Get More Mileage from your Licks

When people begin to learn improvisation, they often do so by learning “licks”. Licks are musical phrases that have been transcribed from other players and is a great way to develop an improvisational vocabulary. If you’ve learned several licks already, you might begin to wonder how many licks you should learn as a goal. The truth is you should be constantly learning new licks. Then you might wonder how to keep these ideas all organized and accessible in your brain at a moment’s notice. Then you realize that it’s nearly impossible to keep more than a few licks in your mind at a time.

A large musical vocabulary can be useful, but what is more important is how we can modify and develop a singular idea to create hundreds of variations. Take a simple arpeggio for example. How many ways can you play a major triad? First we can play around with the order of notes and come up with 6 different possibilities. Now, what if we took one of those versions and modulate it diatonically? Now we have 7 possibilities with that one idea. Combined with 6 possible orders of notes, we now have 42 possible ideas generated.

That was one simple example taken through two processes and ended with 42 possibilities. This gets exponentially greater as we use different processes and combinations of processes. We can alter an idea by rhythmically lengthening or shortening, inverting the intervals, parallel transposition, diatonic transpositions, etc.

So if you’re at a point where you’re sick of learning more licks, try to apply this thought process to what you are playing. If you can’t do it in a real time performance, try writing out your examples before playing them. You may soon be breathing new life into old ideas and getting even more mileage from them!

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Practicing in all 12 keys

Practicing in all 12 keys can be an overwhelming task for many beginner improviser, but is absolutely essential to internalizing and developing your own improvisational vocabulary. Luckily, the process can be fairly simple on the guitar because of the nature of the instrument.

Transposition on the guitar is just a few frets away. Simple in concept, right? Just move that lick and fingering and move everything by a certain number of frets to transpose to the key you want. Don’t let your guard down. A major hurdle that is overlooked is that it becomes visually disorienting. The fret markers that you use as reference points shift around. It’s easier than transposing on a keyboard, but there are still challenges. Don’t fall into the trap where you think you’d easily be able to transpose a lick on the fly.

If you are advanced in your understanding of theory, you’ll probably be trying to understand the relationship of the notes you’re playing to the harmony that it’s being played over. If you do this, then you have another layer of understanding to tackle. The physical aspect of transposition is easy, but the theoretical aspect will be challenging as any other instrument.

A great tool for transposing an idea through all 12 keys is theĀ Circle of Fifths. This tool has been a source of many guitarists’ confusion. Without getting into the theoretical explanation of this tool, we’ll simply apply it to the order of keys we’ll play through. I recommend going in the counter-clockwise direction on the circle (in the direction of flat keys). IE: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, D, G. Start with a blues lick in A minor pentatonic? Next play in D minor, then G, etc.

When you’re first starting to do this, you will have to practice slowly to make sure all the mental processes are in check. Realistically, it might take an hour or more to get through this exercise. If you’re short on time, I recommend breaking these up into smaller chunks, like six keys at a time. Once the concept is solidified in your mind, you’ll be getting through licks in a matter of minutes, so hang in there!