Recently, I’ve been getting asked the question of “How to play licks between chords” – which is a very attractive way of playing.

So I thought I would dig into this topic a little bit and give you some insight on how this is done.

Here is the chord progression that I will use:

 |Em9 |Em9 |Am add9 |Am add9 |C     |Bm |Em9  |Em9:||

…and the chords:

                 Em9                                                    Am add9                                                        C                                                  Bm

If these chord forms are too tricky to play, just use their basic triads Em, Am, C, and Bm – works just as well.

…and here is the backing track:

Know Your Timing 

 Your ability to play licks between chords will require knowing the structure of the chord progression.   This is very important as you will need some TIME available within the structure to apply a lick.  Notice that there are 2 measures of Em9 together and 2 measures of Am add9 together.  

Knowing this enables you to PLAN when you might want to drop a lick into the progression (just because there are two measures of a chord does not mean you have to play each chord). 

A good rule of thumb is that if a chord repeats itself for two or more measures, you can replace the chord with a “related” lick .  You might choose to play |CHORD|LICK|CHORD| LICK|. 

Take another look at out chord progression:

|Em9 |Em9 |Am add9 |Am add9 |C     |Bm |Em9  |Em9:||

It would be typical to play the first Em9 and apply a lick in the second measure.  Apply the same thinking  during the second Am add9 (measure 4).   Let’s just play the the chords C & Bm as they are (measures 5 & 6).  Then, in measures 7 & 8, re-apply our lick strategy.

|Em9 |LICK |Am add9 |LICK |C     |Bm |Em9  |LICK:||

There’s no question that this approach to playing licks between chords is a bit “mechanical” but you have to start somewhere.  As your timing and rhythm awareness develops with experience, you will find yourself “inserting” your lick ideas  more at WILL than by design.  It becomes more of a FEEL than a script.  But in the meantime….

Where the licks come from?

It goes (I hope) without saying that you need some “lick-material” to use when the time arises.  But where do the licks come from?  A very common approach here is to arm yourself with pre-created and pre-studied (i.e memorized) licks. 

Then you must practice moving into and out of the  (pre-formed) lick within the context of a jam session or backing track.  This in itself can be tricky to do because the lick might not have the same FEEL as the surrounding context (think: cut  & paste) …but it’s the one you know so you strive to make it work – and that’s a good musical skill worth cultivating.

But for our purpose, I want you to create your own licks that will tend to flow intrinsically better within the context of playing and listening to the backing track.

Yes! Spontaneously creating a lick! ).  OMG!

Of course, for the most part, the licks you create will be based on what you currently know regarding possible scale, arpeggio, and chord fragment tools.  But I’ll bet if you’re reading this (and you’ve gotten familiar with the chord progression) you might think:

The chord progression is in the Key of E minor! 

and therefore…

I might try the E minor pentatonic scale! (a guitarist’s default scale thinking) 

Here are the chords in the Key of E minor:

Em    F#dim    G    Am    Bm    C    D   

…and the chords (triads) in my progression are just “fancied – up” versions of the one’s BOLDED.

The Eminor pentatonic  scale is made up of the notes:

E   G   A   B    D

And here are two forms of the  Em pentatonic scale. You’re probably more familiar with the pattern in BLACK :


But let’s do some simplifying just to reduce the movement on the fretboard.

And from this you could VISUALIZE even two separate (but related) note clusters or shapes (which ever viewpoint works for you). 


OK!  Now as I mentioned earlier, you are probably more familiar with the pentatonic pattern in black than in blue…but together they are more manageable as a starting point to create LICKS rather than using the full patterns of both (too much information!).

Indeed, you could use one or the other or both (as they connect through the common G & D notes).  For our purpose, these two patterns (or combining both) will serve as our source of licks.  


Now We Build Some Licks to Play Between Chords

 Most of the time, this will be the activity that tends to really shake students up!

They’ve got the tools (Em minor pentatonic) but are unsure of WHAT to do with them in order to create a lick.

A great place to start, but often under appreciated by the student, is to simply  ramble around the Em pentatonic patterns with no particular point in mind other than pure DISCOVERY.  The problem is that students often expect to be able to produce a lick of a caliber similar to the music heroes they listen to. 

This is, of course, an unrealistic expectation and you can bet that their EGO is wasting no time in reminding them how much they suck at this experience.     

And it’s that very ego that will STOP them from exploring the process of lick creation even before it’s really begun.

It’s only a tough phase when you listen to your ego.  Let go of that beast and the process is like being a young child again exploring sand in a sand box…no one is telling the child how to push the sand around and an ego hasn’t really formed yet.  Pure exploration.  Go there!

Pretty soon the child will create sand mountains.  Then, just by accident, a little water added to the sand helps the child build taller mountains.  Eventually a little sand castle will get made and, maybe, before you know it, the child becomes an architect.

The point is that the process of organizing and creating music requires experience which, of course, requires time.

I’m not waxing poetic here!

There is a very big part of the music creation  process (licks in our case) that relies on simply exploring sound. 

