuff... it should just happen... i agree with the fact that you get influenced by artists if you keep listening to them but it is NOT right to just blatantly ripp off one of their licks or quotes or whatver!!! all the leads i have made for my band's originals are all (i am proud to say) by me... not even half a bar of any lead by me is a rip off from another artist's work... i also agree with the guy who said that it is wrong to grab some other artists discovery and put it into your own solo.... the article is well written but i completely disagree with the ideas the author is trying to put across...
    if green day can steal a Chicago song without a punishment, then I think every band that has formed on the earth should have a chance to steal a song, just not stairway to heaven, or smells like teen spirit.
    I agree with the article; it makes some good points. Especially about creating your own style by listening to lots of music, particularly not guitar music. There's nothing wrong with taking small bits of songs and making them your own. But don't use them in your song just for the sake of using them. Music is about expression, and you should only use those licks if they aid in your creative expression. One thing I do is, like another person here said, try to play riffs/licks/whatever by ear and by memory. Usually I won't get it exactly like it originally sounded. I'll get something similar that is a bit more suited to what I want to convey, and work on it from there. Or I try to improve on other musician's work. I'll listen to a song and go, hmm, it would have been much better if he had played that chord as a sustained instead of a minor chord in that progression. Or, that lick would have been perfect if he had ended it on a different note and thrown in a bend right there. Then I 'fix' their mistakes and go from there. It's all about stealing gracefully, like the article said.