Maybe you recognize this feeling: you learn a lick from one of your heroes and it sounds absolutely awesome. You can't wait to use this magical musical phrase in your soloing. But whenever you try to do that, something just doesn't sound quite right. For some reason, the lick sounds out of place. It might not fit the music, or it might not make sense in the musical story you're telling.
So, what should you do with licks? How should you use them? In this article, I'll show you how learning licks can help you expand your vocabulary, understand the intricacies of what your musical heroes are playing, and become a better improviser.
A lick can be seen as a musical "stock-phrase". Let's compare it to language. And take the sentence "I am going to the bar tonight". Now, if we were first learning English, we this sentence could teach us quite a bit. We can learn a few new words, as well as pick up some grammar and sentence structure. But to learn this sentence as "one piece" isn't all that useful, because you can only apply it in a very specific circumstance: when you're going out for a drink that evening. To be able to use the sentence organically, you need to be able to change it midway through, change the beginning or swap out certain words. You might change it to "I am going to the zoo tomorrow", or "She is working at the bar tonight". Now we've used part of the sentence, and changed it to say what we want to say. This same logic applies to licks. A whole phrase or musical sentence can teach you many things, but if it can only come out in its original, unchanged form, it will be very hard to use in a musical story.
So how do we integrate a lick into our vocabulary in a way which helps us be creative? How can you learn to use and change parts in an organic way to tell your story? Here are three approaches that will help.
Say you have the sentence: "I am going to the bar tonight to see my favorite band". While you probably won't often use this entire sentence, we can chop it up and practice using its building blocks. So, we'd take the start of the sentence ("I am going to...") and think of different ways to end it such as "I am going to the opera tomorrow" or "I am going to think about it soon".
We can do the same for our lick. Start by "cutting off" the very first part. We'll call this our "target phrase". Ideally, this target phrase is about three or four notes. Make sure it's no longer than six notes, or you'll just be learning another musical "stock phrase" that's too long to be used organically. You want to cut off a single building block, not part of the building.
Take that target phrase and think of about ten different endings for the phrase. This might involve some experimentation and trial and error - that's all part of the process and will help you get a feel for what's possible. When you've thought of about ten different ways to end the target phrase, try to improvise the endings. More and more, you should feel that the target phrase becomes more natural to use, as you become more flexible and able to use it anyway you like.
Of course you can do the same with any part of the lick you've chopped up. For example, you could take the second part of the lick and think of different phrases that could lead into it. The more you chop up the lick and play around with the building blocks, the easier it will be to use them in your playing.
Another approach is to take our target phrases and start it on different chord tones. It requires a bit of music theory to explain how this works. Say you're in the key of C and have a short phrase that goes: C-E-D. That means it starts on the root note (C). You can play that same phrase and start it on the second note in the scale, which would be D-F-E. You can even make this into a sequence, where you keep going up in the scale and start on the third (E-G-F), the fourth (F-A-G), the fifth (G-B-A) and so on. By doing this, your phrase will become part of your vocabulary and no matter where you are in your story, it will always be available to you. It will help you tell your story.
Next, you can try to play along with your favorite records or backing track and use your ears to play the target phrase in a way that fits the music. You might adapt it to the harmony as the chords change, or you might change the timing to fit the groove, or find other ways to be creative with it. As an exercise, try to stick to your target phrase as long as possible, repeating and adapting it as you go. You'd rarely do this in an actual solo, but it will help your target phrase become part of your vocabulary and into a musical idea that you can use whenever you need it.
Hopefully this article has given you some insight into licks and how you can best use them. As we've seen, the power of licks is not so much to teach us entire sentences, but to chop it up into interesting phrases that we can incorporate in our own playing.
So does that mean you never play an entire lick, note for note? Hey, if you can make it work for your musical story, who am I to tell you what you can and can't do? If it sounds good, it is good. In fact, there are jazz heroes who have their favourite licks and lines that they simply love to use. Many players will also start off their solos with a certain lick, which serves as a useful jumping off point to start telling a story.
That said, I hope this article has shown you that licks are about more than putting a cool line in your muscle memory. Rather than being "copy-paste" melodies for your solos, they allow you to expand your vocabulary and tell more compelling musical stories.
Just Rijna is the founder of StringKick, a site focused on helping you learn the skills you need to explore your own taste and become the musician you want to be.
He writes in-depth guides on topics ranging from barre chord technique tips and music theory to performing better on stage and playing guitar by ear.
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