The importance of learning licks

by Liam Cain, 5th June 2018 


Should you learn licks or do they hinder you from creating your own sound? Watching one of my favourite guitarists, Matt Schofield, teach a young female guitarist from Denmark, Filippa, about blues, Matt said, ‘I don’t play licks’ & he was encouraging Filippa to do the same. Now I think Matt is great, however, I would encourage Filippa or any other guitarist to learn licks when developing their own style.

Matt Schofield draws on Jazz influences & is a big fan of the pianist, Oscar Peterson. In jazz there is a tradition of learning licks to develop vocabulary in the style. That is why if you have tried to play jazz, having grown up listening to a diet of hard rock, you have nothing to say over a jazz blues. Conversely, the Jazz guitarist would struggle jamming with the rocker. Every style has its own licks, phrases & techniques, conveying the music’s message.

There are staple licks in each style known as cliches & they form a right of passage for musicians - however simple or complex the musical form. Even in Jazz, there is one lick that is so popular it is named the Lick and you can see every musician quote it, including guitarists Pat Metheny & Guthrie Goven. The lick even has its own Facebook page.

If you learn licks, how do you create your own voice with the guitar? This is where your influences become very important. If you listen to Michael Shenker & only Michael Shenker. You practice his licks & solos for weeks, months & years, nailing the wide vibrato. You buy a Flying V & obsess about searching ebay for vintage Marshalls. Guess what? You will sound like Michael Schenker, not yourself. More importantly, you will never be as good as Schenker, because he already owns the copyright!

You need a healthy listening diet. Start with 3 of your favourite players & draw a family tree. Research each player’s influences. You may get a list of between 6 & 20 players to check out. From this list of guitarists, what solos made you want to grab the guitar, inspired you to pack up the playstation or skip Tinder for the evening? Find an online tutorial, buy a transcription book, hey, use your ears & transcribe it yourself. Take your favourite licks & get them under your fingers. Once you have rinsed that player move onto the next and repeat the learning loop.


After a while these different players & how you weave their licks into your playing, is your sound. You have free resources like Learn a Lick Friday to help you. Enjoy the journey, I promise, you will have a lot of fun along the way.

Matt Schofield Picture: eventcentre-hamburg.de

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