Here Is Why You Will Always Run Out Of Licks

Are you familiar with the following scenario? You sit at home and study a whole bunch of licks by your favorite guitar player. You’re looking forward to your next band practice to jam with the guys and fire off all the new licks you have learned. 

Next band practice arrives, and it’s your time to solo. You bang out all the new licks you have learned, and suddenly you run out of licks to play in the middle of your solo. You start sweating and start playing the licks again, just in a different order. 

You managed to survive the solo this time, but you were shocked at how fast you used all the licks, wondering what to play next. You want to make sure that this never happens again and proceed to learn more licks. Makes sense, right?

While this will be the solution that most guitar players come up with, it is not a solution that I would recommend. 


Because if everything depends on the number of licks you know, it will always be a matter of time when you run out of them. Suddenly you need to play a ten-minute solo in a new song that you wrote with your band, and now what? Learn a thousand new licks to fill that solo? 

If this is how you think, you will always be stuck in the mode to hunt for new licks and – it never ends.

So, what to do? The solution is simple. You need to develop the ability to create your own licks and variations so that you can come up with an unlimited number of licks! Then you will indeed attack the root of the problem and never end up in the situation that you run out of licks. 

So, let us look at what a lick is. A lick is nothing more than a few notes, with phrasing techniques apply to them. That’s it!

Take a simple three-note lick you know, and play it. Now, play it reverse so that you would play the last note first. Now start the lick with using the middle note as the first note.

Here’s a list of all the possible possibilities (mathematicians call those permutations) we can use without repeating a note:

1.) 1,2,3

2.) 1,3,2

3.) 2,1,3

4.) 2,3,1

5.) 3,1,2

6.) 3,2,1

As you can see, we can already create six new licks just by changing the order of those three notes.

Now let’s experiment with how you play each note. 

Instead of playing the note, bend up to it from a half, whole, or even a minor third below. Try bending up to each one of the notes from below. If you have a floating bridge, you can play the note above the original pitch and then dive down to reach the destination note. 

You might also want to experiment with reaching every note using a slide from below or above. 

Or you could entirely remove your picking hand and play all notes with hammer on’s and pull-offs. 

These are just a few options, but as you can see – you can easily spend a month just coming up with different variations of your original three-note lick.

Now, the lick itself is not important at all, which is why I have not given you any specific lick to practice here. The idea is to learn to think in this new way, so it’s not about learning new licks, but it’s all about training the ability to come up with as many different variations of one lick as you can and make them all sound different. 

Where’s the catch? There has to be a catch, right? 

Yes, there is. While it’s one of the most useful skills to develop as a musician, this type of practice takes a lot of brainpower. Your brain will hate it and will make you want to abandon this training as quickly as possible, because it’s a lot of work to go through each variation before playing and using it. 

Our brain does not like that work and would much rather learn some ready-made licks to get instant results, but we have seen what this leads to, right? The running out of licks problem.

So you decide: Do you want to continue hunting for more and more licks and yet still run out of them, or do you want to build the skill to create fresh sounding stuff on the fly? 

About the author: Derk Stiepelmann teaches students the art of guitar at the Songwriter’s Shed guitar school in Dortmund, Germany. If you are interested in guitar lessons in Dortmund, click the link to visit his website.