How to get the most out of your licks
by James Stelling
A big problem that a lot of players have when trying to use licks that they have learned is inserting them into their improvisations without the licks sounding incongruent or contrived compared to the rest of their playing.
A massive contributory factor to this is that most people only learn a lick one way. Usually this is with the first note of the lick starting on the beat. This restricts you to having to wait until the start of a beat to begin playing the lick. This can disrupt the flow of an improvisation and limit the possibilities of what you can do with your lick.
3 Note Lick
Here is an example of a simple blues lick from one of my previous lessons on blues licks
Each lick will have an audio example on the left.
And a 50% speed version on the right.
As you can see the beginning of each beat is accented (illustrated by the right pointing arrow). This is very important to be able to achieve as it implies the pulse of the music that you are playing to and the rhythmic denomination that you are using. If you find it hard to accent the beginning of each beat try playing it as loudly as you can and the non accented notes as quietly as you can. Once this becomes comfortable bring these levels back to a musical level where the accented note is slightly louder than the non accented notes.
Once you are comfortable with the above lick let’s start working on making it more malleable.
As you can see, the above lick uses the exact same notes as our first lick in exactly the same order. The only difference is that we are starting this variation on what was the 2nd note of our first lick. This will mean that when we accent each beat we will be accenting a different note than we were in the first lick. This gives the lick a completely different sound because the points of rhythmic emphasis have shifted and so our ears hear the entire lick differently.
You might find this hard to do initially as you will be used to hearing the lick as it was initially played. Stick with it though and practise it slowly and with a metronome. It will become much easier in no time at all. I used to practise this sort of thing to a blues backing track to ensure I was hearing the lick in a rhythmic and harmonic setting aside from the one in my head.
Quick tip: be careful not to neglect the bend now that it has moved to the 3rd of a triplet. This is a common mistake.
Once you’re comfortable with this 2nd variation let’s move on to the 3rd.
Again, this is exactly the same notes in exactly the same order. We are just starting this variation of our lick on what was the 3rd note of our first lick.
Be careful to ensure that you accent each beat so as to emphasise the difference between this variation and the previous two which will in turn help you to really hear this lick as essentially 3 different licks.
Hopefully now (or after a bit of practise) you will be able to effortlessly start this lick on either of the three notes that it’s comprised of. This will make it much more useable for you when improvising because whenever you find yourself at any given note inherent in the lick, you can integrate the lick seamlessly into your improvisation as you are comfortable starting it on any of the three notes.
So what’s next?
We are going to look at rhythmic displacement as a tool to get more mileage from our lick.
Up until now we have been playing this lick using triplets. Because it is a 3 note lick this seems to make sense but it can end up sounding a little bland or typical.
What we are going to do now is overlay this 3 note lick against a rhythmic grouping of 4 (16th notes in this instance).
Before we attempt this with our lick though we are going to try a little vocal exercise to get comfortable with this concept as it is in our head where this is most difficult. Not on our guitar.
The idea here is to tap your foot on beats 1,2,3 & 4 as you normally would and either tap or say out loud a constant 16th note pulse (1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a).
Now, we will replace “1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a” with “1231 2312 3123 123″. When you are saying this out loud make sure that you accent (stress) the number that falls on each beat. You should also be tapping your foot.
Notice that our last note is an eighth note. This is so that our pattern repeats per bar rather than carrying on into the next bar.
If you can do this vocal exercise you will be able to play the following lick (presuming you, the reader can play the guitar of course). If you can’t do the vocal exercise you won’t be able to play the lick. It’s as simple as that.
So, here’s the lick:
The lick now is exactly the same as the vocal exercise that we just did. All you need to do is replace saying “1231 2312 3123 123″ with playing the notes of the lick and you have it.
In my opinion this is a much more interesting way of playing this lick as the accent travels around the lick and gives it a cyclical effect that I think is much more interesting than playing it to an 8th note triplet pulse.
So to summarise, what we have done thus far is taken a 3 note lick and played it to a triplet pulse starting on each of the 3 notes inherent in the lick. This is called “rhythmic displacement’. We have displaced the lick by nudging it one triplet to the left.
We then took that 3 note lick and played it to a 16th note pulse. This creates a polyrhythmic effect of 3 over 4. A note grouping of 3 over a rhythmic grouping of 4.
4 Note Lick
What we will now do is the reverse of this: Take a 4 note lick and play it to a 16th note pulse, displacing it one note to the left each time so that we can start on each of the notes inherent in the lick.
We will then take that 4 note lick and play it to rhythmic grouping of 3 (8th note triplets) to create another polyrhythmic lick which in my opinion makes it sound way more interesting.
As before, be sure to accent each beat of the bar and tap your foot whilst practising. This is very important.
Here is the 4 note lick and its displaced variants:
As you can see, this is the same lick but each time we are simply starting on (and accenting) a different note. Be sure to practise these slowly and to a metronome (and tapping your foot) until each variant is as comfortable as the next.
Here is this lick played to triplets to create a polyrhythmic lick:
As a concept this isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be in guitar education, be that in music schools, online or in magazines etc. It is a great way to make your licks as malleable as possible and in so doing you are able to get much more out of them and insert them into your playing in a more seamless fashion.
Remember to practise everything slowly whilst remaining constantly aware of (and accenting) each beat, preferably using a metronome and tapping your foot. Once you are confident enough try using these ideas in your improvising.
Do this with all of your repetitious licks. You’ll get a lot more out of them.
I hope you've enjoyed this lesson and found it helpful.
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All the best, James.