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November 16, 2009

Is learning guitar licks bad?

How to really learn from guitar licks

I sometimes end up in discussions with guitar players about playing and learning how to play, and I have noticed that some players who have been playing for a while often frown on learning guitar licks or copying other players ideas (often referred to as transcribing, especially when the notes are written down). Their attitude is that learning guitar licks is a bad thing. I hear statements lie, "You only memorize something somebody else came up with, which is bad. You won't ever remember it anyway. Come up with your own ideas instead, develop your own voice, etc." So what's the truth here really, are they right by saying these things?

Well, I will tell you my view. Learning licks is NOT bad. In fact, learning by copying other is one of the BEST things you can spend time on as a musician! Yes, I stand by that statement. I think it is very simple. Humans learn by copying, and we do it in many areas of life. As small kids, we learn by copying our parents; we learn to write by copying the instructions from our teacher, etc. It is in our nature to observe and imitate. The same goes for music, we learn from what we hear, and I do find this perfectly natural.

So will copying other musicians make you sound like a copy cat with no style of your own? NO! It won't, not if you get your inspiration from several sources! The reason is because if you spend time learning from a variety of players, you will inevitable develop your own style in the end. You may learn a few ideas about bending from Jimi Hendrix, some ideas about vibrato from B.B King, a few cool octave tricks from Wes Montgomery, etc. In a way, you are take pieces from your musical environment, building a " better you", so to speak, if that makes sense.

Now, what you need to realize is that you should analyze what your transcribe or learn from others, in order to really take advantage of it. Find out what makes that guitar lick work. Is it that major 3rd over that dominant 7 chord that makes it sound cool, or perhaps it is that triplet that makes it groove? Or maybe it's the whammy bar or bending technique, etc - you get the idea. After that, do practice this lick in several different ways - at a different tempo, over a different chord or chord change, with a different guitar tone, in a different style of music, etc. Get to really "know" this lick, and twist and change it until you have found "your own" way of playing it. This is really important and valuable, I cannot stress this enough.

If you don't take the time to learn from licks and ideas, you are mostly wasting your time. If I sit down and transcribe a musical idea or lick that I don't understand or perhaps have trouble being able to play well because it's technically too difficult, it's a terrible use of my time. Instead, I transcribe little things all the time, and I learn from them. I may only be focusing on 2 notes by Stevie Ray Vaughan or David Gilmour, but I take my time time to figure out why those 2 notes sound so good, and how can take those 2 notes and put them into a kind of guitar lick or phrase that I like to play. In other words, I'm copying a little here and there from others, but the end result is another cool line with has "my sound" all over it. If you do the same and continue this same process, you will end up with many good ideas and a large vocabulary of licks and phrases. The only problem is that you will need take the time to study other musician's solos and phrases as I've mentioned, which can be difficult and time consuming, of course. But you know what? There is NO BETTER WAY TO LEARN! That's how most of the jazz giants like Charlie Parker and others learned - they jammed and listened to each other and took a bit here and a bit there and came up with amazingly creative material in the end.

If you have never sat down and really learned by listening to other musician's recordings, it can be hard to know where to start. If you have a guitar teacher, I would recommend you ask your teacher to help you with this. Perhaps take a simple blues tune and find a couple of good sounding licks and ask your teacher to help you transcribe them. Ask also with help in analyzing and understanding the lick, which could mean you talk about intervals or chord notes, etc. You try to figure out why it sounds good, and learn from that. Ear training is also an important part here, because you need to be able to hear a note, and find it on your guitar.

If you don't have a teacher, find a tune with some guitar parts that are simple enough for you to handle. Let's say it's a pentatonic sounding lick that has 4 notes. Slow down the lick by using Quicktime or Windows Media player and listen for one note at a time. As soon as you hear the note, pause playback and immediately try to find that note on the fretboard. Play the lick again, now this time listen for the second note and find it on your fretboard. Then play it yet again, and play along with your guitar. Did it sound right? If so, continue with the 3rd note, and so on. If it didn't sound right, go back and play it over and over again as you play along with it. Which note is wrong? How much off is it? Are you playing it wrong in time, etc. This is a process of repeating and repeating until you get it right. It can be a lot of repeating before you get it right... be this is great practice. Be patient, and take your time. It's going to be worth your time.

Once you get it down so you can play along with it, you need to understand it. What's making it sound good - is it perhaps very melodic, has a certain rhythmic figure, or perhaps certain intervals such as the minor and the major third are repeated several times? Whatever it is, make a mental (or written) note, and now try to play this lick over a backing track of some kind. Maybe you find you want to add or remove a few notes to better suit you - that's great! Tweak it, understand it, own it. Make it part of you and put it in your musical toolbox, so that you can pick up some version of this lick at any time you want.

I hope this made some kind of sense to you. If you are a complete beginner, then this may be a bit over your head. However, if you are an intermediate guitarist who may be thinking your soloing all sounds the same and you feel stuck in a rut, then you NEED to start transcribing other players. I say it again - it's the best way to learn and improve. You are in fact teaching yourself, at your own pace, and you will probably be much more motivated than if your teacher gave you some homework that didn't inspire you, or those DVDs you bought just aren't interesting enough.

Now, run off and transcribe something and come back and tell me what you learned!

Rock on, brother.

By Robert Renman - www.dolphinstreet.com


Posted by Robert Renman on November 16, 2009

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