Have you just learned a new guitar lick?
That’s awesome, congratulations. You have now added a new tool into your guitar playing tool box. But you are not done yet. Do you know how to use that tool in any given situation?
A man can have the best and most expensive tools the world can give, but these are virtually useless to him if he doesn’t know how to use them in his craft.
We all know the expression to »think outside the box«. Which, for so many guitar players, means to go out and learn more new stuff without actually applying what they already know and mastering it. Instead, we should also learn »master the box inside out«, as my long-time teacher would put it.
What does it mean to »master the box«?
Well, as we mentioned at the beginning, a new lick is like a tool in your guitar playing. And you should be able to use it in playing your favorite songs on guitar, improvising or songwriting. And that’s infinitely more important than learning new ‘stuff’ all the time. Who needs a Ferrari if you can’t drive it?
Let’s talk about what you can do with that one guitar lick.
Can you play it in every possible key?
Out of all suggestions in this article, this is probably the easiest one. You take the lick and modulate it into different keys just by moving your hand in a higher/lower position and practice it there. Let’s see an example of moving an A minor pentatonic lick to D minor:
You don’t have to play it in all keys, but you should definitely play the ones you use most of the time. You can rotate the keys, and pick one every day.
Can you play the lick in all possible positions?
As you know, you can find the same notes, chords or scales all over the guitar neck. Now you can also take the notes (and the phrasing) you used in the lick and play it on as many parts of your fretboard as you can think of.
That does not mean you just move around the same »shape« and use the same fingers on different frets like we did in the previous step. But you have to transform the lick to other scale positions while maintaining the same notes and staying in the same key.
Change the straight feel into triplet or swing feel
Different songs require different rhythm »feels«. And if you like blues, rock or metal, then swing or triplet feel will come up eventually.
The easiest thing to do is to convert a straight feel lick into swing. We can do that by keeping the on-beat notes in the same place and playing off-beat notes a little later. See the picture below for example. The black ‘X’-s represent on-beat notes, blue ones are off-beat notes in straight feel and red ones are off-beat notes in swing feel:
You can also transform the notes into triplets and get some interesting new licks. Triplets will also fit nicely into a swing feel.
The main idea is to be able to use the lick in any given rhythmic situation.
Use it in your own playing
Obvious, isn’t it? Well, to many guitar players it’s not. But you should spend some of your practice time and apply the lick in your improvisation or maybe compose a new guitar solo with it.
Whatever you do, remember that at first it will feel like fitting an angular shape through a round hole. Do it anyway. You may fail to make it work and sound well the first couple of times, but eventually you will get better at this as you go.
To summarize: in addition to mastering the lick in isolation, you also want to be able to use it in every possible key or rhythmic situation. You want to know how to use your musical tools. And that is exactly how good guitar players become great. Good guitarists know a lot of »stuff«, and great players know how to use and apply all of that in their own playing.
About the author
Janez Janežič is a professional guitar teacher from Novo mesto, Slovenia. If you like what he is doing and would like to learn to be better at guitar, or you know someone who would like to learn to play guitar from him in his local area, be sure to contact him.