There are a lot of terms one has to wrap their head around when it comes to the world of music creation, even in the case of one particular niche in that same subject: guitar-playing. One such term is the phrase, “guitar lick” contrasted to the “guitar lick.”
Sometimes, the term is used interchangeably with the word, “riff,” although, the two are ultimately quite different from each other, which I’ve already touched on in another article that you can access at this link here. That said, I think a lick is worth exploring on its own.
Simply put, a guitar lick is an incomplete musical phrase without a definitive musical theme. It’s a series of notes that can be used in a number of musical contexts without being associated with a particular song or composition.
Explained another way, playing a riff references a song, whereas a lick doesn’t reference anything. For example, many guitar players use similar guitar licks in their guitar solos, but it’s not considered copyright infringement because the lick isn’t associated with a specific song. This may seem confusing, but it really isn’t. We’ll explain what this means in more detail now.
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Guitar Licks Explained
A guitar lick isn’t necessarily defined by a certain number of notes, whether they’re loud or soft, quiet or loud, or played at a particular speed.
It’s just a collection of notes that are played in a musical context, but typically, it’s an incomplete musical phrase that can’t be repeated on its own to become a riff.
A good way of describing a guitar lick is that it’s an incomplete musical phrase that isn’t associated with one song over another.
I used a number of examples in my article on the difference between a guitar riff and a guitar lick.
If you think of the riff from “Smoke On The Water,” for example, this is a guitar riff that’s forever associated with the song from Deep Purple (a great one to learn for beginners on Guitar Tricks).
There is simply no way you can repeat this riff without referencing the iconic song from Deep Purple.
That riff is forever associated with “Smoke On The Water,” and it always will be. Whenever someone plays that riff, it’s immediately referencing the specific song written, performed, and played by the legendary rock band.
This is quite a bit different from a guitar lick, which really is just a collection of notes that is incomplete in itself and is often used to spice up a musical phrase or a passage.
A guitar lick can be a part of a guitar solo, a rhythm section, a lead section, a short phrase at the end of the intro or an outro, or even a part of the chorus.
I think that the best way of describing the guitar lick is with Blues examples. Blues guitarists and rock guitarists, in many ways, have been repeating the same guitar licks for years which makes sense considering they’ve been using the same scales (my guide).
It really isn’t hard to see how this is the case.
For example, even by looking at classic songs from artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn in comparison to Slash, from Guns and Roses, one can see how the playing style is very similar.
For the most part, the difference between guitar playing styles comes down to minute details.
It’s within those minute differences that make one player much different from the other, but ultimately, guitarists are still playing within an accepted range which constitutes them as a “blues” guitarist or a “rock guitarist.”
Part of this accepted range within a genre features a series of licks that guitar players often utilize from all kinds of eras and periods of musical history.
A great example of a guitar lick would be in the Alice In Chains song, “Man In The Box,” particularly from Jerry Cantrell’s guitar solo in which he does a series of very fast hammer-ons and pull-offs, also called slurs, which is commonly seen in the rock and blues genre (another great one on Guitar Tricks).
It’s very common to end this guitar lick with a bend right after which completes the musical phrase, right before the next section begins.
This style has existed in the blues and rock style for ages.
For example, Kirk Hammett from Metallica does the very same thing in his solos. And there are so many examples of this amid the band’s fairly large discography.
You can look at the album, Kill’Em’All, for example, which features many different guitar solos that utilize the same guitar lick with minor variations. This is one of my favorite tab books ever (from Amazon).
Ultimately, the lick is the same, but what makes it a guitar lick, is the fact there isn’t a complete thematic element to it.
In other words, one can use the same guitar lick in an entirely different song, and the listener won’t think to themselves that it’s a rip-off from another song.
It’s because it’s a “lick” and not a “riff.”
Another example of a common guitar lick in not only rock and blues but also in metal is the way in which a guitar player will play the 12th fret E on the high E-string, and then bend the 15th fret on the B-string up one whole step.
A guitar player will continue playing this phrase over and over again, until finally ending on the note of their choosing.
You can see this guitar lick among a ton of different players as well, including Kirk Hammet again, as well as Shawn Lane RIP.
For example, in the song, “So What?,” from the band, MVP, Shawn Lane’s guitar solo features this very same lick except he ascends up the neck until he gets to a certain point.
Really, these terms are just a way of describing phenomena in music in which musical artists repeat a way of doing things. There is a fine line between plagiarism, and simply being in the same style.
We can look at this same phenomenon in hip-hop music as well. While guitar licks and riffs aren’t terms that are a part of the hip-hop linguistic repertoire, the same concept still exists but in a different form.
One can look at the modern hip-hop scene for an example.
Ever since the popularity of Migos, including Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff, hip-hop artists have been repeating a similar style of rapping in which there is a lot of staccato notes, shouted notes after a completed bar, and sounds like “skrrt skrrt.”
This is one style that has become common in the genre, but it’s not really associated with a specific song, because everyone does it.
And there are other examples of this as well, especially what’s called the “triplet flow.”
YouTube channels such as Earworm have talked about the new style before. The triplet flow is when a rapper says a bunch of lyrics in the triplet format.
You can see this everywhere.
In fact, in one Eminem’s songs from Kamikaze, “The Ringer,” he mocks this very same flow when talking about how all the rappers sound the exact same way and use the same rhythmic style.
I hope you can see what I’m talking about here.
While the classic “triplet flow” is not a guitar lick, in the same way, it’s still the same concept, because it’s just a way of expressing oneself using an instrument whether through a guitar or via one’s voice.
But everyone does it and no one can accuse each other of plagiarism, because there isn’t a completed thematic element to it.
It’s merely a style and a way of expressing oneself musically.
Similarly, guitar playing is filled with common licks and phrases that aren’t associated with a particular person, simply because they’ve been used by so many other artists.
With all that said, I imagine there can be some licks that are unique to one song and one song only, and to repeat it, would automatically be a reference to the source material.
But for the most part, my argument stands.
YouTube Video Tutorial
In summary, a guitar lick is simply an incomplete musical phrase that doesn’t have a thematic element to it. It can be repeated by a number of other artists without calling back to another song written by someone else.