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50 rock guitar licks you need to know
For the past few weeks, Guitar Techniques have been posting sections of this bumper feature showing you how to dramatically increase your rock soloing potential, and boost your fingerboard knowledge at the same time. Here, though, are all 50 licks in the same place for the first time. Scroll down for the full tutorial, and check out the gallery for larger tab…
The main focus here in terms of vocabulary is classic rock, which we're going to define for the purposes of this study as pre-Van Halen, so you'll find no eight-finger tapping, no three-octave sweep picked arpeggios and no 32nd-note legato monster licks. What you will find, however, is a choice selection of medium-tempo classic rock phrases that are stylistically diverse, melodically flexible, and display a wide range of articulation and dynamic devices.
They are all also completely useable to guitarists of many levels and in a variety of settings. It's arguable that it's this mid-tempo range phrasing that really establishes the character of a rock guitarist. When the tempo gets cranked up there are generally less workable options.
You'll often find the same fingerings and melodic pathways being adopted by a large number of players, but it's the melodic phrasing and note selection that really allows their personality to shine through.
This study divides the fretboard into five areas, or positions. As the pentatonic scale forms the basis for a huge amount of rock soloing, each area relates directly to the scale's associated CAGED minor form (see below).
For each area of activity we have presented ten different ideas - a lick, a melodic fragment, or some form of sequential permutation of the notes. Whilst the pentatonic scale is generally at the core of each idea, we are by no means restricted to it exclusively.
Follow the associated text for each idea and all will become clear. You have two strategic choices when approaching this study. The first is to work through each idea in sequence with a single isolated fretboard position. While we're at it, ensure that you can move each idea through a selection of keys.
It's fair to say that rock styles tend to favour the keys of E, A, D and G, so start with these before eventually aiming for fluency in every key. The second option is to read through the pages, and therefore move along the fretboard horizontally. Moving each associated idea (bends, for example) in sequence through each of the CAGED minor pentatonic shapes.
The beauty of the five-position system
We've purposefully designed each example to be distinctly different from the next, to achieve a spread and balance of musical ideas that forces you to exploit the full range of the fretboard and, most importantly, exploit the individual fingering potential inherent within each form. The beauty of the five-position system is that it gives you some very bold and instantly identifiable visual, aural and physical landmarks when learning new ideas.
You get nowhere by brushing stuff under the carpet, so once you spot a weak area, or fretboard 'blind-spot' you can then take remedial action. Another way to expand your knowledge is to imagine you have to write all of the examples for this lesson, and you can't use any of the ones we've already presented. Go on, we dare you! You'll learn a huge amount in a very short and focused time, we promise you.
Playing tips: area one
Listen: licks 1-10
Example 1.1: Phrasing
Let's begin with a Brian May-style lick. It's got an interesting melodic shape, a great rhythmic structure, a marvellous sense of flow and perfect grace and composure. What more does a great rock lick need?
Example 1.2: Bends
We could have filled this entire article with bending licks from this area! We'll just give you this Hendrix-inspired chord-tone beauty and leave you to find the other 49 for yourselves. Intonation and control are the issues here so use your ears and watch your tuning.
Example 1.3: Repetition
Before there was Paul Gilbert, there was Steve Morse. Without divulging the picking secrets of the 'Rock Guitar Magic Circle Society, examine how the hammer-ons in bar 2 facilitate greater speed and stamina.
Example 1.4: Intervallic/Slide
Nothing earth-shattering from a note perspective here; it's the articulation that counts. Consider your fingering options as this is a massive influence on your effectiveness in executing the idea cleanly and efficiently.
Example 1.5: Sequential (Descending)
Where would Thin Lizzy (or indeed Jimmy Page) be without this lick? We're looking at a descending sequence of three notes, transposed to each potential starting note from the minor pentatonic.
