4 Easy Licks Using Open Strings

Learn some easy and fun licks and create your own variations.

Ultimate Guitar


This is going to be an article on some easy and fun licks you can learn using the open strings and how we can create variations on them, so that you have a lot more creative tools at your disposal. We are going to use the high e string, and we will use:
  • E minor pentatonic
  • E harmonic minor
  • E Dorian
  • E Dorian b2 (2nd mode of the melodic minor scale)
I'll show you the licks and then explain how we can use them, how you can create your own variations and why I chose the above scales.

The Licks

So let's play something! Here are the 4 licks:

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Have a go at playing them, they're pretty easy to pick up!

How can we use them?

You can use these licks over an E minor chord (or E5) and they will sound great. You could use them ascending (as written) or descending (play them backwards). What sounds really cool is if you ascend up one scale and then descend down another one, like in this example:

Figure 5

See if you can work out what two scales this lick was built from!

Another fun variation we could create with these licks is to play half way up one scale, and then continue in another, for example, play the first 3 beats of lick 2 and then the last 3 beats of lick 4.

You can change the key of these licks by playing them on different strings. For example, if we play lick 3 on the 2nd string, we get B Dorian. If we play lick 2 on string 5, we get A harmonic minor - the note that the string is tuned to is the root note.

Here are a couple of examples changing the key of lick 1 by playing the same frets, but on different strings:

Figure 6

We could also change the rhythmic grouping from semi quavers to triplet quavers:

Figure 7

This will completely change the feel of the lick (and make it harder to count!).

Other variations you could create include:

  • Adding more than two open strings between each scale "segment."
  • Adding more than two notes from the scale between the open strings.
We could also play the two notes descending rather than ascending. If we take Lick 4 and reverse the order of the pairs of scale notes:

Figure 8

Because these licks are all ascending, they sound as if they are heading "towards" something, so if you are playing over a backing track, you may want to play another lick at the and, hit a big vibrato on the root note, or something like that to make them sound like they have "arrived."

Why can we move between different scales over the same chord?

These licks use a technique that some people call "pitch axis," or, keeping the root note the same and moving between different scales.

Playing over an E minor chord, we are playing over the following intervals:

E minor triad: 1 b3 5

We can play almost any scale that has these intervals over this chord and it will musically "fit" (whether or not you like it is another matter!). If we look at the intervals in the scales that we used in Licks 1-4, we have:
Lick 1 Minor pentatonic 1     b3 4 5    b7
Lick 2 Harmonic Minor   1  2  b3 4 5 b6 7
Lick 3 Dorian           1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Lick 4 Dorian b2        1 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7
And to quickly compare the notes:
E minor:            E F# G A B C  D
E minor pentatonic: E G A B D
E harmonic minor: E F# G A B C D#
E dorian: E F# G A B C# D
E dorian b2: E F G A B C# D
So if you find other scales that contain the intervals 1 b3 5 you will be able to construct similar ideas to play over a minor chord.

I hope you found that useful - leave me a comment below if you have any questions!

By Sam Russell
For a more complete guide to scales, with explanations, diagrams, tablatures and more; which will give you more ideas and options for using this technique, you can get a free eBook on modes of the major, harmonic minor and melodic scales here.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    N how bout the open lick in " I believe in a thing called love" , last solo
    How about the open string lick from The Dance of Eternity
    How about the lick from octavarium E 4-2-0-7-2-0-4-2-0-7-2-0-4-2-0-7-10-9-7-9-7-5-7-5-4-5-4-2-4-2 -0- B - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 0
    That's exactly what I was thinking! 4-0-0-5-0-0-7-0-0-9-0-0-7-0-9-0-11-0-9-0-11-0- 12-0-14-0-12-0-14-0-16-0-17-0-0-16-0-0-19-0-0-16-0-0-17 -0-0-18-0-0-22
    I like the lesson, but like the eBook even more. I am teaching myself and have been spinning my wheels for a while. After looking at the eBook for a bit, a whole new world was just opened for me. Learning scales can be mundane and modes, what they are and how to use them, intimidating. Finally, made simple for those who have theory basics! Now I see not only just learning the different modes, but also note orientation on the fret board and understanding theory even more, and to top it off, the price of the eBook couldn't be better. THANX!!