Why should we learn guitar licks?
“Isn’t it better to just improvise?”
The thing to recognise about improvising is that nobody does it in the purest sense of creating entirely original phrases spontaneously.
In reality an improvised solo is a combination of phrases (aka ‘licks’) that the performer has already picked up in the past; glued together with some improvisation.
Some guitarists may claim that they have never consciously sat down and learned and guitar licks.
That may be true, but we have all absorbed and stumbled on phrases right from when we first learned what the minor pentatonic scale was.
We learn guitar licks in different ways
Some are learned whilst noodling within a scale and stumbling on ideas we like, and some through performing other people’s solos. We also learn licks by conscious decision either by composing or transcribing phrases of our own or choosing to learn licks compiled by others.
All of these approaches are valid and contribute to our overall musical vocabulary.
If you have never made an effort to consciously learn licks, the likelihood is that your musical vocabulary has improved only very gradually over time compared to someone who has consciously developed their vocabulary.
The reason for this is that in order for a lick to become useful, you have to have played it many times. The more a lick is repeated, the more familiar it becomes. Eventually, with enough repetition the lick becomes internalised and forms a part of your everyday musical language.
At this stage, the lick is more likely to fall out from your fingers during an improvisation, with little or no conscious effort.
A demonstration of using guitar licks
The video below is part 6 of my Youtube series ‘How to Improvise on Guitar’. In this video I explain the reasons why we should learn licks and then demonstrate how you could vary a lick in a number of different ways.
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How should we practise guitar licks?
Probably most important is to practise them in a variety of keys and musical settings. If you only ever play licks in the key of A then you are reducing the chances of your licks coming out of you during an improvisation in say Eb. Licks should be practised at length and in 12 keys.
Similarly, if you only ever play the lick over the same 12-bar blues backing track in A, you are again reducing the likelihood of the lick ever making an appearance in the real world of improvising… unless of course you only ever play 12-bar blues in A!
Practise your licks in a variety of styles, grooves and tempos.
Integration of guitar licks into our playing
Another vitally important approach to practising licks is to make sure you do not practise them in isolation. When first learning a new phrase, it should be carefully played on its own. But as soon as possible it must be brought into a real world by placing it in the context of an improvisation.
Improvise a phrase that leads into the lick, perform the new lick itself, and then improvise a phrase to finish it off. This kind of ‘lick sandwich’ is a useful exercise that helps bring newly learned vocabulary into your playing.
As before, this should be repeated at length and in a variety of settings. If you can’t do this in a practice session it’s very unlikely to happen spontaneously on a gig.
Development of guitar licks
There is one further approach to learning guitar licks, which many people overlook, and this is to vary the lick itself. Only ever playing licks exactly as you learned them has a tendency to make improvisations sound a little disjointed and wooden.
Even if the licks themselves are impressive, it is unlikely that the solo will hang together as a whole if you perform a series of licks in this way. Much like nice architecture, the best solos are coherent pieces of art rather than a lumping together of disconnected ideas.
So how should we vary our licks? I would say: in almost any way that you can think of.
This could be:
- Changing the rhythm of a lick
- Repeating notes within it
- Changing the end note
- Changing a note in the middle
- Playing the lick backwards
- Introducing bends and slides
- Playing a similar lick elsewhere in the scale, etc…
… and any combination of the above.
Repetition and flexibility with guitar licks
This type of exercise can feel a bit forced to many guitarists the first time they try it – and it is. However, the more you do this, the easier it gets, the more flexible your licks become and the more skilful you become as an improviser.
With a little practice you can develop an entire solo based on a single six note phrase. This is nothing new. Classical composers have been doing this for centuries.
If you’d like to learn some jazz licks, try Bebop Licks for Guitar: A Dictionary of Melodic Ideas for Improvisation which provides example licks for virtually any jazz situation.
For blues licks try Blues Licks Encyclopaedia by Wayne Riker which contains 300 licks in the style of all the biggest names in blues.
For rock licks try Rock Licks Encyclopaedia by Tomas Cataldo. In the same format as the blues encyclopaedia, this book contains 300 licks in the style of all the rock guitar greats from Brian May to Steve Vai.
Learning licks is very worthwhile. At least as important though is developing the ability to vary licks and musical ideas in order to generate more music from them. The result is something far more organic sounding than just a series of random licks chained together. If you haven’t made a point of consciously learning licks and using them in this way, I encourage you to do so.
To use the famous language-music analogy, the greater your vocabulary and ability to tailor your speech to suit the occasion, the greater your effectiveness will be as a public speaker.
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