What Exactly Is a Guitar Lick? Unleashing the Mystery

Have you ever listened to a mind-blowing guitar solo and wondered how the musician created that magical sound? You’re not alone! The secret behind these unforgettable moments often lies in a simple yet powerful concept: the guitar lick. In this blog post, we will unravel the mystery of the guitar lick, diving deep into its history, function, and role in creating unforgettable melodies. By the end of this journey, you’ll have a new appreciation for these musical gems, and you might even be inspired to learn some yourself!

The Anatomy

guitar lick echnique

It is composed of several elements that give it its unique character. These include:

  • Notes: The foundation of any guitar lick, notes are the individual pitches played on the guitar. Notes can be played individually or simultaneously as chords.
  • Rhythm: The pattern of notes played over time, rhythm is what gives a lick its groove and feel. This can range from a steady stream of eighth notes to syncopated, off-beat accents.
  • Technique: The physical aspects of playing the guitar, such as finger placement, picking style, and use of slides or bends, contribute to the overall sound and feel of a lick.
  • Phrasing: How the notes are arranged and connected within the lick, phrasing is the “glue” that holds a lick together. This can include elements like dynamics (how loud or soft the notes are played) and articulation (how smoothly the notes are connected).

A Brief History

expressive guitar licks

They have been a fundamental part of guitar playing since the instrument’s inception. Early blues musicians in the 1900s, such as Robert Johnson and Lead Belly, were known for their emotive and expressive guitar licks, which laid the groundwork for future guitarists to build upon.

As the instrument evolved and became more prevalent in popular music, so too did the complexity and variety of guitar licks. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll and the electric guitar, leading to iconic licks by artists like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.

The 1970s brought the rise of hard rock and heavy metal, with guitarists like Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, and Tony Iommi pushing the boundaries of what was possible on the instrument. This era gave birth to countless classic licks that continue to inspire guitarists today.

Iconic Guitar Licks You Should Know

Here are five iconic guitar licks that showcase the versatility and expressiveness of the instrument:

  • Chuck Berry – “Johnny B. Goode”: This famous lick combines double stops, slides, and hammer-ons to create an energetic, rock ‘n’ roll sound that has inspired countless guitarists.
  • Jimi Hendrix – “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”: Hendrix’s iconic opening lick utilizes a wah-wah pedal and a series of bends, slides, and vibrato to create a psychedelic masterpiece.
  • Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven“: Jimmy Page’s memorable intro showcases a fingerpicked arpeggio pattern that transitions into a powerful and emotional solo, highlighting his masterful use of dynamics and phrasing.
  • Eddie Van Halen – “Eruption”: This legendary lick is a perfect example of Van Halen’s innovative tapping technique, where he uses both hands on the fretboard to create rapid-fire, cascading notes.
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Pride and Joy”: Vaughan’s signature bluesy lick features a combination of bends, slides, and heavy string raking to create a raw and soulful sound.

The use in composition and songwriting

They are commonly used in composition and songwriting as a way to add complexity, variation, and interest to a piece of music. Incorporating guitar licks can help a song stand out and make it more memorable.

One common use of guitar licks is as a transitional element between different parts of a song, such as between verses or during instrumental breaks. Licks can also be used to create a signature riff or melody that becomes synonymous with a particular song or artist. When composing with it, it’s important to consider the musical context and overall feel of the song. A fast, intricate lick might work well in a heavy metal song but could feel out of place in a slow ballad.

Additionally, it’s important to balance the use of licks with other musical elements, such as chords and lyrics, to create a cohesive and well-rounded piece of music. For songwriters, incorporating guitar licks into their writing process can also help generate new ideas and expand their musical vocabulary. By studying the licks of other guitarists and incorporating them into their own playing, songwriters can develop a unique style and sound that sets them apart.

How to write your own guitar licks and incorporate them into your music

Writing your own guitar licks can be a fun and rewarding way to add a personal touch to your music. Start by experimenting with different chord progressions and scales, and see which notes and patterns sound good together. Once you’ve found a few notes or phrases that you like, try playing them in different keys and tempos to see how they sound.

When writing them, it’s important to keep in mind the style and genre of music you’re working with. For example, blues licks often use the pentatonic scale and emphasize the blues note, while jazz licks might incorporate more complex chord progressions and use a wider range of scales. Incorporating your own style into your music can also help you stand out from other musicians and create a unique sound.

Experiment with different ways to incorporate your licks, such as using them as an intro or outro, adding them as a solo, or using them as a recurring motif throughout a song. It’s also important to practice your guitar licks regularly to build your skills and develop your own style. Start by playing your licks slowly and gradually increasing the tempo as you get more comfortable. Record yourself playing your licks and listen back to identify areas where you can improve.