  • Kids are great at exploring sound. 
  • Teens begin to get “sensitive” about exploring (they don’t want to look un-cool in the process).
  • Adults have mostly forgotten how to explore (there are always exceptions of course).

While exploring sound in a child-like manner is a wonderful experience, eventually some level of “structure” will be needed – especially RHYTHMIC STRUCTURE.

So how do you assemble a LICK (let’s say from one of our two pentatonic patterns) that sounds more interesting than just grabbing note after note with no musical structure to it?  After all, I’m thinking you want your licks to sound cool to you…right?

Well here’s a great tool to get you started that will help you build a lick right now – and you’re… already good at it now!

The tool is your SPEAKING VOICE!

 Say the sentence:   Already good at it now! out loud.

My guess is that it came out of your voice something like this…

    (Al – rea – dy)    (good – at – it!)    (now)

If you listen carefully, you mostly likely placed a little extra emphasis on the syllables (Al),  (good) and (now)  It just naturally happens in the spoken English language and it makes sense to other ears that speak English. 

The really cool thing is that there is a built in RHYTHM in the way you speak.

(Al – rea – dy)    (good – at – it!)    (now)

becomes (rhythmically)…

(Da – da -da)    (Da – da -da)    (Da )

The point is that you already posses a natural rhythm within your own speaking.  Pay attention to that rhythm and use it in your lick creation.  With time and experience, licks will get created more “on the spot” reflecting your collective rhythmic, melodic and harmonic experience. 

From here, it’s up to you to choose which notes of the pattern you will play to your rhythm.

There are some principles around which notes to play at certain chord points in the progression but let’s leave that for another lesson.

Licks Live in a Context

One of the biggest problems I see when students are building licks is a lack of awareness that licks live in a rhythmic context – Something happens BEFORE the lick and something happens AFTER the lick…and it all needs to flow and make rhythmic sense and be “on time”.  The rhythmic ability to play a lick between chords is a significant challenge for many…but it is trainable so fear not!

 In our case, there are chords that come before and after a lick.

 The way you play the chord, the timing of that, how you enter into the lick, how you leave the lick and enter into the next chord…all of this needs to be performed with rhythmic flow and timing.  Again, there is much to be said regarding intuition, but an awareness (once again) of the structure within the chord progression will help us get underway with getting our lick to flow well (as if it required no thought at all to perform).

 Recall the chord progression we are using:

   |Em9 |Em9 |Am add9 |Am add9 |C     |Bm |Em9  |Em9:||

 ..and the same progression with LICK moments inserted:

  |Em9 |LICK |Am add9 |LICK |C     |Bm |Em9  |LICK:||

 With the backing track in mind, you might be aware that the CHORD and LICK moments last for 4 beats each ( i.e 4 beats per measure for 8 measures).  In the language of music we would say the  progression is in 4/4 time.  

 Here’s a picture of the TIME component as it relates to each chord and Lick:

  | Em9          | LICK      |Am add9| LICK       | C               | Bm          | Em9         | LICK       :||

 | 1  2  3  4   | 1  2  3  4| 1  2  3  4 | 1  2  3  4 | 1  2  3  4 | 1  2  3  4| 1  2  3  4 |1  2  3  4 :||

 Now, let’s expand the 1st LICK measure so we can see how the rhythm will fit within the beat structure.

 Da     –    da     –   da     Da     –     da     –     da     Da

                                                                  | 1                                        2                                         3                               4 ||                               

Here is one (very general) strategy to play a lick between chords:

  •  Strum Em9 once and let it ring for 4 beats.  (This will give some time to prepare for the LICK).  When you strum, that’s beat 1.
  •  Play the LICK starting on beat 1 of the 2nd measure.
  •  Strum Am add9 once and let it ring for 4 beats.  When you strum, that’s beat 1.
  •  Play the LICK starting on beat 1 of the 4th measure.
  • Play C once and let ring for 4 beats.  When you strum, that’s beat 1.
  • Play Bm once and let ring for 4 beats.  When you strum, that’s beat 1.
  • Strum Em9 once and let it ring for 4 beats.  When you strum, that’s beat 1.
  • Play the LICK starting on beat 1 of the 8th measure.  

 Example One (Repeating LICK no.1)

Final Thoughts…

 As you get more confident with the thinking and the process, you will begin to take more risks as you try rhythmic variations of the process above.  You really have to explore this stuff and ultimately make the process “your own process”.  Until you do that, the “process” of playing a lick between chords will always sound a bit too mechanical.

There’s no substitute for spending lots of time with your instrument and thinking this stuff through.  Your brain will understand it quicker than your fingers will –  so make sure you do the work…or is it play.  

At some point you’ll want to include various articulations to rev up the interest of the LICK:  Slides, string bending, hammer- ons/pull-offs, tapping, doubles stops…lots of options to explore.

Time makes it all look so natural…but you know the truth!



Don't Strum Another Song Until You've Read This GUIDE!

"I think it's a fairly well-accepted urban legend that strumming will just occur naturally once a guitarist learns a few chords...and while this may be true for some, your teaching is precisely what the rest of us need in order to progress". 

Dan Tanner

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