More often than not when I think of a cool riff or passage and I try to play it when I've a guitar in my hands, the end result isn't always the riff. Sometimes it ends up completely different to the riff that was in my mind because my hands want to play something familiar, so I may subconsciously start playing around with a scale. One half of my mind is happy with that riff that I've played, but the other half knows that it's not the original riff. At that point because I'm half happy with what I've actually played I end up forgetting the original riff!

How often does this happen to you? What do you do to try and stop this? I've been thinking of recording myself humming what's in my head before I even try to play it.
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I've got one now that I can't seem to make work. I just want to make it in MIDI so I can see if the idea is original, or if it's part of an existing song that I'm just remembering. It's just frustrating.
I'm a massive fan of Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson, but I recall hearing somewhere that he never gets a song to sound exactly as it did in his head when writing it. He said that one of his favourite songs of his own composition is Stop Swimming, because it was very close to the way it was in his head. Kind of interesting to know.

Generally, when I'm writing, the idea in my head will change when I write it down, as I start getting new ideas and changing it. I figure, don't worry about how true it is to the original - ask yourself if you like it. If you like it, go for it!
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you might try to keep the riff just in your mind for a longer period of time before you start putting it to guitar. maybe try to think of what that song could be about, or think of accompaniment. i do that just to let the idea stew for longer, and if it turns out not to be such an amazing idea i'll naturally forget it and move on.

especially if you're not a complete guitar wizard (i'm not), the creative space in your head is very different from when your hands are on the guitar. it's good to try separating the two.
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This used to happen to me a lot. This, and forgetting the riff by the time I get to a guitar.

Now I purposely do not try to think of riffs when I'm away from the guitar.

I also try to meld thinking and playing, so I make riffs by a hybrid method: I think of something, attempt to play it, modify it closer to the original OR if I play something that sounds better, go in that direction. This is a simplified version of what happens multiple times in the creation of a riff. If I like the end result I record it and start again.
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I'm a massive fan of Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson, but I recall hearing somewhere that he never gets a song to sound exactly as it did in his head when writing it. He said that one of his favourite songs of his own composition is Stop Swimming, because it was very close to the way it was in his head. Kind of interesting to know.

+1 on the Porcupine Tree/Stephen Wilson Info.

For me, sometimes I'm pretty close as far as licks go. However, when I'm recording, 65% of the time it turns out a lot differently than I had planned; not in a bad way though.
My question is:

Is the riff specific in your head, or is it more "the idea of a riff" - sort of vague.

Could you sing it? Or are you sort of figuring it out as you go at the guitar?
I don't really get specific riffs; I get riff ideas. And frankly, I don't see that as a bad thing. I often flesh things out a bit more as I go on.
I get the impression that like with soloing and stuff, you'll eventually be able to get your hands do do what they need to do to make the sounds in your mind. Often though, I'll keep banging away at it until I get what's in my head onto the fretboard.

But it also depends on how I'm "writing". As well as having ideas away from the guitar I spend a lot of time noodling and "stumbling across" ideas. For this, remembering them was always the issue. Since I got a loop station it isn't so bad, but looking back it's been a massive problem for me.
I don't touch my instrument or Sibelius until I have the concept or core musical idea down.
I never write riffs by playing them. I improvise a lot of my leads and stuff when I'm recording, because leads tend to make themselves more known to me as I contemplate the song, but the riffs, I have to write in Tuxguitar as MIDI. I usually find that riff-writing is so much more productive when I can simultaneously write the drum/synth/vocal parts in my program, rather than just playing a static, pre-determined guitar riff and calling it a take.

That may be due to genre, though: With the kind of music I play, there's a lot of intricate interplay between the guitars, drums and synths. But with simpler genres, you might be able to get away with a more "hands-on" approach to songwriting. It's really up to preference.
What I do when a riff comes to my mind is I start thinking about what notes and rhythms it contains. And I also do it because that way I can remember it better. If I forget the melody, I may remember the intervals and rhythms it contained. I sometimes get these ideas in random places so I need to memorize them well so that I can remember them when I come home.

