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The Woodshed: Getting your riffs in a row

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JJ Rocks Article # 158:
From St. Croix Music Magazine, Issue # 32 May, 2009
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Last week I asked a student of mine to take a solo over some simple blues changes. And after previously showing him a good handful of licks to use he just couldnt come up with anything to play. This did not make my day. In fact I felt like I wasted my time when I thought back to the many lessons on improvisation that I invested into this student. But then I had to think of a good reason (not including laziness) that this was happening. The answer was that he was not organizing his riffs so he could remember them.

Riffs are not just logs floating down a river of thought to only be recognized as they pass by your ears. They have to be collected and organized in a way that is easily accessible upon demand. This means putting them in an orderly fashion by simply numbering them. This does not mean that you will wind up having to think of numbers ever time you play a phrase, but it helps when you are first learning them. By numbering each lick you can make a note on your list where you have to practice one more than another. Also, it will give you a sense of accomplishment when you can see just how many licks you know.

Now this is very important! Do not just move your fingers through sections of scales and call them riffs. As the great Joe Pass once said if you cant repeat a line then its not coming from your heart, and its not your own music. Its just coming from your fingers. You must focus on lines that are musical and tasteful. Scale segments are often passed onto the listener as cool riffs, but the average listener is not fulfilling your dreams or paying your bills. And if a real gig came up where you are being judged by true musicians, your scale patterns just might wind up being directions to the nearest exit.

  
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