As songwriters, one of our primary goals is to discover and act on whatever will make our songs unique and recognizable. Typically, that job falls to the hook. Often, hooks are thought of as a part of the lyric that serves as the song’s main message as well as the title of the song. Or a hook might be a section of the song’s melody that people hear and remember. However, a musical or instrumental hook can also be a deeply powerful and effective way of making your song both easily recognizable and truly memorable. A musical riff or lick is a great way to set your song apart from the opening notes. We can all name songs that we can identify within the first five seconds, long before the singer has a chance to show us any of the song’s melody or lyric. The reason we can do this is simple. It’s the signature lick. In this article, I’m going to do a deep dive into the details of the signature lick so that, hopefully, you’ll be encouraged to start using them in your own songwriting process.
So what exactly is a signature lick? Generally, it’s a series of notes played by a single instrument - guitar, piano, saxophone, etc. - that sets the musical tone for the song to come. Great signature riffs don’t need to be musically complex but they do have to be unique and memorable. As a guide, you should be able to remember most of a signature lick after hearing it only a few times. Remember, you have to grab your listener with your lick right away. As a rule, one of these licks in your song is enough. Like a good lyric or melodic hook, one is plenty if placed in a few strategic positions throughout your song. If you add different licks, the risk is that the licks will compete with one another for your listener’s attention.
Writing a signature lick is an art form in itself. The inspiration for a good lick can seemingly come from out of nowhere, like great lyric or melodic hooks. However, if your song already has a melody, you do have the advantage of referencing elements of your melody as a good starting point. By simply taking your existing chorus - or even verse - melody and stretching the timing of the notes or changing a note or two, you’ll have an instrumental riff that is catchy and related to the melody but still has its own character. Trial and error can be really useful as well. Try a few things, do a rough recording and listen back to see which version of the lick seems the catchiest. As I mentioned above, it’s generally a single instrument that plays the lick and when it comes time to make a studio demo of your song, the other instruments should be sure to support the riff either by playing simple chordal arrangements behind it or, in some special instances, multiple instruments will play the lick together, which when done properly can be immensely powerful. And, speaking of studio demos, one of the many advantages of working with experienced studio musicians is that they’re attuned to looking for/creating signature riffs even if your song doesn’t have one going into the session. Often, simply asking your session guitarist or pianist to play some kind of riff or lick in your intro will result in a great sounding signature lick. I tend to consider this an added benefit of hiring professional instrumentalists. And, finally, in the studio, when it comes time to mix your song, it can really help to bring your primary instrument playing the signature lick front and center. This instrument will be essentially taking the place of the vocal each time it plays. Then, if the lead instrument plays elsewhere in the song you can always pan it back off to the side and lower the volume so it goes back to its supporting role.
I alluded to this earlier, but a great reason to include a signature lick in your song is that you can quickly and effectively set your song apart and make it memorable. While lyrical and melodic hooks are extremely important, it’s the signature lick that your listeners will hear before they hear anything else. It’s also a little more user friendly than a lyric hook, which requires a lot more attention from sometimes-distracted listeners. When someone is driving in a car or having a conversation and your song comes on, a signature lick can cut through your listener’s distractions long enough to let them know it’s your song they’re listening to. This can go a long way towards making your song memorable to a wider audience.
OK, so you’ve written a great signature lick. Where do you put it in your song for maximum effect? Well, it goes without saying that it should be in the song’s introduction. And, as a side note, a short introduction that gets right to the point with the signature lick is always a good policy. Long introductions, while musically satisfying for the songwriter, run the risk of losing the listener’s attention before you’ve even gotten to the verse. The next great place for a signature lick is after the first chorus. You’ve told a bit of your song’s story and hit your listeners with the main musical and lyrical points of your song, now remind them about the great lick you’ve got before you move into the second verse. You can take this same approach after the second chorus and, if your song has a solo, you can definitely reference the lick as a part of the solo as well. Finally, after the last chorus, in what is often referred to as the outro, you can give your listeners a final reminder by playing the lick one last time. If you’re concerned that your lick might be a little too repetitious, there is nothing wrong with changing a note or two as long as the spirit and main body of the lick remains. But, just like a good chorus lyric or melody, repetition is a powerful device for making your song both memorable and - if you’re hoping to get your song cut - learnable.
I think it’s important to mention that a signature lick isn’t a required songwriting device. It is, however, one of many tools in your writing toolbox that can set your song apart and help your listeners recognize it immediately, which is never a bad thing. For those of you who aren’t musicians, consider collaborating with someone who is or if you’re used to writing solo, you can always sing the part you have in mind to the session musicians when it’s time to record your demo. If you’ve never written a signature lick, now would be a great time to try.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA.
Cliff’s courses on songwriting and the music business are available along with a free trial membership by going to www.Lynda.com/CliffGoldmacher.
You can also download a FREE copy of Cliff’s eBook “The Songwriter’s Handbook” by going to www.EducatedSongwriter.com.