Licks, Licks, Licks!

Licks, licks licks!


What’s the deal with learning other people’s guitar licks? Can that actually benefit you as a player?

Well, the answer is…yes, but only if you follow certain guidelines.


The Formation of Our Vocabulary and Style

As we begin to grow as lead guitar players it’s only natural to learn from our heroes and try to play their songs, solos and licks. This process can be a very good thing as it builds our technique and more importantly starts to form our musical vocabulary. In fact, if all you did was learn other people’s licks you’d be exposed to a massive amount of ideas that could only help your own playing, right?


Diminishing Returns

Ah, this is where the benefits of learning other players licks starts to break down. You see, when you are first learning to play you are like a sponge, and everything seems new and fresh. Everything is a learning experience and poses some sort of challenge. You can’t help but improve. But at a certain point learning more stuff almost becomes a hindrance to your playing, it’s information overload and the internet keeps feeding this concept of watching youtube videos to improve, improve, improve…


The problem is that once you learn new vocabulary—licks, techniques, concepts—it all becomes useless unless you learn how to apply it to your own playing. Most people forget the stuff they learn and keep searching for new stuff to make them feel like they are progressing. But it’s a trap. You’ll soon realize that although learning your favorite players solos was fun and challenging, you can’t really use any of that in your own playing without playing their solo…someone else’s solo!


A Guaranteed Way To Get Great Results

However, like I stated at the beginning, learning licks can be a very good thing for your playing—but we need to change how we think about learning something new, before we jump in head first. If you follow the guidelines below and ask yourself some smart questions you will get amazing results and will to start to develop your own style as well as a huge vocabulary of your own ideas you can draw from at any time. It will take work but it’s fun!


5 Questions To Ask Yourself 

  1. Do I even like this lick? I think it’s important to really like something before putting in the time to learn it. If you are enthusiastic about something it becomes fun and the time flies by. You are also more likely to use something you like in your own playing because you’ll remember it. On the other hand if you aren’t inspired by an idea you won’t have any enthusiasm and your results will be lackluster, and why would you want to use something in your own playing you don’t even enjoy. My advice: if you don’t like a lick, skip it and find one you do. 
  2. Why do I want to learn this lick? It’s good to try and pinpoint why you think learning some is worth your time. Is there a melodic idea in the lick you like? A technical challenge? Will learning this be fun? Is this lick in the style of my favorite kind of playing, or is it interesting because it’s something different? There’s no right or wrong answer here, if you can think of a reason…any reason…to learn something, that’s good enough. But if you can’t think of any reason to learn it that might be a sign to…you guessed it…skip it.
  3. How can I make this lick my own? This might be the most important question of all. How does one make a lick their own? Here’s where creative thinking comes into play. Look at all the elements that make up the lick—the notes, the rhythms being used, the nuances of style and phrasing, the vibrato, the techniques being used—and then change something! Twist the lick around, change some notes, play it backwards, use different rhythms, add your own nuances…you get the idea. Changing licks to suit your own style and preferences as a player is how you start to develop your own style. The things you change will be different then those someone else would play. 
  4. How many variations of this lick can I come up with? Let’s say you’ve just learned a lick you think is awesome. You don’t really want to change it much because it’s so cool as is. But how many variations of the same lick can you come up with. Start with the ending of the lick—how many different endings can you come up with? Think about this: If you’ve got one lick you really like and you come up with 9 other variations of the same basic idea you now have 10 licks you can play, and none are exactly the same. If you are learning licks from a guitar course like mine for example, and you find 8 licks that blow your socks off, then you create 5 variations of each of those yourself and now you’ve got 40 licks to play with. Awesome, right? Most players just learn what’s on the page. Let’s go beyond that.
  5. How can I apply this lick to my own playing right now? This is where it helps to have a system you can quickly go to—a jam track, a jam buddy, recording your own solos—and practice applying the lick in the context of music. You need to practice applying something before you can actually apply it to your own playing effortlessly. It doesn’t happen automatically.

I’ve struggled with all of these learning issues in my own playing at one time or another. And I’ve learned what I think are invaluable lessons along the way. I love to pass those “secrets” on to my students and friends as often as I can in ways that are truly helpful. That’s why I create free videos and blogs, guitar courses and lesson packs!