Learning Licks vs. Learning Concepts

We all want to get better on our instrument, and this means different things to different people. Everyone is in a unique place as far as progress, but one thing is true no matter how good you are:

To master something, it takes a deep understanding of the concept, and constant practice.

We will return to that later…

Ok, Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk concepts vs. licks.  When you first learn guitar (or any instrument) the first thing most people do is learn a few songs, (or actually just the beginning of a bunch of songs!) and if you have any luck with it, you stay with it and learn more, maybe even go to music school, join a band, etc… etc… If you spend any significant time with it, you quickly find out that a few songs are easy to learn, but real skill takes time to acquire.

When I say ‘licks‘ I’m talking about little memorized bits, whether it’s the beginning of a song or a little blues lick you can play over many songs. Some players build their whole vocabulary on licks, without ever really learning ‘concepts‘. Understanding a concept is the ability to take a lick or idea, move it around to other keys, play it in different octaves, analyze it harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically – fully understanding the lick and not just copying it verbatim. Concepts will get you much farther along than just licks – but they often take some deep background knowledge to fully understand. To internalize the concept, you must use it and practice it in many situations, until it becomes totally natural and no longer sounds like someone else’s idea. There really are no shortcuts for this.

When you listen to a given player, pay close attention to their style – are they just stringing together licks or are they playing stuff that sounds fresh and original? I like to compare it to speaking or writing – some people talk in clichés, just stringing them together to form sentences. The problem is, at the end of the sentence they didn’t really say anything thought-provoking…they just pieced together phrases you’ve heard millions of times.

Some examples:

‘Laughter is the best medicine’ – ‘All is fair in love and war’ – ‘All that glitters is not gold’  – ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles’  These are clichés you’ve heard or read often, and in general, they get the job done. Someone can carry on a conversation with them, but not in a particularly original or thought-provoking way. Do you see the musical analogy now? If a verbal or written cliché is just a bunch of words strung together, then a lick is just a string of notes. I could just as easily be talking about a guitar solo where the player strings together well-rehearsed licks that he memorized from Clapton or SRV records or whoever.  It might sound good and get the general point across, and the casual listener may think it’s great, but a trained ear wants more, and a seasoned player digs deeper.

Originality Can Have It’s Boundaries

The style of music will often dictate just how inventive you can get, so the challenge is playing innovative and original sounding ideas ‘in context’, or within the boundaries of whatever you are playing. If you are in a funk band, that’s probably not the place to pull out your 80’s metal licks…just like a southern rock band is not the place to go flying into a freeform jazz odyssey. It’s all about coming up with cool ideas within the context of the song. Of course, this is a very subjective topic…some people might love to hear Coltrane ideas played over a Skynyrd song, but in general doing this isn’t going to do much for you as a pro musician!

Being able to come up with fresh ideas in ‘real time’ is something you get with a lot of practice, and from breaking down and internalizing concepts. If your whole repertoire consists of memorized licks, when you run out of licks, you’re in trouble! Here are some tips for gaining a deeper conceptual understanding of a musical idea: (this applies to soloing or rhythm playing)