Next: area one (part two)
Area one (part two)
Listen: licks 1-10
Example 1.6: Sequential (Ascending)
Here's the reverse ascending version. Notice that this is not an exact mirror image of the descending version, but when you attempt to connect the two up at any point within the sequence everything should make perfect sense.
Example 1.7: Triadic/Arpeggio
We shall ease you into our triadic based section with a simple three-against-four idea. Again, intonation (tuning between the notes) is a huge issue, so make sure you're perfectly in tune.
Example 1.8: Double-Stop
Down in Louisiana, a boy named Johnny (okay, only my mother calls me Johnny and it was really Liverpool) came up with this double-stop lick. The thickening effect of playing two notes at once is remarkably effective when projection is an issue.
Example 1.9: Scalar
Before there was Yngwie we had Randy! This three-notes-per-string finger-twister neatly boxes in our first area pentatonic shape, and fills in the scale tones courtesy of the Aeolian-endorsed and metal-approved flattened 6th (F) and natural 2nd (B)!
Example 1.10: Horizontal
Unison bends sound great. Fact! None more so than when Jimi Hendrix employed them. Here we're spelling out the harmonically sophisticated Am11th arpeggio (A, C, E, G, D). Who said rockers couldn't mix it with the intellectuals?
Next: area two
Playing tips: area two
Listen: licks 11-20
Example 2.1: Phrasing
If Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy were to collaborate and create the mother of all area two licks, this is what we think they'd come up with.
Example 2.2: Bends
The essence of three guitar gods within three bars! In bar 2 we have Jimi's take on area two, in bar 3 we make the shift toward Steve Lukather, and finally in bar 4 we see how Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour and Joe Walsh might incorporate some Albert King bending.
Example 2.3: Repetition
Gary Moore is the inspiration behind this repetitive cyclic idea, based entirely on the minor pentatonic. Notice how in the sped-up version we're replacing.
Example 2.4: Slides
The abundance of tone gaps on the high strings is exploited fully in this slippery example. Ensure that the three-fret slide in bar 2 gets to pitch accurately.
Example 2.5: Sequential (Descending)
This triplet-based example is again derived from a sequence of three, although this time it alternates between descending and ascending notes. Pull-off s and hammer-ons are used whenever possible to achieve a smooth 'legato' sound.
Next: area two (part two)
Area two (part two)
Listen: licks 11-20
Example 2.6: Sequential (Ascending)
And here is the ascending version of the same idea. You can loop this alternating sequence of ascending and descending threes at any point in the sequence.
Example 2.7: Triadic/Arpeggio
We begin with a rhythmically displaced minor triad. Later in bar 1 the 5th of the triad is flattened for a more sinister sound. Then we exploit the sophisticated minor-add2 arpeggio (R 2 b3 5), but the bends stop things from sounding clinical.
Example 2.8: Double-stops
Jimi Hendrix meets Steve Cropper with this double-stop idea, initially based around the perfect fourths that are found on the first three strings within this area. As the lick progresses we get more scalar, adding the sweet sounding 2nd/9th into the mix.
Example 2.9: Scalar/Pedal-point
When approaching the A minor scale (A B C D E F G), all of the open strings are available to us as they correspond to notes found within the scale. This Gary Moore-inspired phrase showcases this concept perfectly.
Example 2.10: Horizontal
There are two pathways through the minor pentatonic scale that traverse the fingerboard using nothing but tone gaps and slides. This is the first of these pathways, and is a highly effective device to cover ground in a logical and highly musical way.
Next: area three
Playing tips: area three
Listen: licks 21-30
Example 3.1: Phrasing
Ritchie Blackmore inspired this arpeggio/scale combination phrase, utilising the minor triad, the flattened 5th interval, and the minor pentatonic add 2 scale (A B C D E G), with elements of blues phrasing in the final bar.
Example 3.2: Bends
We're in Jimmy Page territory here, with a Herculean bend between the minor 3rd (C) and the perfect 5th (E) of our intended A minor chord. That's four frets! The reduced tension of the second string (and using support fi ngers) makes this perfectly feasible.
