It seems as though there are two big schools of thought when it comes to learning licks.
In one extreme, you learn every possible lick you can get your hands on. You spend all day and night digesting ideas from the greats so that you can replicate them exactly.
In the second extreme, you barely learn any licks. You don’t want to sound like a copy cat, so you sit in your room and try to reinvent the wheel.
In my opinion, neither of these methods are as effective as people would like to them to be.
I find that students who come to me from the first school of thought have some pretty decent chops, a good sense of time, and sound pretty comfortable in an improvising situation. However, after a certain point, it can be pretty clear that they’re just regurgitating licks that they had learned to a meticulously exact degree. They can literally sound like they’re playing through one of those “100 Great Rock Riffs” books from cover to cover. To make matters worse, if they aren’t familiar with the style of music they’re playing to, have a brain fart, or exhaustingly run through every lick they have stored in their mental library, then things can come to a screeching halt.
This isn’t want improvising or writing music is about. We need to try and create new ideas, and push music forward.
Students from the second school of thought, however, have some advantages and disadvantages as well. I find that these guys and gals have a certain amount of confidence about them when given a chord progression to play over that they may not be super familiar with. They tend to have a really good ear on them and can play songs and ideas they hear in their head with a fair amount of ease. Often times though, they suffer from Bedroom Guitar Syndrome (more on this in another blog) where since they tend to just sit on their bed and write, they don’t have a lot of experience getting rhythmic ideas down, and their timing can be a bit wonky. Also, these players can often run out of ideas pretty quickly, since they don’t have anything else to draw off of besides what they have come up with themselves. Their ear and practice time can get them to a certain point, and then they tend to just sort of repeat the same ideas over and over.
Though wanting to put your own stamp on music through an unhindered force of originality is admirable, not having the tradition of what came before you in your fingers can sometimes leave you directionless.
Obviously, there can be some differences depending on the student, but these are just some trends I’ve noticed.
What has worked best for me (though this is a lifetime of work and learning!) and what I’ve seen work well for my students is trying to find a blend between learning from the masters, and coming up with your own musical ideas. I mean think, very late Coltrane is seen by many to be outrageous and radical music. Well, he didn’t start that way, listen to him in the 50’s with Miles and you can hear an improviser who, while still experimental, was definitely coming from a tradition of some of the Saxophone greats before him.
Imagine a president is about to give a speech. Yes, political speeches tend to have quite a bit of regurgitated ideas and buzz words, which they draw from, but the best speeches always find new ways to express those ideas. If they only said exact phrases from The Gettysburg Address, mixed with some exact phrases from an FDR speech, and then threw in some phrases from another great speech giver like Martin Luther King Jr., but then decided to just put those in a different order. Do you think people would like it? The president would sound stale, unoriginal, and uninspired. This is EXACTLY what you’re doing when you just throw in random perfectly copied licks from your favorite players into your solo melting pot.
On the other hand, if the president went up to his podium and decided to just talk about some completely new topics and ideas that he had thought of, while using words and phrases he also completely made up, a lot of people will be left scratching their heads.
Disclaimer: Sometimes a musician's goal is to have people scratching their head and have them hear something totally new (like that late Coltrane) but if you’re trying to just play a solid gig and get people moving, you can see how this second scenario might be a problem.
In next week’s blog, I’ll talk more in detail about some techniques I’ve found work really well to get this blend of the two worlds, and make yourself a digestible, but original artist, since this seems to be the goal of most musicians. For now, just keep these ideas in mind. What school do you adhere to? What can you learn from the opposite one?
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Guitar Instructor, Co-Owner
Falls Music School