What is a lick? And How Do I Use It?
Updated: Apr 14
Not sure what a lick is or if you should be using them? Read on or watch the video below to learn what constitutes a lick, why they are useful, and how to avoid lick traps.
When I was first learning guitar, I was told that learning licks was a waste of time. “Just learn scales,'' they said.
They were wrong.
I do understand the anti-lick arguments. If you don’t use them correctly, your solos can sound like a boring lick recital full of uninteresting clichés. But there is a ton of value in learning licks.
First, let me explain what constitutes a lick. A lick is a short phrase of music. It has a start, a middle, and an end. If you were to sing the lick with lyrics, it would end on a period, comma, or some other pausing punctuation.
Second, what’s the point of learning a lick?
They can help you figure out how scales are used to create a solo. Playing a lick, to me, is like playing a scale out of order with expressive and surprising elements. So it takes you away from scales so you can play something interesting over chords. Essentially, it makes what you are playing more musical and less like a mundane exercise.
It can help you develop techniques. For example, if you aren’t good at bending with your pinky, you can find a lick that forces you to do so. Or if you have a hard time with hammer-ons, find a lick full of them and work at it until you can do it with ease.
They can help you come up with ideas. Scales are great to learn, but they are like memorizing a list. Licks are like memorizing your favorite lines of poetry, or your favorite lines from a movie. Sometimes you’ll recite them verbatim, other times you’ll use their essence to paraphrase the idea behind them.
The downside to learning licks is that you may end up simply reciting them note-for-note in order to sound impressive. However, it can kill your solos. It would be like making a movie by placing all your favorite scenes from other movies together. It may end up kinda cool, but it’s not you. You are simply showing that you’ve done your homework, but you aren’t necessarily making your own music yet.
Here’s what you’ll want to do to avoid lick-traps:
Think of them as scales. You wouldn’t play a scale up and down and call it a solo. You’d add to it, maybe only use a handful of notes, maybe add some chromatic notes, things like that. So take a lick you like, and use it as a source of ideas.
Write your own licks. Find a chord progression you like and write down how you may want to solo over it. To start, find a lick you like, and imitate it. Why do you like it? Keep those elements and transform it into something new.
Start soloing with a background track. Start with simple licks, and then as you gain confidence add to it. Change the rhythms, the phrasing, switch octaves.
Then learn the lick in different keys and try playing them over different chords. This will help you gain a stronger understanding of music theory and how it works on the fretboard.
So, you may be asking: “Where do I find licks to learn?” Well, there are a lot of books that are just full of licks, including Pentatonic Master and Major Scale Master. So a quick Google or Amazon search will help you find them. But the best place to learn licks is to take your favorite sections from a guitar solo and learn them. Just pick out a phrase or two and have fun with it. Also, note the chord or chords being used so you can then figure out how you may want to apply that lick to your own playing.