But if your fingers change how you play the riff, maybe train your ear. It's good to be able to play what you hear. Even if the result you get now sounds good and better than the original idea, you still want to be able to play what you hear. Because music is all about sound and you want to compose with sound. You may try first writing the riff down with some kind of software like Guitar Pro (or if you don't have it, Tux Guitar does pretty much the same and is free). As somebody said, you can also add other instruments at the same time. A riff on its own doesn't sound that great. You need to add the other instruments to make it sound good.
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How often does this happen to you? What do you do to try and stop this? I've been thinking of recording myself humming what's in my head before I even try to play it.

This is actually a pretty common problem. If you sing along with what you are playing you will be more likely to actually play that riff you had in your head. Also, recording yourself humming it is not a bad idea. So good luck =)
The humming is something I've been doing for years now, it has yet to fail me. I haven't used most of em though cos I hum higher than intended for some reason...anyway, I think I have about 30 or so hum riffs in my phone but every few weeks I go back to listen through em and think "wow, this is total shxt" but I keep em there cos I can see where I was going with it.

Now to answer your question of how often I can play what's in my head...not often at all. Heck, yesterday was the first time I ever played a progression from my head. Theory helped SO MUCH! So glad I learned it. I thought of a western type progression in my head and figured I'll give it a go. I doodled a tad, not even a full minute before I found the notes I needed and for how long (A for four beats, C for 2, G for 2, repeat). Then I used a C Major scale to figure out what # they are (VI-I-V). Afterwards, I even used tips I heard about soloing to add some cool melody (basically, play each part of the solo to compliment the chord being played at the time).

I always thought theory was a buncha hocus pocus and my process seems long when written down, but that took me no longer than 10 minutes, and 8 of those minutes were finding which notes accentuated the chord for melody. Case in point, theory will help you play what's in your head.
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I usually get like a whole 'band' arrangement at once for a phrase or two, but rarely a structure or really specific riff.

How accurately you can get from your head to your fingers is really a matter of familiarity. Playing LOTS of different music in every key and every position, internalizing the sounds, keeping your technique fresh...
Awesome Topic!! Erc and Maggara on the prowl again wit some good stuff! ^_^

I recall a quote from Jimi Hendrix, (and I paraphrase b/c can't find)
"I hear symphonies In my head...but as soon as I pick up the guitar it gets ruined."

This was the humble Hendrix I admired! I can also identify with this comment. I think it sheds light (speculation on my behalf) on his frustrations as an artist. He heard things he could not produce. And I hear things I can't produce...it seems we all do!

I began to wonder why we have this problem. I had a theory teacher at the local community college who had perfect pitch. When people's phones would go off in class he would play exactly what their ringtone was.

However,...I don't think he was hearing what Jimi was hearing. I am reminded of the movie Bird where Forest Whitaker says (paraphrase again) "Surely a man that hears every sound would go insane".

I can only speculate that the sounds that Hendrix was hearing ( the microtones, the bends and so much more) were perhaps more complicated for a guy like Hendrix to transcribe and orchestrate.

My approach(always changing) is to learn as much music on the guitar as possible.
When I play in standard tuning for a while I began to develop as one has mentioned here the intuition to travel certain places on the Fretboard.

Studying solo guitar is a hoot! just to see how someone is gonna arrange a particular piece with the amount of strings they have( generally 6 of course) but just how they are cleverly arranged from a piano vs. guitar perspective. After practicing and studying different songs in the styles of blues, country and jazz, I began to see re-occurring themes. So that perhaps If I were to hear that sort of thing in my head,...I might have better tools to handle the situation.

That brings me to the comment Margarra made about adding in other instruments, which is why solo guitar is so fulfilling. I'm starting to see why so many "old-timers" end up playing exclusively this style. Add in some foot drumming and you have reigns over a bigger spectrum of sounds and possibilities.

In closing,....I would like to juxtapose (if I may) the more mystical approach some one like Hendrix may have had to the more (calculated, engineered?) approach of that of my piano/theory teacher.

These are the two methods I have been trying to understand and perhaps fuse.
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