In guitar-speak, both riffs and licks are defined as repeated melodic phrases. Riffs, though, are generally played on the lower strings, and licks on the high strings.
In this lesson, we’ll reverse their roles. Of course, you might find it difficult to construct a bass lick that doesn’t sound like a riff, so deeply has the “bass strings = riff” equation been ingrained in guitarists’ heads. Fortunately, there are a few ways to get past this sticking point.
The blues is a form that just begs for licks to fill in the spaces. FIGURE 1A is an ascending pattern that you can use in measure 4 of a 12-bar blues to bridge the I-IV chord change that occurs in measure 5. Similarly, FIGURE 1AB can be used in measure 6 to lead back down to the I chord in measure 7.
While we’re in the blues, why not take some classic blues-rock licks and transpose them to a lower register? FIGURE 2 shows a classic Jimi Hendrix–style lick dropped down a few steps.
What’s interesting about this approach is how the change in frequency completely alters the lick’s vibe. This one, for instance, goes from a pretty chime-like sound in the upper register to an ethereal Eastern-sounding mode in the lower.
FIGURE 3 shows a Violent Femmes–style bass-string lick that came to life by answering a line on the upper strings with a lick on the bass strings.
Although born of a call-and-response approach, it led to another method for generating lick ideas: taking a well-known riff and altering it to create a lick. How will you know if your riff makeover is successful? The easiest way is to play it in context and let your ears decide.
Using octaves on the bottom three strings can also lead to some cool ideas, but in FIGURE 4 we take things a bit further by substituting sliding 5ths.
Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci often employs this maneuver in his electric solos. Again, the change in register completely transforms the lick’s vibe.
For this last example, retune your guitar to drop D (D A D G B E) and try this legato-fueled descending crescendo in D (FIGURE 5). This is particularly effective when played aggressively and used to cap a quiet finger-picking part. This type of lick also sounds nice when used in DADGAD tuning.