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!