Example 3.3: Repetition
This nifty move between a bent note and rapid pull-off requires both precision and stamina, so be patient when building it up to both the necessary speed and duration.
Example 3.4: Slides/Double-stops
The interval of a 6th is effective within all styles of music, implying a great sense of sophistication, and rock is no exception. This idea switches between articulate intervallic skipped single-notes and harmonically dense double-stops.
Example 3.5: Sequential (Descending)
This idea is based around a descending sequence of four. While it's a great idea to move these ideas through a complete scale in its entire range, you may find it more effective to use just a short fragment of each pattern.
Next: area three (part two)
Area three (part two)
Listen: licks 21-30
Example 3.6: Sequential (Ascending)
Once again, here's the mirror-image ascending version of the previous pattern.
Example 3.7: Triadic/Arpeggio
This Iron Maiden inspired idea superimposes the triads of A minor, G and F against a static root note. It works because all of these chords can be found within the harmonised A minor scale, on degrees I (Am), flattened 7th (G), and flattened 6th (F).
Example 3.8: Double-Stop
Here's a Blackmore-inspired riff . The pentatonic scale works great when played in double-stops, as this phrase demonstrates. Needless to say, you should get to work with ideas of this nature throughout all of the remaining positions.
Example 3.9: Scalar
Here we're using the 5th degree (E) as a pivot, ascending through various degrees of A minor scale but always returning to the E 'pedal-tone' after each new note.
Example 3.10: Horizontal
Most players have 'standard' devices that they often use when creating solos. These go some way to establishing the personal identity or signature sound of the artist. This idea comes from Tony Iommi, and can be found all over the place in his soloing.
Next: area four
Playing tips: area four
Listen: licks 31-40
Example 4.1: Phrasing
This bending idea demonstrates that the rhythm of a phrase is as important as the note selection. Rock requires conviction, so be bold and play with authority.
Example 4.2: Bends
The trick to this finger twister is to bend the first string at the 15th fret and allow your finger to push the second string at the same time, without sounding it. Once the bend is up to pitch, shift the weight of this finger (try the third) over to the second string, which should be already bent up a tone. Sound this note and then return the string to its unbent pitch. Jimi Hendrix and Joe Walsh have used this idea.
Example 4.3: Repetition
We're taking the liberty of exploiting open strings with this example, so the idea is not easily transposable. Restrictions aside, it's still a useful and musically effective pull-off lick that will put your fretting-hand stamina and accuracy to the test. Aim for as much volume as possible and remember that the best way to make sustainable progress is to increase speed a little bit at a time.
Example 4.4: Slides
Again, we're making great use of all the tone gaps present within the pentatonic scale, although in the second bar we're upping the ante with a minor 3rd slide. Streams of 16th notes can be exciting to listen to, but your timing precision is crucial. Don't be afraid to start slow (and I mean SLOW) and build up speed gradually when everything is under complete control.
Example 4.5: Sequential (Descending)
This idea utilises an ascending intervallic pattern that shifts through the minor pentatonic scale from each degree in a descending direction. We're also rhythmically displacing four-against-three, and these two factors combine to produce a jaunty, jagged and rhythmically propulsive musical phrase. Take time to consolidate your picking though - no slides or legato to hide behind here!
Next: area four (part two)
Area four (part two)
Listen: licks 31-40
Example 4.6: Sequential (Ascending)
Back to our sequences of three, this time the direction has been switched around so that each three-note group descends, but then the entire 'cell' ascends through each scale degree. Feel free to try any numeric permutation you see fit.
Example 4.7: Triadic/Arpeggio
I'm coming over all nostalgic as I present to you my first sweep-picked lick. It still sounds great after all these years, although I've got a dim recollection that I used to play it at least a couple of times in every single solo, much to everyone else's disgust! This lick morphs from Blackmore to Clapton. You may find that alternate picking is the way to go for the final bar.
