Ah, the blues licks, once again we meet and bump snouts as we try to understand you. Perhaps one of the reasons it has so far evaded our understanding and overall comprehension lies in its essence. It is a genre and style of music and performing that is so reliant on a feeling, the essence of hard times distilled through the fingers and the vocal cords and into the air before an audience, or even simply to oneself.
Thus, if we are just starting out, no matter how much we enjoy this style of playing and the music born of it, we aren’t quite going to be able to perform with all the soul that we hear and see in the records and videos we hear and watch. It takes time and practise, especially if we aren’t necessarily approaching it from a place of feeling.
Therefore, in such a scenario as needing blues without having the blues, blues licks come to the rescue, allowing quick passage from chord to chord, blues scale to blues scale, in the moment or with perhaps more forethought. Since this is such a plundered area of music, responsible as it is for the birth of rock and roll as stolen by Elvis Presley, there is a whole wealth of such blues licks waiting for you discover them, a few of which we will list right here!
What Exactly are Blues Licks?
Contrary to their etymological meaning, blues licks have nothing to do with licking, eating, or tongues in general.
A lick is generally described as a stock pattern or phrase comprised ‘of a short series of notes used in solos and melodic lines and accompaniment. For musicians, learning a lick is usually a form of imitation. By imitating, musicians understand and analyze what others have done, allowing them to build a vocabulary of their own.’ Blues licks are, therefore, those licks that are specific to blues music contexts.
‘A lick is different from the related concept of a riff, as riffs can include repeated chord progressions. Licks are more often associated with single-note melodic lines than with chord progressions. However, like riffs, licks can be the basis of an entire song. Single-line riffs or licks used as the basis of Western classical music pieces are called ostinatos. Contemporary jazz writers also use riff- or lick-like ostinatos in modal music and Latin jazz. Imitating style is as important as learning the appropriate scale over a given chord.’
‘A lick can be a hook, if the lick meets the definition of a hook: “a musical idea, a passage or phrase, that is believed to be appealing and make the song stand out”, and “catch the ear of the listener”. A lick may be incorporated into a fill, which is a short passage played in the pause between phrases of a melody.’
The idea of expanding your repertoire – your bag of tricks as some refer to it in the game – ought to be ringing in the ears of those who are just beginning but want to perfect their instrument and their understanding of this style of music.
If we think of licks as key phrases that we might learn when attempting to learn another language to navigate a different cultural space, then blues licks will be a series of phrases that we can quote when navigating the specific cultural space of blues music, connecting our own melodic inventions with the cultural imaginary and the stylistic tradition.
Some Examples of Blues Licks
A complete anthology of all blues licks would be improbable, if not impossible, as the culturally imagined repertoire is being added to all the time, at the ends of fingers like your own. So, here we will outline a couple to get you started, to bridge the gap between your own blues licks and melodic turns of phrase and perhaps even to write your own compositions, freshly inspired by the blues licks outlined within.
Blues Licks #1
As with many blues licks, the rhythm of the one below should not be underestimated. It is ever so slightly syncopated and it is up to you to place that syncopation within how you see fit. Make it your own in that regard. The accent lays in between the beats and you have to start the lick at the upbeat from beat one.
Inside this lick are both binary and ternary rhythms, those that divide into two and those that divide into three, a triplet being an example of the latter in the real world. See if you can spot where it might logically be laid, and sow those seeds yourself; make it your own.
Technically, this is far from the most difficult of blues licks, but therein lies the beauty of what makes the lick as a concept so beautiful and pure. It is a language that anyone can understand and, with a little diligent practise and feeling out of the instrument, that anyone can speak. Here, the budding and aspiring blues guitarist will simply be required to implement a hammer on and a vibrato. Can you guess where? Where might you hear these techniques phrased in your average blues song?
It could be an idea to play this lick without a plectrum, at least initially. In doing so you can make use of other types of dynamics with your guitar playing which aren’t otherwise possible, expanding your repertoire in a meta sense and becoming far more expressive a musician in the process.
Blues Licks #2
This second of the blues licks here detailed is a slight development from the last, making use of double stops which will sound perfect with a bit of distortion to have the notes singing out and clashing with each other harmonically.
A double stop technique simply means that there are two notes on adjacent strings played at the same time. This kind of double stop is a mainstay in blues licks ad nauseum, and is a perfect exercise with which to exercise one’s finger technique. Playing any more than one string consistently and accurately with a plectrum can be very difficult, so it would be useful to implement the more adept and agile solo fingers working as one.
Just as with the lick previously, and with many blues licks throughout the history of popular music, this lick contains a combination of both major and minor harmonic elements, which gives the blues its signature sound and singular dissonance.
You can see below the E major pentatonic and the E minor pentatonic from which this lick is derived. See if you can spot which elements are drawn from which:
It is important that you don’t fall into the trap of too often playing other’s licks and copying them without understanding from where they are derived.
Without acquiring knowledge of the scale(s) from which the lick is derived could result in your using it in the wrong context, e.g. playing one of these licks in a minor blues context, which could prove fatal to your blues licks credibility. The two blues licks we analysed in this article are on the other hand perfect to use over dominant seven chords such as the ones used in a standard 12 bar blues.
So, there you have it, a couple of useful and essential blues licks to get you started on your journey. Remember, you would do much better to use these as mere guides and to keep them in mind rather than to rely on them entirely to forge your way through the blues.
It would be utterly inadvisable for you to just memorise these licks and to lay them down in a blues jam without assessing the context, and certainly not to do so without learning the melodic and harmonic foundation of each lick, so as to know which context to implement them in and which to avoid.
This is far from an exhaustive list of blues licks and useful information. Your own intuition will be your most valuable guide through the panoptic pantheons of information strewn across the face of the internet. There is certainly far more to navigate as a result of this technological age, and knowing which advice to follow and which not to can feel nigh on impossible. Trust your insides, and trust your judgement.
FAQs Blues Licks
First we must grapple with the idea of the lick, which is generally described as ‘a short series of notes used in solos and melodic lines and accompaniment. For musicians, learning a lick is usually a form of imitation. By imitating, musicians understand and analyze what others have done, allowing them to build a vocabulary of their own.’ Blues licks are therefore those licks which are borrowed from and / or used in the context of a blues song, jam, or composition otherwise influenced by the blues.
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