Ten tips for dissecting a musical idea

  1. Figure out where the root note occurs in the idea. With this, you can move an idea through all 12 keys.
  2. What is the count? (meter, time signature) Is it 4/4 or 6/8? Is it 3/4 ? Knowing the count is a basic ‘must-learn’
  3. What scale or chord is the idea based around? Most of the time, musical ideas are centered around a single scale or chord. It goes without saying that the better you know your scales and chords, the easier this step will be! Most ideas can be roughly categorized into Major, Minor, or Dominant 7th (bluesy). Just narrowing it down to one of these three is often enough.
  4. Try changing the major/minor color of it. If it’s a ‘happy’ major scale-based idea, play it as a minor (sad) by dropping the 3rd. Now play that in all 12 keys.
  5. Change the meter. If it is in 4/4, play it in 6/8, etc…
  6. Play it half as fast – or twice as fast. Sometimes this will spark something.
  7. Choose a completely different song (and key) and figure out how to play the idea in the new song. Do this for as many songs as you can. Only when you can do this do you truly ‘know’ the idea and have it at your disposal.
  8. Take the idea through all twelve keys in one position. Sometimes this isn’t possible for many reasons, but take it as far as you can. Don’t worry about playing it exactly the same – this is purely to get you away from memorizing a ‘shape’ and getting you to think of the movement of the notes, the concept itself.
  9. Play it like someone else would play it. Pretend you’re Hendrix or B.B King and play the idea how they would make it sound. Try to make it sound like jazz, or like bluegrass, or any style that the idea was not originally played in. This will help you get away from copying the technique used and try some other approaches or dynamics: aggressive, subtle, bold, loud, swinging, staccato, pizzicato, rushed, dragged, etc…
  10.  Learn it backwards. Yep – figure out how to play it backwards. When I used to use cassette-based multitrack recorders, you could record a lick, flip the tape over and play it backwards. Some even played it at half-speed, making it even easier! Today’s digital recorders and software can easily make this happen. Even better – do it by ear just listening to the forward version.

OK, so there are a few good pointers for learning the underlying concepts in a given idea. You might be thinking ‘that’s just a list of ways to really memorize licks, isn’t it?’ Well, yes and no. You will memorize the original lick, but taking it through even a few of those variations will break down the lick into what it is really made if – the contour of it, the shape, the sound, the message, everything the original player was conveying. The chances are pretty good that the original player was just ‘pasting’ a lick he stole from someone else! Either way, pulling it apart and really learning it inside-out will teach you a ton of good information and hopefully give you more ideas of your own.

Back to the Mastering/Constant Practice Thing…

Everything you learn should be twisted and pulled apart, dissected, studied, learned backwards and forwards, but the most important thing is to play often.  Picking up a few things here and there is good fun but don’t expect to have control and mastery over it unless you are actually practicing it (both on the gig and off) to build up a solid technical and theoretical knowledge. You are going to run out of ideas quickly if your ‘bag’ is just cutting and pasting licks you picked up off of CD’s. To go to the next level, you really need to learn the music behind the lick – internalize it, and most importantly, PLAY!






The Two Types of Guitar Players

It’s been ages since I posted anything on this site, so here’s something to break the trend of laziness!

When I hear other guitarists play, at first I really try to listen with an open mind – regardless of the type of music, or what context I’m hearing them, I try to see what they bring to the table as far as style, approach, tone, technique, etc… It usually does not take long for a player (of any instrument) to reveal some things about themselves, such as experience, seasoning, taste and technical ability…often this can all be displayed in mere minutes during a performance. If I really had to pick the one thing that separates players and sums up an overall approach to music, it would be how a player reacts to the rhythm in a song.

In short, the two types of players are:

1. Ones that really play with the rhythm

2. Ones that don’t

Sound like an over-simplification? I don’t think so. Either you’re really trying to lock onto the rhythms, syncopations, and tempo, or not. Sure, technical ability plays into this…but if you’re not comfortable playing over certain rhythms and can’t lock-in, you should probably simplify what you’re doing and focus on the beat…this will do more for your overall musicality than just shredding a million notes with no regard for time or groove.

Locked In Or Just Go For It?

Not that one approach is necessarily better or worse, as it is hard to say what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to an art form, for me personally, listening to a player that really acknowledges the time and syncopation in a song makes it more listenable. To give an example of what I’m talking about, here are a couple of little improvs, the first one being ‘Just Go For It’ style, and the second more of a ‘Play Off of the Beat’ approach.

Not in the pocket

Notice how I just jump in and start noodling, with no real connection to the drums or groove – it sounds like I’m more concerned with impressing somebody (somebody who doesn’t expect much musically!) instead of really digging in and interacting with the track.

Hey – There’s a band there!

In this example I put a little more ‘air’ in the phrasing…I’m reacting a bit more to the drums and groove of the track, which really (to me anyway) is what music should be about – especially in a band situation – you should try to lock in with the other players, and when they play something you react to it musically, so it sounds like you’re playing together.

