Every guitarist, and every musician for that matter, has heard the term ‘lick’ at some point and wondered what it means. A lick in the world of guitar seems to be some incorporeal thing that no one really understands, but the truth is that there is a clear definition of a lick, and understanding it is crucial for all guitar players.
A guitar lick is a short melodic line that is used to serve the overall feel of a song. A lick can be used to create space, fill space, or define a moment in music. Licks are not usually repeated, and they are always melodic. A good example of guitar licks is The Wind Cries Mary by Jimi Hendrix.
The guitar lick is more important than most people realize. Licks seem to me unimportant, and most guitarists treat them with contempt, but the reality is that the lick is among the most important aspects of playing the guitar. Let’s explore the guitar lick to define it, learn how to use it, and learn some examples of good guitar licks.
What Is A Guitar Lick?
A guitar lick is something that is relatively difficult to define, and the term carries multiple meanings depending on who you ask, but the guitar lick is nevertheless a critical aspect of playing the guitar, and it is important to give it a string definition.
A guitar lick is a melodic pattern or phrase, not usually played as chords but usually played over chords. A lick is usually a short series of melodic notes and can be treated and used as a fill, a solo, an accompaniment, or even a section in a greater overall song.
A guitar lick can be the basis of a song and form the main melodic theme; it can be a section of a solo or a simple fill. Guitar licks can be strung together to form solos, or they can be unique phrases within a piece of music. They can be repeated to form sections of a song form or an accompaniment for other instruments.
With all of that said, guitar licks are never used as rhythmic or chordal phrases, and they always take the form of a lead melodic line, regardless of their length of placement in a song.
Guitar licks are especially iconic in the definition of licks because they can be the aspect of a song or a guitar part that defines a piece of music and goes down in history as a great musical moment.
Licks become part of guitar culture, and they can define the sound of entire genres. Musical styles such as the blues and jazz are often defined by the way they feel and the way the music is performed, and using licks is the best way for a guitarist to express these aspects of these genres.
Guitar licks are difficult to define, but you definitely know them when you hear them. Licks can be simple and blend into the background of a song, or they can be stand-out and iconic, forming part of musical culture and history.
Most guitar players begin learning because they hear a lick that inspires them, and guitar players carry a culture of learning each other’s licks to expand their own musical vocabulary.
Without guitar licks, music would simply not be the same.
How Are Guitar Licks Used?
Now that we have established a solid definition of a guitar lick, it is important to explore how this musical construct can be used and what it is usually used for.
A guitar lick is usually a recognizable melodic line that is short and stand-alone or played in succession with other licks to form a longer phrase.
Licks are not usually repeated in music, and guitar licks usually form one aspect of a great section, but when they are repeated, they can form iconic musical moments that guitar players remember and emulate forever.
Guitar licks are used to drive a piece of music forward, highlight a change in the music, fill space, create space, accompany other instruments, harmonize with other instruments, or even add color and flavor to a song or section of a song.
There really is no real limit to what a guitar lick can be used for or how it can be used in a musical context.
Most guitarists like to use licks as a form of fill or as sections of lead lines or solos. These are very effective uses of guitar licks and form the legendary guitar licks that we all remember.
However, there are some guitar licks that go largely unnoticed, as they are crafted not to stand out or form a solo piece but to serve the song as a whole. This is the most underrated use of guitar licks, and most players do not notice them when used in this way, but if you look for them, you will find guitar licks everywhere.
Master guitar players use licks in this way to add color and meaning to a song rather than just to produce a noticeable piece. Using guitar licks in service of the entire song and form structure of the music is the best way to use licks, and every great guitarist has mastered this form of the guitar lick.
What Defines A Guitar Lick Vs. A Guitar Riff?
Having established what a riff is, how it is used on the guitar, and how great guitar masters make use of it, we now arrive at the most commonly asked lick-related question: what is the difference between a typical guitar lick and a guitar riff?
The distinction between a guitar lick and a guitar is clear if you know what to look for, but there is still a lot of confusion in this regard.
To make things simple, a guitar riff is a rhythmic device used to form part of the main structure of a song and is usually played with some form of the chord. A riff always repeats, forms entire song sections, or entire song forms depending on how it is used.
By contrast, a lick does not always repeat, it is never constructed from chords, it does not always come from the structure of a song, and it is always played as single-note melodic lines rather than repeated chord-based rhythms.
Understanding the differences between a well-defined guitar lick and a guitar riff is important, but the differences become quickly apparent when they are heard in context.
Examples Of Guitar Licks
Now that we have explored the nature of the guitar lick and how it can be used in music, it is important to look at some examples of iconic guitar licks to help bring everything into context.
The list below identifies some important and well-known guitar licks. Every guitarist should know these licks, should learn these licks, and should remember these licks.
These are good examples of well-written guitar licks that should go down in musical history as excellent examples of this musical technique:
1. The Wind Cries Mary: Jimi Hendrix
The Wind Cries Mary by Jimi Hendrix is an excellent example of a song that uses great guitar licks.
Listen to the song carefully and look out for the small melodic lines that happen in between the main chord riff of the song.
These small passing lines are perfect examples of guitar licks and are masterfully used as fills and transition points between riffs and vocal lines.
2. Blues Deluxe: Joe Bonamassa
The song Blues Deluxe by Joe Bonamassa opens with a soulful blues solo that can only be described as a succession of well-formed licks.
The opening solo to this song is not a long, smooth piece such as other solos, but it is constructed from a series of licks separated by breaks.
This is an excellent example of licks used to craft a cohesive solo, and every lick in the opening solo of this song is worth learning.
3. Bring It On Home To Me: B.B King
Bring It On Home To Me by the great B.B King and Paul Carrack is a fine example of blues licks that are interspersed throughout a song to create a specific feeling within the music.
Listen to the song carefully, and you will notice a clear difference between the long solos and the short licks used in the piece.
The guitar licks in this song are played throughout and break up the various vocal lines in the song. The guitars are used to play licks that emphasize certain sections and improvise over the vocal lines and harmonies to add depth to the music.
4. Up On Cripple Creek: The Band
The classic tune that is Up On Cripple Creek by The Band is a perfect example of a guitar song that is constructed using licks.
Every section of this song is full of background licks that form the main musical ideas of the song. There are very few riffs or constructed chord progressions sued in this song, but instead, every instrument, including the guitars, piano, and organ, plays a succession of licks throughout the song that complements the vocal arrangement.
This is an unconventional method for using licks, but it is a notable example of how critical guitar licks can be to a song.
Guitar licks are a fantastic musical tool that guitarists can use to change the entire feel of a song, evoke specific emotions, create a specific feel, or even use as the construct of a song.
Guitar licks are a crucial musical element for all guitar players. Everyone who plays this instrument should look out for them in the music that they like to listen to and learn as much as they can.