Writing Guitar Licks

Since anyone can throw in a bunch of notes that don't sound good, how do you write something fast, impressive, and musical? Through experience, I've developed an approach.

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I always prefer to write a new guitar lick instead of using a standard one, but since anyone can throw in a bunch of notes that don't sound good, how do you write something fast, impressive (they must always be that, of course), and musical? Through experience, I've developed an approach. To do this, you'll need a song with which to play along, with a drumbeat. For starters, it's important to write to the music. It's easy to write a lick that sounds good out of context, but then you play it over a song and it doesn't quite fit. It's too long or too short. The rhythmic groupings are off. The pitches just don't sing. All of the above. Maybe breaking it down would help.
  • Step 1: Identify the core pitches of your new guitar lick. While the recording plays, slowly play guitar and identify two or three notes that seem to ring out well over the chord(s). Chord tones are a good starting place, so if the chord (or key) is E Major, try Es, G#s, and Bs. Try different registers to find notes that really sing.
  • Step 2: Identify the note grouping/rhythm. Will it be a three or four note grouping (or six or eight by extension)? Let the recorder play while you hold down one note, striking it at the speed you want your new guitar lick to be. I generally start at my top speed and work my way down, and I sometimes alternate between two pitches to help identify the grouping. You may have to stop the recorder and slow down what you're playing to figure out what the grouping is. Let's say you've realized it's a six-note grouping.
  • Step 3: Invent possible patterns. With the recorder off, write some six-note patterns using mostly those three pitches. Here are some examples I tried over one of my songs. e|---19141719171419141719171419---|---19171419171419171419171419---| B|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| G|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| D|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| A|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| E|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| e|---14171419171914171419171914---|---14191714171914191714171919---| B|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| G|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| D|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| A|--------------------------------|--------------------------------| E|--------------------------------|--------------------------------|
  • Step 4: Improvise. When you're ready, it's time to improvise along with the music. This time, you have an advantage. The pitches work and the grouping fits. You just have to decide on the pattern(s), which might take time but is more fun now that it's less frustrating. You'll have to decide how many times to repeat the pattern(s) and how to break it near the end.
  • Step 5: Add some melody at the end. Part of what makes most guitar licks work is the ending, which is often a melody that's a departure from the guitar lick itself. These little melodic snippets bring the guitar lick home. See the example below, from my song "Motif Operandi" from my upcoming CD. As I wrote the descending guitar lick (a three note pattern), I thought it was going well but seemed to dribble off into nothing, so I wasn't going to keep it. Then I improvised the last four climbing notes and the whole thing worked. Many times it seems like a guitar lick is almost cool, but not quite. You have to end it well. e|---12h16p12-----------------------------|-------------------------| B|------------16h17p16-12h16p12-----------|-------------------------| G|------------------------------14h16p14--|--13h14p13-------13-14---| D|----------------------------------------|-----------13h16---------| A|----------------------------------------|-------------------------| E|----------------------------------------|-------------------------| Coda. Even if you don't want a stationary guitar lick, but one that moves (or a scale), the same techniques can get you started. Best of luck, and may your fingers fly true. Randy Ellefson is an instrumental guitarist with endorsements from Alvarez Guitars and Peavey, and a Bachelors of Music in classical guitar, Magna Cum Laude. His debut album was independently released in June 2004, and he is now performing in the U.S. The album's title, The Firebard, is a nod to his experience with tendonitis, which took away his playing for five years before he fully recovered it and rose from his ashes. For more details, mp3s, tabs, articles, videos and other cool stuff, visit the official site.
  • 47 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      x_themetalfan_x
      Pretty nice article, maybe now I can write some good catchy licks! FIRST!!! (for once, hopefully)
      zeebie
      Great article! I printed it out and am saving this on my desk. KEEP ROCKIN!
      greeneggs'n'ham
      ratt&roll, i just thought of something hilarious and off-subject... now that people have posted after you, your post is completely pointless and makes you look like an arrogant retard. Good article, but i would adress exactly what in music theory makes a lick catchy- you only told us how to fit it in. at least you gave us good tab examples, which some people rarely do, so kudos.
      thechangling
      What makes a Catchy lick if it grabs your ear and takes you someplace then its catchy
      Gilmour_Rocks
      does it always has to be fast? heck no! define impressive too....are David Gimlours toneful bends not as impressive as Yngie's bloody shredding? I beg to differ
      emhaslam
      ibanez87 wrote: how come all these articles are so confusing?
      cant u read???
      RandyEllefson
      hey all thanks for all the comments. A pattern is just a group of notes you play repeatedly.
      Orion333
      I also with to adress the Jackass like nature of Ratt&Roll. I predict a gas station, and no women in his future.
      ibanez666
      i liked that article, good stuff. i'll have to take this stuff into consideration.
      thejester
      pretty cool that ellefson actually wrote this. you guys should check out his site
      projectmin25
      if a lick doesnt sound good over a song...make sure you know the chords and always know what key you're in...if its to long...you should already know how long of a window you have for a lick or a solo so as a guitar player, you should have that kind of sence that a lick will work or not...(but as you did state there is always trial and error)
      Rivers
      good article....i think any articles that have a good method for inspiring creativity are valid and helpful.....9/10
      Tablour
      Different approach that you dont usually think about...great article
      ac/guns n zep
      it was good although it doesnt really tell you how to write a guitar lick, it tells you how to fit. a guitar lick into a song.
      _/Ratt&Roll\_
      Hey i just thought of something hilarious and off subject. How about, instead of you losers trying to get glory for being first to post, get it for being last! I am now the last to post! And by the way, i didn't really care for your article because writing licks comes naturally to me so whatever.
      James Dissent
      funny.....i use the same approach when i write my licks too. funny thing is that i tought myself everything i know and i figured no one else used that approach. works well.