Using Licks In A Bluegrass Song, Part Two

Using Licks In A Bluegrass Song, Part Two

Andy Hatfield

Andy Hatfield

In part 1, we talked about how to add fill-in licks, either behind a vocalist, or between the phrases of the melody. In Part 2, we talk about how to replace part of the melody by using licks that match the chord of the song instead.

"What song is this again?"

Let’s face facts. Great bluegrass guitar players don’t always play the melody to the song. In fact, I might go as far as to say they usually don’t play the melody to the song. In this article, we are going to break down a way of thinking about bluegrass licks to help you go from a basic melody break into something that is a more exciting to listen to and play.

What we are going to do is replace part of the melody with a lick. We can choose almost any lick, as long as the lick matches the chord that happens at that point of the song.

Let’s take a look at this Bill Monroe classic, “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home,” in Ex.1.


Out with the old, in with the new

Ex.2 When we replace part of the melody, we always do it with the chord progression in mind. Let’s take out the melody under the C chord and put in a great-sounding C lick in it’s place.


Ex.3 Now, the first line of the song could be this:


Notice that we are actually getting rid of melody notes in this part of the song. We’re not trying to sandwich in extra notes around the melody, and we didn’t even try to use the melody notes in the lick.

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Ex.4 I learned this Tony Rice G-lick from a solo I transcribed awhile ago.


Ex.5 Let’s try that lick out in the second line of the song.


Why this works

This is a way to explain what bluegrass and country guitar players have been doing for decades. Bluegrass guitarists live by the chord progression of the song. That way, they can use the same licks over and over in different songs.

This way of thinking might even guide you on your way to becoming a better improvising guitarist. As you’re learning a transcription from LWM, pay attention to the chord that is written above the measure. You might find a cool lick that you can use in another song.

Bluegrass guitarists are collectors of licks. We learn licks, trade licks, and steal licks. There’s nothing more fun than trying out a new lick at a jam or onstage. It’s part of the culture, and it’s a way to make you sound like an authentic bluegrass player, without having to improvise every note from scratch, or remember entire note-for-note transcriptions on every song.

Have fun trying new licks, and finding places to use them!


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