Tips for mastering guitar licks and building your repertoire

Mastering them takes time, patience, and practice. Here are some tips to help you build your repertoire and improve your guitar-playing skills:

  • Start with simple licks: Begin with basic licks that are easy to play with and gradually move on to more complex ones. This will help you build your skills and confidence.
  • Learn from others: Watch videos of experienced guitarists playing licks, and try to replicate them. You can also attend guitar workshops and lessons to learn from seasoned professionals.
  • Practice with a metronome: Practicing with a metronome will help you keep time and improve your rhythm. This is essential for playing them accurately.
  • Experiment with different genres: Try playing them from different genres like rock, blues, jazz, and country. This will broaden your musical knowledge and expand your creativity.
  • Focus on accuracy: Playing them accurately is crucial. Slow down the tempo and practice until you can play the lick smoothly and effortlessly.
  • Use scales: Learning and practicing scales will help you create your own licks and improvise over chord progressions.
  • Record yourself: Recording yourself playing them is an excellent way to monitor your progress and identify areas that need improvement.
  • Play with others: Playing with other musicians will help you learn new licks and improve your ability to play in a band setting.

Remember, the key to mastering them is to practice regularly, learn from others, and be patient. Keep practicing, and you will soon be able to play guitar licks like a pro!

Developing Your

Now that you have an understanding of what guitar licks are and some iconic examples, it’s time to start creating your own! Here are a few tips to help you get started:

Learn from the masters: Listen to your favorite guitarists and analyze their licks. Try to understand the techniques they use, their rhythmic patterns, and how they structure their phrases. This will help you develop your own unique style and vocabulary.

Practice scales and arpeggios: These are the building blocks of guitar licks. Familiarize yourself with major and minor scales, pentatonic scales, and different arpeggio patterns to expand your musical palette.

Experiment with different techniques: Try incorporating techniques like slides, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and tapping into your licks to create a more diverse and interesting sound.

Develop your ear: Listen to songs in different genres and try to pick out the guitar licks by ear. This will help you develop a better understanding of melody, harmony, and phrasing.

Record yourself: Recording your playing can help you analyze your licks and identify areas for improvement. It can also be a great way to track your progress and build your own library of original licks.


1001 Guitar Licks

Are there any books or resources for learning guitar licks?

There are numerous books, websites, and online courses dedicated to teaching guitar licks in various styles and genres. Books such as “The Guitar Licktionary” or “1001 Guitar Licks” can be great starting points. Websites like YouTube also offer countless video tutorials and lessons on guitar licks.

How important is it to learn guitar licks by ear?

Learning them by ear is an essential skill for any guitarist, as it helps develop a better understanding of melody, harmony, and phrasing. It also enables you to adapt and incorporate licks from a wide range of sources, including recordings and live performances, expanding your musical vocabulary.

Can I modify existing guitar licks to create new ones?

Absolutely! Modifying existing ones is an excellent way to create new and unique phrases. You can alter the rhythm, change the notes, or apply different techniques like bends, slides, or hammer-ons. Experimenting with existing licks can help you develop your own distinctive style and sound.

What role does the guitar pick play in creating guitar licks?

It plays a significant role in shaping the sound and feel of guitar licks. Different picking techniques, such as alternate picking, sweep picking, or hybrid picking, can produce varied tones and textures. The pick’s material, thickness, and shape also contribute to the overall sound and dynamics of a lick.

How can I improve my guitar lick improvisation skills?

To improve your improvisation skills, start by learning and mastering a variety of licks in different styles and genres. Practice connecting and transitioning between licks, focusing on phrasing and dynamics. Jamming with other musicians or playing along with backing tracks can also help you develop your improvisational skills in a real-time musical context.

Are there any specific guitar exercises that can help me improve my guitar licks?

Practicing scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises can help improve your dexterity, speed, and accuracy, ultimately leading to better guitar licks. Exercises such as chromatic runs, string skipping, and alternate picking drills can help you develop the necessary techniques and finger strength for more complex licks. Remember to practice slowly and accurately before gradually increasing the tempo to ensure clean and precise execution.


Guitar licks are the lifeblood of any memorable guitar solo or improvisation. By understanding their history, structure, and techniques used to create them, you can develop your own unique style and leave your mark on the world of music. So, grab your guitar and start experimenting with different licks and techniques. With practice and dedication, you’ll soon be able to unleash the mystery of guitar licks and create your own unforgettable melodies. Happy playing!