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Marc Ribot’s Inside-Out Licks

Marc Ribot’s Inside-Out Licks
Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Dig into the style of a bona fide downtown-jazz legend who can meld rock, blues, and Cuban music without ever breaking a sweat.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how to incorporate “outside” notes in your solos.
• Learn about Ribot’s deft use of dissonance.
• Create melodic phrases based around intervallic patterns. Click here to download a\t\t\t\t\t\t\tprintable PDF of this lesson's notation.

It’s a common trope to say that a masterful musician has an instantly recognizable sound. This easily applies to Marc Ribot, but his playing goes a step further and insists on being recognized. Often using a spiky tone and playing with a feel that, no matter how laid back the musical scenario might be, sounds as though it could erupt at any moment, Ribot has been keeping listeners on the edge of their figurative seats since he began his recording career in the 1980s, cementing his reputation as an improvisational iconoclast.

While many great players strive to be musical chameleons who can shape-shift into any situation, Ribot puts his signature spin on any group he plays with and manages to always elevate the music. Whether he’s working as a sideman in a straight-ahead jazz or pop setting–as he’s done with Elvis Costello and Robert Plant/Alison Krauss–or operating at the extreme ends of experimentalism (see his extensive work as a leader or with John Zorn), Ribot plays with an uncompromising musical vocabulary that somehow doesn’t change much from one setting to another, and yet he seems to always play exactly the right notes to push a performance to the next level.

In this lesson, we’re going to check out how Ribot defies common musical expectations and analyze some licks taken from his extensive discography in which he pulled listeners outside of a song’s tonality with ultimate originality, a move that is one of the core tenets of his style.

Ex. 1 is based on a lick Ribot plays with his band Ceramic Dog on their version of the Doors’ “Break on Through” from their 2008 debut record, Party Intellectuals. Their version is frenetic, threatening to run off the rails at any moment, and Ribot’s solo is no different. He begins by establishing a tonality over the song’s E minor groove with long-tone bends from an E minor pentatonic scale (E–G–A–B–D) in the first eight measures of this lick, and follows it with a repetitive figure that uses just the right notes from outside the key (Eb, Ab, and F) to really push the envelope and get a listener’s attention.

Click here for Ex. 1

Ex. 2 is based on something Ribot plays later in the song. The first phrase (up through the first half of measure eight) is a straight blues-rock pentatonic lick. The second phrase starts with a few chromatic notes and, while the passage all takes place in E Dorian (E–F#–G–A–B–C#–D), he relies mostly on a B minor pentatonic scale (B–D–E–F#–A) pattern to make his way through the lick.

Click here for Ex. 2

Ribot made his mark on Cuban music over the course of two records with his band Los Cubanos Postizos. In Ex. 3, we have a lick based on the opening of the guitar solo in the song “El Gaucho Rojo,” from the band’s 2000 record, Muy Divertido! This lick opens with an ascending sequence in E harmonic minor (E–F#–G–A–B–C–D#), which connects to the Em7 chord and bass ostinato. Ribot then plays a series of descending augmented triads that build tension against that chord before resolving to the Am7 via a series of chromatic notes. This outside tonality of the augmented chords creates drama and makes this lick feel exhilarating in the context of a groove and chord progression that is quite “inside.”

Click here for Ex. 3

On Ceramic Dog’s “Bread and Roses” from 2013’s Your Turn, Ribot opens his solo up with an assertively rocking B minor pentatonic riff and follows the root notes of the descending chord progression, much like we see in Ex. 4. But the second half of the lick opens up the tonality as Ribot plays the atonal pattern in measure 3, which leads to a series of whole-step and minor-third bends over the F# triad, outlining a B minor triad, creating tension against the F# as they ascend toward an expected climax and then crash into an open 1st string.

Click here for Ex. 4

Ex. 5 is based on a lick that Ribot plays near the end of his solo on the jazz standard, “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” which he released in 1999 on his album, Yo! I Killed Your God. Ribot’s take on the song blurs the line between jazz, punk, and surf music. In this lick, he begins like in other examples by playing inside the tonality of the chord progression. But his line in the second phrase really explodes as he incorporates some outside tones before running down a geometric pattern on the neck that creates dissonance and a feeling of falling apart. He repeats this idea in the last four measures of the lick.

Click here for Ex. 5

It’s a common move of Ribot’s to use simple fingering shapes, or geometric patterns, to move across the neck and bend the tonality of a solo. In Ex. 6, we see the pattern from the previous example as well as another that he uses in Ex. 7, which is based on a lick from Elvis Costello’s cover of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song, “Strange,” which appears on 1995’s Kojack Variety. This lick begins with some rock and roll double-stops before Ribot tilts it toward chromaticism and takes the tonality outside.

Click here for Ex. 6

Click here for Ex. 7

As you can see (and hear), Ribot’s style is influenced just as much by rock giants as bebop greats. Combine that with his love for world music and a raw, biting tone and it makes an unmistakable sound. I’d highly encourage you to dig deep into Ribot’s discography and see what grabs your ear.