Avoid Being Predictable

Another aspect of playing more rhythmically is that you will not sound so predictable – when a solo is constant noodling and scale gymnastics, the listener wears out quickly. There is little in the way of surprises…no tension and release, which is a big part (or should be a big part) of music, especially improvised music. The key word here is Phrasing, which means playing ideas that fit together, compliment each other and the rhythm section, and keep the listener interested.

So What Makes Good Phrasing?

For one thing, phrasing really isn’t just about playing technical ‘licks’ or fancy lines on your instrument. Phrasing is the combination of rhythm and melody, in contrast to the song you’re playing along with. Also, phrasing is not just an improvisational tool – vocalists phrase the words they sing…in fact some of the best phrasing you’ll hear is in old-school crooner’s work like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett just to name a few. Elvis had a really strong rhythmic sense to his singing – which of course people have copied for decades ever since. Guitar players like George Benson, John Scofield, BB King and Eric Clapton are so known for their phrasing that just a couple of notes identifies them. The term for what these guys have is ‘Time Feel’ – great musicians know that it’s the key to really making great music, and it should be your goal to develop it.

For an improvised solo, your thoughts should be focused on the band (or track, or whatever you’re playing over) first, LISTENING to what is happening, then reacting to it. Think like a drummer – really lock onto whatever the rhythm section is doing…you don’t want to just jump in and start wanking away like an over-caffeinated grinder monkey! Let your phrases breathe…build some tension in your solo by starting out at one dynamic level and building to a crescendo. If you just come out of the gate blazing, you leave yourself no room to go anywhere. You’re taking the listener on a journey, not throwing a bucket of cold water on them.

Look for part 2 of this article for some more playing examples and phrasing ideas!

Economy Picking Lessons Building Speed and control – Videos!

I’m getting too lazy old to type out lessons, so I figured I would start doing more videos! This one is about economy picking and how to build up the technique little by little, while focusing on keeping your picking motion nice and relaxed, tension-free and smooth. Go at your own pace and enjoy!

** DISCLAIMER ** Economy picking is a specialized technique that is not the only picking method you should learn! I also think alternate picking is essential, and here’s an alternate picking exercise to help with that.

And of course, Part 2  (ascending scale)

For more about playing guitar tension-free, check out this article:

Playing Guitar Without Tension

How Long Does it Take to Learn Guitar?

I hear this question and see it posted online all the time. I don't think there has ever been a definitive answer, but the question intrigues me…so I decided to Google it.

how long does it take to learn guitar search

That little suggestion dropdown shows Google’s frequent searches-which means 'Guitar' tops the chart over all other things to learn? Wow! Well, naturally I had to see how long it takes to get GOOD at guitar…
so I searched it:

how long does it take to get good at guitar

Same thing – Guitar tops the charts again. Evidently a lot of people want to get good, and they want to know how long that takes! Looking at some of the results, I didn't really find a definitive answer to 'How Long ?'. After around 30 years of toiling away with the old 6-string, Here are some of my own thoughts.

You Have to Enjoy Playing

The first thing everyone says about learning guitar (or any instrument) is that it takes discipline. While I do think practice and repetitive activity do require some degree of discipline, I think a passion to play is more important. If you sit down to practice and get lost for hours, truly enjoying it, you probably have that passion. If you sit down to play and 10 minutes later you are frustrated because you aren't learning fast enough, maybe you need some new inspiration! This syndrome is especially common with older players, who have less time to practice and more self-criticism to throw on themselves.

Play Along

When you are learning to play, it is important to build up your rhythm skills and listening skills. One great way to do that is just to play along with some songs you are learning. Even if you can't play everything perfectly, just getting used to listening and following the music is a crucial thing to practice. Making mistakes and learning to compensate is something you use at all skill levels. Playing music should not be a rigid, flawless routine like painting by numbers. Little quirks and mistakes are what make it listenable and human – instead of cold and mechanical. Don't be afraid to screw up! Just play along and have some fun! I know – there are some readers right now thinking 'That is horrible advice! Never play something you can't play perfectly!' Well, I have to disagree here. One of the most common problems I saw when teaching students (especially older ones!) was when they could not get a part down just right, they would sit down, spend 10 minutes fumbling around with it, get frustrated, and either walk away completely or keep banging their head on the wall, getting nowhere and getting discouraged. I say move on and come back later, or figure out a way to play the part that works for you. Be clever…be inventive..guitar playing is not brain surgery. If you have the type of mindset and the time to relentlessly practice something until you nail it, go for it – but that approach doesn't work for everyone.

