Motifs: what they are & how to use them


If you want to construct more interesting and varied blues guitar solos, I would strongly recommend using a motif in your improvisations.

As I will explain in much more detail throughout this article, using motifs can help give structure to your guitar solos. They can also help you to get more mileage from your musical vocabulary. In turn this will allow you to solo and improvise for longer, without running out of ideas or repeating your same ‘go-to’ licks.

So if you struggle to improvise for any length of time because you run out of ideas, or if you find it difficult to ‘construct’ a guitar solo so that it sounds like more than a series of licks played one after another, using a motif is going to help push your playing to the next level.

With that in mind then, let’s get into it! Here is everything you need to know about motifs and how you can use them in your blues guitar playing:

What is a motif?

Before we dive in and look at how and why you should use motifs in your blues guitar solos, I think it is first worth establishing exactly what a motif is in a musical context.

A motif – or motive as it is sometimes called – is a short musical idea that is repeated throughout a piece of music. Through its repetition, the motif becomes a distinctive and recognisable part of the piece.

The term is used much more frequently in Western classical music, where motifs are quite common. There are many famous examples of motifs in Western classical music, some of which are linked below. However arguably the most famous and instantly recognisable motif of all is that which is used in Beethoven’s Symphony No.5.

The piece famously starts out with a 4 note phrase which is then repeated throughout the symphony. When it repeats however, there is often some change to the initial idea. The motif develops and alters. And in this way the symphony tells a story and takes you on a journey, whilst never straying too far away from its opening idea.

Even if you do not like classical music, I would recommend listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in full. Listen out for the motif.

Try and work out how it is established and how it develops throughout the piece. This will go a long way to helping you understand what a motif is in this context, and how it functions within a piece of music.

Examples of musical motifs

Beethoven’s No.5 symphony is just one example of a musical motif. However there are a wide range of pieces in Western classical music that use motifs. Some further examples include:

If you have the time and inclination, listen to these pieces and try to identify the motifs. Understand how they are established and how the composers develop and change them throughout.

If you don’t like Western classical music, then you can also hear motifs used in a variety of famous film scores. The soundtrack of films like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Lord Of The Rings’ all make use of motifs.

And if you are familiar with these films, you might be able to recall some of the central musical ideas which repeat throughout.

In fact, film composers often create motifs for particular characters. For example, there might be a small section of music that is played every time Darth Vader appears, or when just the Hobbits are on the screen etc.

Not only does this help to connect the soundtrack and the film together in a meaningful way – it also conjures up particular emotions in the viewers when certain characters appear.

Creating a motif in your solos

At this stage you might understandably be wondering how any of this relates to the blues. So to help join up the dots, let’s return to our definition of a motif, which is as follows:

A motif – or motive as it is sometimes called – is a short musical idea that is repeated throughout a piece of music. Through its repetition, the motif becomes a distinctive and recognisable part of the piece.

As you can hopefully see, there is nothing about a motif which is particular to Western classical music. And so we can take the concept of a motif and simply apply it in a blues context. Specifically, we can use it when soloing and improvising.

This means that instead of having to create a wide range of different ideas in your solos, you can create a single idea or motif – which you can then build upon and develop throughout your solo.

Let’s look at this in more detail:

The example I use in this video is just one idea. You can create a motif out of almost anything. So when you are thinking about applying this idea in your own solos, don’t get too worked up about what you should use as your motif. Take something simple which is familiar and comfortable and then develop it from there.

It is also worth noting that you can create a motif in any key and using any scale. So if you feel comfortable navigating around your guitar, you can try this idea out all over the fretboard!

The benefits of using a motif

As I hope you can see from the video, there are a number of significant benefits of using a motif in your blues guitar solos.

From your point of view as a player and improviser, the most notable of these are as follows:

1.) You don’t have to keep thinking of new licks all of the time that you are improvising. A motif provides you with a central idea that you can return to and develop. Psychologically this makes improvising easier.

You don’t have to worry about which lick you are going to pull out of your hat next; instead you can just think about how to develop a single simple idea.

2.) You can build your solo nice and slowly. To keep things brief, in the video above I just run through one or two variations of my motif. But you can really extend this idea should you so wish. You can build your motif slowly and change and develop it at a very relaxed pace.

