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Understanding “Licks”

One of the most mysterious and misunderstood elements in Folk, Bluegrass and Country music is the “Lick”. Explained simply, a Lick is a short phrase of music, usually composed ahead of time, that is used to ornament the song that you’re playing. No, it’s not a scale or arpeggio, it’s like a miniature composition that is designed for a specific key or to highlight a particular technique. Most Licks are two measures long, but there are also scores of Licks out there that are one measure, or even four measures. For the record, when a Lick gets to be longer than four measures it is generally considered to be a “run”, or a combination of smaller Licks.

All good players end up collecting Licks that they like, often from the playing of musicians that they admire, or made up using a certain technique on their instrument. We can then use these pre-learned Licks to spice up our playing at a jam session, or to work our arrangements of songs that we like. As any Google search will show, there are swarms of Licks out there for the taking, and more than enough lessons and courses on “hot licks” guaranteed to make you “sound like the pro’s”. Although it is always useful to learn new licks, the problem is that if you don’t have a proper way to learn how to use these licks in real life, they are just wasted brain space. We’ve looked at a bunch of these types of courses over time, and although there are certainly good licks there, they all have the same problem: there is never any follow-up training! This would be like getting a video on how to swim, and practicing in a parking lot. Learning the lick is only the first step, then you need to have a way to get ready to use the lick in real life (as in, jamming!)

Furthermore, you need to understand the various types of Licks that exist. There are at least four distinct kinds of Licks in common usage, and unless you know the difference you won’t be able to use them effective in a real jam session. So let’s start here, learning the four species of Licks that we will be using…

First we will discuss the Intro Lick. The reason that this is such an important type of Lick is it’s the one you use to start off a song! Every instrument has it’s unique Intro Licks, often called “kick-off’s”, and it is advisable to learn at least a few of these in several keys. That way when the large suspender wearing bass player fixes a bleary eye on you and says “kick it off son!” you’ll be able to deliver! (We’ll have information on where to get some of these licks at the end of this article, so keep reading). On the banjo for example, the legendary Earl Scruggs came up with a number of intro licks that became classics, and should be learned by every God fearing banjo picker. Check out how he kicks off Fireball Mail HERE for example, and notice when the band comes in. Classic!

Then we have the rock star of Licks, the Fill Lick. This is that classic sound you hear right after the singer finishes a phrases, and then someone adds an exclamation point with their instrument, so to speak. Probably the most famous of all the Fill Licks is the “Lester Flatt G Run”, where the guitarist plays this bubbly phrases at the end of every verse (as in the TAB shown)

Now of course every instrument has it’s own version of this lick, and once again it is highly recommended that you learn it for at least the keys of G, C and D. For an example of a Fill Lick we turn again to Earl Scruggs…listen to the upper neck Lick you hear in the chorus, right after the phrase “from those blue ridge hills I did roam” HERE. See how perfectly it highlights the vocals? That’s what a well placed Fill Lick should do. Once again you’ll want to learn this on whatever instrument you’re playing, and get some for the common keys like G, C, D, A and even E.

A less heard but equally powerful type of Lick if the Passing Lick. These are phrases specifically designed to move from one chord to another, played under the vocals to give an extra layer of movement and excitement to the song. It’s harder to find this type of Lick simply because it is less popular and everyone is obsessed with playing Fill Licks all the time, but the really good players use Passing Licks in their jams to great effect.

Finally we have the Ending Lick, which is fairly self explanatory. We’ve all heard the famous “shave and a haircut” lick, and there are a thousand variations on it at every jam. Well this is only one of many more Ending Licks that can really add class to that next rendition of  “Nine Pound Hammer”, and as every picker knows, a song is only as good as it’s ending! And the good thing about Ending Licks is that you only have to do ’em once, and it always gets a big applause, sometimes if only because of the sense of relief that the song has finally ended 🙂

So, now that you know the four types of Licks, your mission is simple: learn as many as you can in each category, and then start using them! As we mentioned earlier, the finding of them is often not too difficulty, as there are more Licks on YouTube than ants at a picnic. (Although we recommend just contacting us here at JamAlong and telling is what kind of Licks you need, and we’ll get ’em right out to ya).

Where most folks go wrong is in how they practice the Licks. The secret here is not to “play them in a vacuum”, just practicing them over and over till you have them perfectly. As we mentioned earlier, that is like practicing swimming in a parking lot! You have to learn where to use them! What makes a Lick great is not what you play, but where you play it. And the only way to develop this skill is to play along with real songs. In the olden days this would mean sucking it up and heading out to a jam session, but that’s not really necessary now that we have YouTube. All you have to do now is type in whatever band or song you want, and BAM, you have endless hours of trying to get that Fill Lick in the right spot.

The only problem with the YouTube approach is that there are other players playing over your licks! Ya, YouTube musicians aren’t very considerate 😉 So, here is where we introduce you to the ultimate way to practice your Licks: JamAlong Backing Tracks! Yep, when all you have is a bass, a guitar and a mandolin playing backup for you, it is a real luxury. Now you can hear exactly where you’re supposed to plug that Lick in, and all of our backing Tracks play on endless loop so you don’t have to keep clicking replay. And when you acquire a JamAlong Backing Track you automatically get your own page at Jamalong.org where all of your Backing Tracks will be stored, so you can access them any time you want to have a jam sesh!

We recommend starting out with a classic bluegrass progression like Bury me beneath the Willow, and trying to play different licks for the different chords as they happen. You can also work on Intro Licks after the count-off, and Ending Licks when the track finishes. After you’re done with the song in the key of G, then move on to the key of A…the fun never ends!

And on top of all that, we offer Custom Backing Tracks for any song you want! yep, just email us or text or call at 530-566-3629, and tell us what song, and we’ll head into the studio and get to work!

So, forget about sitting around playing by your lonesome, get to jamming with some smokin’ Backing Tracks and you’ll be a real monster by the next jam!