So Are We Talking Months, Years, Decades?

We have all seen the Youtube videos of freakishly good kids playing advanced stuff that most people couldn't dream of, so I guess the answer to 'How Long ?' CAN be just a few years. But that is not the norm. Most of us do not have 14 hours a day to practice. When I was a kid, I did practice that much – usually at the expense of sleep or other human comforts… but it is important to point out that the learning curve is not always a straight line up.

Progress Comes in Bursts

Learning an instrument is not all fun and happy times. There will be times when you feel like turning your axe into a pile of mulch…that is just life. If it was really easy, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Throughout the process you will have breakthroughs where you really feel like you progressed, and you will have stretches where you feel like you have hit a plateau. Pretty normal stuff. The secret is to stay motivated and enjoy what you are doing. Now let us dig deeper into those bursts of progress.

I remember having students who started with me from ground-zero…no prior guitar experience at all – often getting into it for no better reason than 'My mom wanted me to have a hobby'. I would teach them some basics, they would take 6 months or so of lessons and then move on to the next thing – football or whatever their surroundings pushed them into. At that point in their life, music was not the burning passion that it can be for some…not that there is anything wrong with that…but they are not focused on it enough to really progress. I sometimes saw those 'Sleeper' students come back a couple of years later (after changing schools or friends or whatever) and they were like a whole different person – totally immersed in playing, hanging with friends that played in bands, excited about guitar and music. Often in only a year or two they had completely changed their attitude and become driven to play, undoubtedly influenced by some outside force – the friends, the promise of fame and fortune (kidding!) or whatever.

The point here is that your ability and desire to learn has as much to do with your life situation as it does with your 'natural talent' or ability. the mind is a powerful tool when it is focused on a certain thing – and throughout your life you will find times when that focus is easy to sustain and times when it is not.

You Have to Put in The Time at Some Point

Every player I know that really got good at their instrument had a time in their life when they were fully immersed in playing – usually around 5 – 10 years of serious dedication to it. This is what I think of as the 'Raw Materials' phase. This is when you learn to pick, strum, memorize scales and chords, read music, whatever you can stuff in your brain. It usually happens once in a lifetime, and really separates the casual players from the extraordinary ones. The raw materials phase is important, but must be supplemented with real-world experience.

Beyond Raw Materials – Don't Just Hide in Your Room and Practice

Having great technical skill on the guitar will certainly help your playing, but getting experience playing with other people and a variety of musical styles will truly bring your playing to the next level. The problem with toiling away in isolation is that you don't always focus on the things that make you a well-rounded player. Get out and play with real people – they will push you harder than you push yourself, and hopefully motivate you to learn new things. Some of the biggest bursts of progress happen when you play with others. This is how you get beyond the raw technical skill and actually develop musical skills, which make you a seasoned player. Improvising is one skill that elusive to many players, often because they don't get out and play with others. Learning to listen and react to the music is something you get from playing in dynamic real-life situations. Practicing scales and chords is only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Embrace the Music, Not Your Ego

When you do play with others, leave your ego at home in the practice room. It is a bad habit to bring the mindset of 'I need to show these guys what I can do'. Don't let your self-consciousness get the best of you. Play for the song, focus on being a team player and playing what works in the song. If you are constantly worried about how you look to others, you are either going to be really stiff and uncomfortable playing, or you are going to be an annoying show-off that has to prove something every song. Just dig in and listen to what everyone is playing and try to fit in, while adding your own style and flavor to the mix.

Learn to Ride the Waves

Throughout your life you are going to have high and low points of interest with the guitar – unfortunately we can't all play guitar 24-7 – we have families and jobs and other responsibilities, so you have to let the passion ebb & flow. You can always come back to it and immerse yourself when you have the desire.

Check out the Latest Article!