This increases the time that you are able to solo without repeating yourself or running out of ideas. So if you find it challenging to solo for any length of time without your playing sounding repetitive, using a motif can really help here.

3.) The motif acts like the musical equivalent of a security blanket. When you first start to improvise, it is easy to worry about either ‘getting lost’ on the fretboard or of running out of ideas. Whilst this is normal and a necessary part of the learning journey, it can create a somewhat vicious cycle.

You start to worry, which causes you to stiffen up. In turn this makes it much more likely that you will stumble and potentially make mistakes.

Using a motif can help to reduce these fears and worries. You can swim out deep into the improvisational ocean, and if you start to get lost or worry that you are losing sight of land, you can quite easily return to the safety of the musical idea with which you started.

4.) Lastly and significantly, I think that using a motif puts you into a musical mindset that is conducive to creating interesting blues guitar solos. You quickly move away from simply ‘showing off’ the licks that you know. Instead you move towards creating solos with structure.

Your solos will hang together and tell a story, rather than just being a series of licks stacked together. And in my opinion, this is what effective blues guitar soloing is all about.

Examples of motifs in the blues

The benefits of using motifs in your blues guitar solos extend to the listener as well.

Firstly, they are memorable. Just think about Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. Even if you have no interest in Western classical music, I imagine that you can recognise and easily recall that motif. And so if you want your guitar solos to be memorable, using a motif can help you here.

Additionally, your listener is no longer being bombarded with a series of disconnected licks. Instead they are hearing a central theme in your solo which you are developing and altering. This gives them the sensation of being guided down a path.

The path fundamentally remains the same, yet the scenery and the experience both change. There is enough change for it to be interesting; yet no so much change that it is unsettling.

It is for this reason that a wide range of different blues and blues rock guitarists use motifs in their guitar playing. Some notable examples of blues and blues rock songs which make use of this concept are as follows:

Listen to each of these songs and see if you can find the motif. In some of these songs it is quite obvious. In ‘Still Got The Blues‘ for example, there is a central lead section which opens the song. Gary Moore then repeats and varies this throughout, before moving away from it more significantly later in the piece.

In other songs however, the motif is more challenging to spot. It might be more subtle, or the alterations to the motif might be more significant. Equally, you might find that there are multiple different motifs which appear at different points in the song.

3 Tips for creating your own motifs

To help you get started using motifs in your own playing, there are 3 key ideas I would recommend keeping in mind. These are as follows:

1.) Keep it simple. The motif in Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 contains just 4 notes. Yet it is one of the most instantly recognisable motifs of all time. Don’t overcomplicate your ideas. Keep things simple and add layers of complexity as you go. In fact, I would recommend taking a phrase or idea that you already use in your playing. This will help you to feel comfortable and make it easy for you to adapt and develop that initial motif.

2.) Take your time. It is quite likely that you will feel self-conscious when you first start to implement motifs in your playing. You will feel like your solos are boring and that you are just repeating the same idea. And yet whilst you might feel this way, you need to fight the urge to move away from the motif and onto a new phrase.

You can’t really create and establish a motif without using repetition. If you don’t hang around on your initial idea for a decent amount of time, you will not give the listener a chance to recognise that what you are playing is a motif. Instead it will just sound like a lick.

3.) Sweat the small stuff. As you hopefully saw in the video and can tell from the various musical examples linked throughout, small changes to your central idea can have a big impact on the way that it sounds. Adjusting a single note, or slightly altering your phrasing can really change the feeling of the motif. So drill down into the nuances of your playing. Focus on your dynamics, timing and the techniques that you are using to extract as much mileage as you can out of your initial idea.

Closing thoughts

Well there we have it – everything you need to know about motifs and how you can use them to construct more effective blues guitar solos.

If you struggle to improvise for any length of time, or if you feel that your solos lack structure, then implement this idea in your playing and see how you get on. In my experience – both personally and with the students that I teach – it is one of the best ways to quickly and noticeably improve the quality of your improvisations.

Good luck! Let me know how you get on – and if you have any questions at all, please do send them over. Just pop them in the comments below or send me an email on I am always around and happy to help 😁

References & Images

Hello Music Theory, Lumen Learning, About Music Theory, Music Composition For Dummies, Wikipedia, My Music Theory, String Joy, YouTube


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