A guitar lick has to be the most misunderstood of all the guitar terminologies.
It is often confused with a guitar riff, which is different but equally related and important for a memorable guitar solo.
Shortly described, a guitar lick is an incomplete musical phrase or stock pattern that, though doesn’t have a “meaning” in itself, is an integral part of a complete musical phrase, with each lick serving as a building block for the overall structure.
In this article, I will be shedding light on all the basics you need to know about guitar licks, how you can use them in improvisation, and some of the best guitar licks you can use in your guitar solos
So… what are guitar licks?
To understand this, let’s start with the idea of music being a complete language with feelings and emotions because… well, it is one in a way.
In that sense, let’s call a complete melody a phrase or a poetic sentence.
A sentence comprises different words, which, when ordered in a specific way, convey meaning or express a feeling to the listener.
However, as soon as we tamper with the structural arrangement of those words, the sentence becomes meaningless.
Though the words individually hold their meaning, they don’t actually convey a message.
Licks are just like those words. They are incomplete melodic snippets that are only meaningful when combined in a specific pattern.
In other words, licks are the words, the building blocks if you will, that make up a musical phrase.
Anyone can use any licks in studio recordings or improvisation without fear of copy strike, as long as its context or melody doesn’t strike with other musical creations.
Now solely concentrating on the lick itself, it can be anything, from something as simple as one note or two notes or a complete passage.
It is combined with other licks or passages to make a complete song.
Here are ten licks that should be easy to play for beginners, to give you a better idea:
It should be noted that a lick is not as memorable as a riff; however, it still has the property of standing out in a certain musical composition.
That’s especially true when discussing solos, accompaniment, and melodic lines.
It’s also worth mentioning that the word ‘lick’ is also interchangeably used with a ‘phrase,’ with many musicians basing it upon the common perception that ‘lick’ is a slang term for ‘phrase.’
However, there’s a pinch of doubt there since many musicians disagree with that, saying that a ‘lick’ is two or three notes played simultaneously, while a phrase consists (usually) of many licks.
Some even say that a ‘phrase’ can even be a lick repeated several times.
I concede with this idea; it makes perfect sense, as long as these repetitions end on a conclusive note, or at least with a cadence.
Guitar licks have been popularly used in music genres such as country blues, jazz, and rock music as stock patterns, especially during improvised solos to make the performance stand out.
Thus, it would be safe to conclude that playing perfect licks and having a great vocabulary is a fine testament to a guitar player’s command of the instrument and his experience as a seasoned musician.
Now that we know a thing or two about licks let’s talk about why guitarists love to play licks.
Why do guitarists play licks?
When guitarists repeatedly play the same melodies in their solos, it gets repetitive and, hence, boring.
That said, they are often tempted to try something new each time they go on the stage, and when the crowd is electrifying, they often pull it off.
You often see this as altered solos, with sudden flares, widened sounds, or something softer, compared to the original solo.
Most of the licks played in live performances are improvised. However, they are seldom new since licks are always based on stock patterns.
The musicians use these stock patterns in different variations in each song to corroborate the overall melody.
For example, a guitarist may add a note or two extra to the original lick, make its length short or long, or maybe alter a part to give it a new touch per the song it is used in.
Licks add that much-needed twist to the solo so as not to make it boring.
Another reason musicians use licks in their solos is to put some personality into their performance.
It adds an emotional touch to the melodies that directly express a musician’s feelings at a particular moment.
It’s more of an instrumental way of expression. They make their guitar “sing” on their behalf, as they say!
Many guitarists have used the technique in their solos for most of their careers.
Those include many prominent names, from the Rock n’ Blues legend Jimi Hendrix to the heavy metal master Eddie Van Halen, Blues legend B.B King, and of course, the legendary rock guitarist Jimmy Page.
Learn more about the 10 most epic guitarists ever to have graced a stage
How to use licks in improvisation
If you have been playing guitar for quite a while, you might already know how tricky it is to get improvisation right.
Those quick transitions, spontaneous creations, and sudden variations are just too much for an amateur, while a true sign of guitar mastery when done correctly.
Anyways, it’s difficult, to say the least, but not impossible.
So if you have been struggling to fit licks in your improvisation naturally, the following are some really cool tips that I would like to share with you.
Music as a language
Before we get into the subject’s complexities, I would like to take my initial analogy of the article, e.g., “music is a language,” as it would make my points much easier.
That said, let me ask you something! What do we do when we want to learn a new language?
We learn words, right? After learning them, we try to make sentences, and then we move towards learning slang to make our speaking skills more fluent.
Once that’s achieved, we make the language our own, with its words as part of our vocabulary, and use those words in many different contexts to fit different scenarios.
If you see, the use of licks in improvisation is the same. After all, it’s all about borrowing licks from many different musicians and using them in our solos.
Thus, applying the same concept here, the first thing towards any great improvisation is to learn a lot of different licks first and then memorize and master them so that they become a part of your vocabulary.
Once that’s achieved, it’s time to make them your own, play with them as you like, and make many different variations of them as you see fit.
An excellent place to start the lick on a different beat, alter the tempos and meters, and other such adjustments… you get the idea!
This will give you true command over those specific licks and allow you to adjust them in just about any solo through different alterations and adjustments.
But that’s just the first and most essential part.
The “question-answer” approach
The next and real challenge that comes afterward is to incorporate those licks in your solos in a natural way.
And that’s the hardest part. As I said, there’s very little time to think.
Luckily, there’s a successfully proven approach you can follow to tackle this. However, a little tricky.
It is called the “question-answer” approach.
In this method, you use the lick as a question and the phrase or riff that follows as an answer. In other words, you have to trust your instincts here.
As you perform the lick, think about the phrase that is about to follow it. Does it sound in coherence with the lick to continue a smooth progression?
Or whether the lick that follows a specific phrase is natural? If not, don’t be afraid to experiment, or in other words, improvise. It will make your guitar licks sound much better.
Yes, this will take a lot of practice before you can pull off the feat on a live solo performance, but it is also the most effective one.
Thousands of guitar solos have successfully used this technique and given us some flabbergasting performances.
Remember, practice makes perfect, and consistency is the key, whether it’s guitar playing or anything else!
There you go! Now you know every basic thing about guitar licks, why guitarists love them, and how you can incorporate different licks in improvisations.
However, keep in mind that it’s going to get a lot of practice before you gather up enough vocabulary and be able to do great improvisations.
In other words, patience and eagerness are key.
I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.
Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:Subscribe