New CD with Adrian Duke – ‘Lazy Bones’

Lazy Bones

Hot off the press – I recently played on a CD with Adrian Duke titled ‘Lazy Bones’. It’s an interesting collection of tunes, all covers, some arranged in curious ways. We recorded everything at Red Amp Audio in Richmond.

There were a ton of great players on the session – Jody Boyd on drums, John Small Jr. on bass, Wade Short on bass, Skip Gailes on sax, John Winn on clarinet and sax, Kevin Harding on guitar, Rusty Farmer on bass, as well as myself and of course Adrian Duke on piano and vocals.
Jody Boyd did the studio magic and engineered everything.

If I had to pick a favorite tune it would be ‘Hallelujah’, the Leonard Cohen tune. Playing at such a slow tempo is always a challenge but it turned out great. We cut the rhythm section on that and most of the other tunes live in the studio.

‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ is another favorite cut, switching back and forth between a swinging old-school jazz feel and a funky back beat thing.

Check it out on CD Baby!

Building Your Guitar Vocabulary

Pick Blocks
One thing that can’t be taught is real-world experience. You just have to get out and soak up what you can to become a versatile player. Becoming fluent in a given style requires a couple of things – immersing yourself in the style to learn it’s particular quirks, and then getting out in the ‘real world’ to put what you learned into action.

The Basics:

Don’t live in a bubble

Get out and play with real musicians. Preferably ones better than you. Nothing is better for your progress than actual feedback and criticism from musicians you respect. A single gig where you leave thinking ‘I suck’ can do wonders to motivate you. Musicians have funny ways of giving feedback – some more direct than others. The point is, don’t sit in your room playing with yourself. Get out there and live it for real. (Or at least invite ’em over…)

Learn the Roots

If you’re trying to learn a certain style of music, it usually pays to find out something about where that style came from. If it’s Blues, learn the different flavors of blues – country blues, delta blues, jump blues, Chicago, Piedmont, Memphis – on down the line. Most importantly, LISTEN to the styles and really try to discern how the musicians play each style. The more styles you understand, the better you can grasp the styles that evolved from them. almost all music is derivative to some extent – nothing new under the sun, as ‘they’ say!

Incorporate Immediately

When you learn a new lick or concept, the best way to make it stick is to figure out how to apply it right away. Don’t just learn licks that you don’t relate to some sort of musical context – figure out the essence of the lick and learn how to move it around to different keys, etc… so you can use it later. If you learn a phrase that works over a certain chord progression, take apart the phrase and progression to see how you can utilize the same concept in other tunes. A phrase learned and played out of context (without an underlying chord progression) is often meaningless – how it fits in a song gives it meaning and power. Inject your own style and flavor and boom! You learned something.

Listen to the Drums

I can’t say how many times I hear players wailing away with seemingly no awareness that they are not locked in with the groove. Every style of music has rhythmic characteristics that you need to be familiar with if you want to really play the style. If you’re playing too ahead of the beat or too behind the beat, or even right straight on top of it, but the rest of the band is somewhere else, it won’t gel. Learn to hear it. And RELAX…tension sucks the groove right out of you.

Back to that Vocabulary thing…

Concentrate on Nuance

One of the telling signs of the lesser-experienced player is lack of nuance. They learn a song or a lick but they are more concerned with just powering through it and getting through the part, not milking it and really making it musical. Plenty of young guns have the dexterity to blaze through stuff, but the lack of nuance makes it sound rushed, forced, stiff, and other terms you don’t want describing your playing.
Slow down and listen close…don’t glaze over the good stuff.

Embrace Your Quirks

Everyone has little weird habits that repeatedly surface in their playing, some good, some bad – usually they end up forming the basis of your style. Even if you are trying to play someone else’s lick, you’re going to slip in those little quirks – let em flow…embrace idiosyncrasies – one day they may set you apart (in a good way).

Black Belt in Guitar

In the martial arts there is a concept called ‘Shuhari’ which translates loosely to Imitate, Assimilate, then Transcend…or Innovate. A beginner learns by first copying the teacher move-for-move. Just like learning licks from another player.

