Using Licks in a Bluegrass Song, Part 3

Using Licks in a Bluegrass Song, Part 3

Picture of Andy Hatfield

Andy Hatfield

In part 2, we talked about using licks that followed the chords of the song instead of playing the melody. In part 3, we learn how to make adjustments to licks to help them to fit into the song better.

What if it doesn’t fit?

You may find that your new favorite lick doesn’t fit where you want it to go. It may be too short, too long, or doesn’t match the chord changes. Here are some adjustments you can make to get the most out of the licks you already know.

Redirecting licks

We often identify licks with a single chord. “Here’s a G-lick,” etc. However, in a song, the chords change, and we may have to adjust our licks to match the new chord. A good way to practice this is to “redirect” the last few notes of the lick to lead into the root note of the new chord. Ex. 1 shows a nice, self-contained C-lick that ends squarely on a final C note:

Ex. 1

What if there was an F chord in the second measure? We could use the same C-lick, but redirect the last couple of notes to lead into an F note. Ex. 2 shows how this might be done:

Ex. 2

Ex. 3 and 4 show how you might lead into a G or and Am chord, respectively:

Ex. 3
Ex. 4

Make It Last

If the lick you know isn’t long enough, you can improvise a longer phrase by using a lick as if it were a scale. Take this Billy Strings lick, shown in Ex. 5:

Ex. 5

If we have to a longer space to fill, we might play something like Ex. 6:

Ex. 6

Finally, in Ex. 7, we take the original one-measure lick and stretch it to four by using the notes from the original lick as a scale.

Ex. 7

One of my favorite music teachers on YouTube, jazz pianist Hal Galper, said “you could learn 10,000 licks, or you could learn 10 licks and 1,000 ways to use them—either way you end up with the same amount of material.” I think this is an approach that bluegrass players can use too! When I think about the playing of Tony Rice, Kenny Smith, or Billy Strings, I can imagine that they may have taken a similar approach.

Keep pickin’!


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