A phrase I commonly use with students is: “Don’t steal the lick, steal the idea”. Just like the saying about teaching a man to fish, if you steal a lick you have one new lick, but if you steal and idea you can generate dozens of licks from that.
To expand your mind into this concept, let’s use the example of the “one drop”. A term I’ve heard in reggae and ska, “one drop” refers to a bassline that doesn’t play the downbeat. A classic example of the “one drop” is presented in Example 1 – Sting’s Bass part on Roxanne:
Very simple (notice he just plays the root note of each chord) yet very effective. With the guitar chunking out staccato quarter notes and the drums playing just high hat and kick, this bass part is like a punch in the chest, and the syncopation makes it more so. (I heard an interview with Andy Summers who said that Sting originally conceived of the song as a bossa nova, and it was actually Stewart Copeland who came up with the arrangement and bassline)… Just two notes, coming in on the “and of one” and then landing on the “two”, implying the backbeat. It’s as if since the guitar is rhythmically filling the role of the bass, the bass is taking the role of the snare drum. It’s also hip that for the final chord the whole band anticipates it, creating a contrast to the delayed bass notes that make up the rest of the line.
The second example is about as far away from reggae as you can get: “Sgt. Baker” from Les Claypool and Primus.
Like the other two, this one also accents the “two”, but Claypool also comes down hard on “three”. In fact, Claypool plays every strong beat except the “one”. Another wonderful aspect of this line is that it outlines a B7 chord, but doesn’t accent the root. He blasts through the root (on the “a of one”, one of the weakest points in the measure) on the way to accenting the third. So not only is he de-emphasizing the “one” rhythmically, but also harmonically.
The final example is a song of mine that I’m going to be recording with Coincidence Machine (you can hear the demo at www.JimiDurso.com, it’s called “No One There”).
Like the Sting line, it’s fairly primitive technically and melodically. Since the groove is so heavy, and the drums and guitar so downbeat oriented, using a “one drop” approach not only provides more syncopation, but also gives the bass more of a presence in the riff. Rather than doubling the guitar (which is perfectly appropriate in some contexts) having the bass play in the space left by the guitar makes its function more crucial to the sound of the riff… Sort of a call-and-response kind of thing.
So try the “one drop” in any music you’re currently playing, or write some songs that incorporate it. Or, better yet, take any bass line you really dig and tease out an idea that’s behind it, and make up some lines off of that. By stealing from the riffs that grab your ear, you’ll be delving more into your own musical personality and thus creating your own voice.