The next stage – assimilation – also thought of as Detachment, is where the student breaks from the patterns and rules and questions their place in the big picture. This is the self-discovery part – on guitar it’s where all the licks and techniques you copy start to (hopefully) make sense in the bigger picture – in other words – how to play musically, not just parroting others licks.

The final stage – Transcendence – is where the rules are irrelevant – what’s right is just ‘known’. The guiding light in this stage is Intuition – Instinct is honed from years of patient practice and observation, and now it all comes together in a natural, fluid way. Effortless action, ready to create.
If you’re just starting out, don’t avoid imitation, it’s an important stage. It gets you on the right track faster than just randomly hacking away on your own. You’ll find that most ‘child prodigies’ go through a really heavy imitation phase, where they emulate a certain hero so closely people wonder if they’ll ever break away. If they really have what it takes, and/or a good teacher, they eventually move into other phases and become great players.

Be a Sponge

If you want to become a more versatile player, open your ears and learn all you can. Expose yourself to all sorts of music – learn to recognize certain styles of playing even within other genres. You might hear jazz licks in a rock tune, just played more aggressively…or blues licks in a metal tune, etc… It’s all out there like a big hodge-podge now… bending the rules is the norm. Be as versatile and open as you can and you’ll get more gigs, more opportunities to play and have fun with it. Soak it up!

Playing Guitar Without Tension

Hand Tension

In my younger days I played a lot of fast noodly stuff, aggressive rock or classical playing where my muscles and tendons were tortured for hours on end. I had some issues with tendonitis, a ganglion cyst, which caused all sorts of pain when playing, so I started focusing on ways to help it. I looked for ways to reduce the tension in my hands and arms while I played, and by sheer necessity I greatly reduced the pain and vastly increased my endurance.

Bad Guitar Habits

Something I’ve noticed in the last few years is that my technique has changed, mostly due to the type of music I play. I still play a little fast noodly stuff, but most of my gigs these days are rock & roll and country, where 90% of the time you’re playing rhythm guitar, and the solos are more listener-friendly, just solid ‘fit-the-song’ type stuff. All well and good, but that style of playing causes me to let my focus on technique slip, and bad habits develop.

Finding a Fix

I tried all sorts of things to help alleviate the pain when playing, from different hand positions, sitting positions, etc… I was told about Alexander Technique, which isn’t just for musicians, but many practice for it’s benefits to posture and proper alignment of the body. I am not a big disciplined routine kind of person, so I just had to plow my own way, taking bits and pieces and discovering my own way to fix my problem.

Follow the path

One thing I got from every relaxation approach was that tension doesn’t always necessarily originate in the place you think is the problem. For guitarists, that’s the hands and arms. But, the problem isn’t always directly related to how you wiggle your fingers…it could be starting in your head, your neck, back, shoulders, etc… It is amazing how your body can hold stress and tension while your mind is focusing on something (like playing guitar…) Whether it’s clenching your teeth, tensing your shoulders or arms, or simply holding the guitar wrong, just being aware of the origin and following the chain of tension can help fix bad habits.

Start with breathing

Grab a metronome or drum machine, set it to a comfortable tempo, and practice playing something easy like a scale or lick, while paying strict attention to:

First – Your Breathing. Should be nice and even…Don’t hold it! Lots of people do this.

Second – Your Jaw muscles. (don’t clench!)

Third – Your Shoulders & Back. Relax them, don’t hold one shoulder higher than the other, etc…

Fourth – Your Elbows – They are a common place to hold tension when picking.

Fifth – Your Wrists/Hands.
Press only as hard as you need to fret the notes
Don’t strangle the neck with your thumb
Make sure you are not holding your wrist (on either hand) in an unnatural position/angle.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of all of this is to get you to think about the many places you could be creating counter-productive tension, and eliminating it. Bad habits can effect your tone, your timing, and your stamina. Not to mention you can create serious problems like tendonitus, carpal tunnel syndrome or worse. It is truly possible to play virtually tension-free, and with a little practice it comes pretty easy. But, if you’re like me and slip into bad habits easily, things can slide downhill pretty fast. Keep things loose and relaxed and you will play better, guaranteed!