This is a three-part series on how to use licks in bluegrass songs. Part one focuses on fill-in licks, and how they can be used to add energy and style to a melody. In part two, we abandon the melody altogether and learn how licks can be used instead when they follow the chord progression. Finally, in part three, we will study how to make small changes to licks to make them fit into a song better.
Fill the gaps
Fill-in licks are short musical ideas that a good player can slide in-between the phrases sung by the singer. Here’s a diagram showing how this might work in “Old Home Place.”
Licks are associated with chords. There are G licks, C licks, D licks, Em licks, etc. This is one reason why it’s so important to learn the chord progression to the song. Without knowing what the chords are, you would never know what lick to use.
If you are new to bluegrass flatpicking, fill-in licks are a great way to start improvising. Rather than having to come up with a new original idea, you can take a fill-in lick that you have practiced, and use it in may different places in a song, depending on the chords.
Ex.1 is the first fill-in lick most bluegrass guitarists learn is Lester Flatt’s G-run:
Ex. 2-4 are a few other fill-in licks to learn and use. To make this easier to learn, these fit into the same span of time as the G-run above.
Looking at these, you may notice that there is a rest on beat one on each of these fill-in licks. The reason for this is practical. The last word of the phrase often happens on beat one. If you listen to the singer, you can use that word as a “trigger” to know when to start the lick.
Using Fill-in licks in a solo
You can also use fill-in licks in a guitar solo. Ex.6 is a simple melody break to “Little Cabin Home on the Hill.”
Ex.7 is the same tab, with a fill-in lick added on the D chord at the end of the second line.
Licks become part of your language on the guitar, and show your personal style. I would suggest learning a handful of licks, and start putting them into songs, rather than trying to learn 1,000 licks right off the bat. As you listen to players that you enjoy, you might hear them play a lick that you want to add into your own playing. Whether you learn it by tab, or by slowing down the recording until you have it mastered, start using that lick every chance you get.