Doodling on the guitar would sometimes lead to some good licks. But it also wasted a lot of time as I ran up and down scales without a clear purpose or structure. Too often I'd finish a practice session with no good licks to show for the time spent.
The easy three step process I'm describing here has helped me to create better sounding licks more regularly. With a little practice, and of course knowledge of your guitar scales, you can use it to come up with great sounding licks that serve their purpose every time.
The three steps of the process are:
1. Plan what you want your lick to do.
2. Make up a first version of your lick.
3. Revise and refine your lick.
Now let me share the things I do as part of each step.
1. Plan your lick
In this step you decide what the purpose of your lick is and lay out the initial frame for your lick. An easy way to do this is to answer the questions below.
- What is the main scale you plan to use?
- How many beats or bars does it last?
- What chords is it played over?
- What is the mood of this lick: angry, aggressive, soft, joyful, melancholy...?
- Is it fast, slow, or a bit of both?
- What two notes on the fretboard do you want to start and end the lick on?
2. Make up a first version of your lick
Now it's time to turn your plan into a series of notes on your guitar.
I find the best results come by working out a rhythm pattern first. Make up a pattern for your lick by singing or clapping it out loud. Don't worry about getting the pitch of the notes right, the aim is to figure out a pattern of long and short notes and spaces.
When you're happy with your rhythm you can start to add notes to it.
Look at your lick's first and last notes. With the count of notes in your rhythm pattern and the main scale you intend to use in mind, choose a series of notes to get from the start note to the end note. Play these notes as you go to see how they sound.
Remember, the route from start to end doesn't have to be a straight line. Be creative and experiment at this stage, you can change things later if anything proves unplayable or just plain weird (unless that's just what you wanted, of course).
3. Revise and refine your lick
By this stage you have a lick worked out with just the series of notes you want. If you're happy with the lick already then you can stop here. But you might want to continue to enhance your lick a little.
You can refine your lick by experimenting with some little alterations to the notes or timing. The little alterations you come up with are also a great way to create more licks that work with the first.
Finally, you can add expressive effects to complete your lick. Bends, slides, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, chromatic step-ins, and picking effects can all give your lick more life and punch. You don't have to go overboard with the effects, they will sound best when used with subtlety and restraint.
If you follow this three step process you will find that it becomes easier to create great sounding licks that fit the songs you wish to play.
One final piece of advice is to write down the licks you come up with. It's so easy to forget them and it would be a shame to lose all that hard work, right?
I like to use tab notation software to save the licks I create. Click here to read about 3 easy to use and inexpensive tools for PC or Mac users.