Learn How To Steal

Weekly Newsletter #18

December 9, 2021


Today’s newsletter is about an important strategy I and many others use to “steal” from the great musicians we admire. 

Make no mistake about it, almost every lick or riff you hear can be traced back to some other musician in the past. Whether it’s an iconic Santana lick or a catchy Bob Marley riff, the fact is there are only 12 notes in music, and they’ve all been played before. 

So how do you create new ideas that express a musical thought or feeling? 

The answer to that lies in analyzing your favorite players using a three-step process. 

In order to do this we will use the opening lick from Santana’s Smooth as an example. 

1) Learn the lick. 

This might seem obvious, but when I say learn the lick, I mean really learn it. It’s not enough to just play it. In order to truly understand it you must be able to play it in any octave, in any key and starting on any finger or position. This takes a lot of work but by doing this you can begin to see how the lick fits in to scale and chord shapes you already know. 

You might learn the opening to Smooth as written above, but then by starting the lick on a different finger or the same note on a different string it forces you into an entirely different fingering and position. One that likely fits into a pentatonic scale or modal shape you already know and that is more instinctive and easy for you to visualize. 

Had you not tried to play it in a different position than where you first learned it, you never would have made that association. Now when you play that lick, you can link it visually and sonically to that pentatonic position for a reference. 

2) Analyze the lick 

This part is the one that requires the most work to get right. This step is crucial to understanding a player and how they think about playing. The three things you must take into account are: Harmony, Melody, and Rhythm. 

Starting with Rhythm, what is Santana doing with the opening lick? Well he certainly starts before the 1st beat, meaning that he plays a pickup to the first measure. Specifically, he plays an 8th note triplet on beat 3 (with the first of those triplets as a rest) and then two straight 8th notes on beat 4 and lands the target note of this phrase on beat 1 of the song. In other words, he leads into the target note by setting up a phrase before the first beat. 

He then goes on to play 8th notes throughout measure 1 until beat 4 where is reintroduces this triplet figure from the opening. Again, the first of the triplets isn’t played but the second two are. He follows this up with a full 8th note triplet figure on beat 1 of measure 2. 

This should tell you he likes to mix straight 8th notes with 8th note triplets; in particular, triplet figures with the first of three removed. This is a key piece of information you can use to help replicate the “Santana sound”. 

The next piece of analysis should be Harmony. What are the chords he is playing over? In this case he is playing over an Am for the first 2 beats, followed by an F for beat 3 &4. Then in measure 2 he plays over an E7 chord. Essentially making this a 

i-bVI-V7 chord progression. 

This is a very common progression Santana uses and likes to solo over. The way he utilizes this harmony is by including the harmonic minor scale over the E7 chord. For the first measure he simply thinks in the key of A minor. You can tell this is the case by his use of a G natural during the pickup. 

However, he then moves to an A harmonic minor scale for the second measure. This allows him to use the G# that is part of the E7 chord. The harmonic minor scale is a favorite of Santana and it’s something he uses in almost every single song he plays. 

The reason he uses it so often is because it is nearly identical to the natural minor scale, but with a raised 7th. The raised 7th fits the dominant 5 chord of the key and allows him to highlight the “dominant” sound of that chord. 

Finally we must look at the melody itself. In order to do this we want to look at the intervals he uses. 

During the pickup bar he is simply climbing up the A minor pentatonic scale which he begins on the D (the 4th of the scale). Essentially playing 4-5-7 before landing on the 1 on the first beat of the song. 

From there he moves in scale steps. A half step down to G# before going up to A, B and then C. However, you should notice how he articulates the C. He bends to it from the B giving him less of a mechanical feel and a much more vocal sound. 

Finally to end the phrase he drops down from the C to the A. What all of this should signify to you is that Santana very often thinks in small intervals and scale steps while playing melodies. 

3) Modify the original 

After doing the careful analysis of the lick it is important to be able to see the patterns, notes and shapes on the fretboard without having to play them. This part is vital because let’s face it, you don’t want to plagiarize licks, you simply want to take the inspiration from them and create your own. 

In order to accomplish this, you have to be able to play with the rhythms, melodies and harmony that your favorite player uses in a lick. When I say, “play with” I actually mean improvise. Given the limited note choice in the Santana lick, I’m sure you could come up with a variety of ways of expressing those few notes. Changing rhythms, figuring out a new chord progression over which you could play the same notes etc. 

All of these are ways in which you can “steal” the ideas from Santana without directly copying the lick itself. 

In addition, a more intensive study of other licks of his would reveal similarities and patterns within his playing that you could also learn from. 

Remember, there is no better way to get inspired and motivated to create something new than learning from other people, especially if what you learn is not instinctive to you. By carefully analyzing and recreating another player’s musical idea you instantly create something new, but with the soul inspired by the original artist. 

Don’t forget, they stole their licks from someone too; it’s only fair you return the favor! 


-Max Rich 


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