Using Fill-in Licks in a Bluegrass Song

Using Fill-in Licks in a Bluegrass Song

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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.1

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.

Ex.2
Ex.3
Ex.4

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.

Ex.5

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.6

Ex.7 is the same tab, with a fill-in lick added on the D chord at the end of the second line.

Ex.7

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.

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6 thoughts on “Using Fill-in Licks in a Bluegrass Song”

  1. Great stuff maestro!
    I’m so glad you and Marcel hooked up and are keen to pass on your knowledge. That knowledge is also very useful in a practical way. Not just the same old 1-4-5 explanation without a practical application.

    I’d love it Marcel if someone would do something like you do, but covering how to navigate playing and singing with some tips and instruction. I’d also love to learn more about vocal harmony and the fundamentals associated with it. As it is, unless you attended Berklee or ETSU, where are you going to find bluegrass vocal harmony instruction? If you didn’t grow up in Appalachia you didn’t have the opportunity to be exposed to real live humans singing bluegrass harmonies. Maybe your parents played or had some records, but I grew up 9 miles from Grandpa and String and there weren’t any places to be exposed to string music. Maybe the Station or Bluegrass Inn, but very few people were jamming to bluegrass on the porch in Middle Tennessee from 1976 to now even.

    So yea,’it would be great if there were programs like your dedicated to the vocal piece to bluegrass.

    Cheers
    Ram

    1. Hey Ram, have you seen Michael Dave’s course on Artistworks? It’s all about bluegrass vocals and harmonies. It could be the exact resource you’re looking for! I’ve been more guitarist than vocalist for a good amount of time now so I’m probably not the person to give a dedicated vocal lesson. I just get by singing a few leads and tenor lines here and there, wish I could be more help! -Marcel

  2. Measures 23 & 24 in UR EX 7 don’t quite make sense together (to me), cuz, meas 24 ought to be a I chord (G), and meas 23 does not lead one back to a G chord.

    1. Hey Dick, Andy is using the same changes from Ex.6 in Ex.7. It’s still that first part of the melody that hangs on the D chord at the end. You’re right though, in a normal break the second half of this melody would end up on the G chord! In fact, you can just change that last note from open D to open G and get the result you’re looking for! -Marcel

  3. Hey Ram, Daley and Vincent have a great bluegrass & gospel duet video and Peter Rowan has a great bluegrass vocal vid – both on Homespun. Peter also has a vid with Tony Rice. Cheers. Rob.

  4. Great lessons and blog posts, please keep them coming! Could you consider adding a print function for those of us who are old-school and like to use binders to hold our music and practice with it on a music stand? Right now, the printing function results in truncated, ugly pages. Thank you for your consideration, and greetings from Arizona!

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