Example 4.8: Double-stop
We begin this lick with a crunchy oblique bend - one note remains stationary whilst another moves. In bars 2 and 3 we're mixing things up, with some diatonic thirds and chord tones, ending on yet another oblique double-stop bend in a higher register.
Example 4.9: Arpeggio/Scalar
Here we're seamlessly making the transition from a minor triad arpeggio to a connecting fragment based around the associated diatonic minor scale. See if you can come up with a selection of variations based around this idea. Once again, the rhythm and flow of each phrase is a crucial factor in determining the eff ectiveness of each new musical idea.
Example 4.10: Horizontal
Although Slash is a modern rock player, his style belongs to the 'classic' era. This Slash-style lick moves predominantly along the length of a single string and it is derived from the exotic sounding Harmonic minor scale (R 2 b3 4 5 b6 7). Be careful with the rapid position shifts and slides. Build up speed gradually with the assistance of the advancing guitarist's best friend: the metronome.
Next: area five
Playing tips: area five
Listen: licks 41-50
Example 5.1: Phrasing
The only thing that separates many classic rock phrases from their closely related blues cousins is the amount of gain and dynamic attack. This lick is one such example and would be equally at home in either setting.
Example 5.2: Bends
Each position presents new possibilities, with the new fingering placing different notes under string-bending fingers. Here the minor 3rd bend between E and G is easily attainable as it is found under the third finger. To achieve the same sonic result in Area 1 you would either have to use your first finger (not the most desirable digit!) or shift back a position, which effectively puts you in area 5 anyway.
Example 5.3: Repetition
The first bar of this example features a triplet hammer-on pattern that toggles between the use of the major 6th and the flattened 7th intervals, both present in the harmonically appropriate Dorian mode (R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7). Paul Kossoff was particularly fond of using this kind of idea. He also had one of the best vibratos in rock (ask Joe Bonamassa), so we'd urge you to check him out!
Example 5.4: Slides/pedal-tone
Here's a pedal-tone idea that is melodically simple yet retains interest via the use of some crafty slides. It's also got a rather interesting rhythmic shape. Why not keep the rhythm and change the notes to come up with an idea of your own?
Example 5.5: Sequential (Descending)
We can view this pattern as a descending four-note group that has been shifted forward by a single 16th note, or alternatively as a three-note pattern that goes 3 2 1 3, and then descends from each scale degree in turn.
Next: area five (part two)
Area five (part two)
Listen: licks 41-50
Example 5.6: Sequential (Ascending)
And here's the ascending form of the same pattern.
Example 5.7: Triadic
Randy Rhoads was responsible for this one, although Django definitely got there first, and Les Paul wasn't too far behind! We're essentially trilling from the semitone below each chord-tone to the intended target note. Aim to stay in time. You can start with 16th-notes (four notes per click) and aim to work your way up to 16th note triplets (six notes per click).
Example 5.8: Double-stops
We've taken a few liberties here, as strictly speaking numerous notes are out of position. This is to maintain fingering integrity, and it sounds cool. Most of the intervals are a perfect 4th apart, with two major 3rd exceptions in the first and third bars.
Example 5.9: Scalar
Our penultimate example comes to you courtesy of Journey's Neal Schon, and features the popular add-on to the minor pentatonic of the natural 2nd degree, creating a scale with the logical title of minor pentatonic add 2 (R 2 3 4 5 b7). In the second bar we also see a brief appearance of the flattened 5th, giving us effectively the blues scale (R b3 4 b5 5 b7), another hugely used scale in all rock styles.
Example 5.10: Horizontal
You may remember (Area 2, Ex 2.10 to be precise) that there were two main pathways to get you through the minor pentatonic scale just by using tone gaps and slides. Well, here's the second. You can view this as three versions of the same two string pattern in low, middle and high octaves. Any phrase performed in one can be instantly transposed to the next. Simple, but really useful!
Liked this? Now read:50 guitar chord shapes you need to know
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