How to never run out of licks again

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A key lesson

This article contains one very important lesson that we can draw from the playing of Yngwie Malmsteen. It represents an important key to building effective solos while having immense fun. When you apply it consciously to your own playing, you will experience a greater sense of freedom and playfulness than perhaps ever before.

How to get beyond repetitive playing

Why is it that Malmsteen's solos seem so alive? What makes his style so unique? Well, of course his creativity has a lot to do with it, but I would say that there are three main reasons for this. I'll cover one of them in this article. The first reason is deeply related to the fact that Malmsteen is often accused of being extremely repetitive in his playing.

Some people focus on and hear the same sequence and licks over and over again, and it is as true for Malmsteen as it is for most other players: The same bundle of sequences and licks is used again and again. But Malmsteen has another feature: His playing is instantly distinguishable from most other players. His style stands out. And this is what some people hear; The sound of his style, his tone and his classical influences - Not the emotional content.

The best stuff is in the little things

When ever we come across something new that stands out, we tend to focus on what stands out and not what doesn't. If you haven't seen a black man all your life and suddenly you are confronted with 10 of them, you are going to think they all look alike. Because all you focus on, is what's significant and different about them. And of course if you're black and you never seen a white person in your life the same thing will happen.

But as you get to know these people, you also suddenly see the nuances in their faces. You gradually discover that these peoples appearances are just as different as those of your own color. A corny example perhaps, but I hope it illustrates my point. And my point is this:

Licks are tools and not the result

When we listen to music that we're not completely familiar with we do the same thing: We focus on what's new and we don't hear the nuances at all. If you're not into classical music, every piece of it sounds about the same. If your not into hard rock every song seems to be the same kind of noise. And if you're not deeply acquainted with the playing of Malmsteen all you'll hear are the same sequences and runs over and over again.

But there's a reason why this guy doesn't constantly learn new licks that he can use to impress you with: He's so happy with the ones he knows already, and the actual notes he plays are secondary. And this is the key: Every solo is an expression of emotion not a display of licks. Of course you need notes to produce the emotion but they are the tool not the end result in them selves.

Never run out of licks again

This is so important to get, because if you don't, you are going to have a feeling of constantly running out of phrases to play when you solo. Don't you know that feeling already? That sense of "I don't have anymore licks or ideas to put into this solo!" That, my friend is the thought of an amateur.

And I'm not saying that to put anyone down, but to make you discard that thought completely so that you can have more fun. B.B. King can express himself with just a couple of notes. That's his "song" if you will. His bundle of licks, runs and sequences is very limited. But it's perfect for what he does. And I'm pretty sure this guy never "runs out of licks" because he doesn't think and play that way.

Demonic Harmonic Minor Run

Yngwie likes to remove the third note in the harmonic minor scale and the reason is clear: It makes it sound more evil. When you do this, two obvious and simple fretboard shapes shows up, that you can use to create this doomish sound.

From licks to ideas

Next time you listen to Yngwie play, notice how demonic and wild his solos can be. Then think about this: Could he have played a totally different set of notes and still have created about the same emotional content? The same expressiveness in the same places? Of course he could. So when you build your own vocabulary of licks and runs, be sure to use them in as many different contexts as possible. Consider every lick a tool for expression, not as something with value in and of itself.

The way you turn your licks into tools, is to play around with them and change them again and again. Look upon every lick or run as an idea rather than a lick. A lick is something fixed, an idea is something you can use in many different scales or patterns. It's something you can expand upon and create completely new things from. Right now, choose a lick or that you really know well. Then ask yourself these questions:

1. How can I use this in another context?
2. Could I transfer it to an arpeggio shape?
3. What's really cool about this lick?
4. And how can I use and transfer this "coolness" to other licks?
5. Could I play this neo classical lick in a blues scale context?
6. Could I expand this lick and make it even cooler?
7. How many new licks could I create from this one lick?
8. What small changes could I make that would change the lick completely?

An exercise that will move you up the ladder fast

Here's another really useful exercise that can have amazing consequences to your playing: Record a chord progression that you really like - Then, instead of beginning to solo over it, sing the solo instead. It's not important whether or not you sing the actual notes as long as you create the general picture of the solo. Do you remember playing an imaginative guitar when you where a kid? What came out of your mouth when you did that? How does the craziest and coolest solo sound like, in your head? I know this seems third grade but try it out, and if you can, record what you are singing.

Then put the notes to the solo and create the actual thing. This is how Malmsteen's solos are build. He's not sitting in his studio singing his solos but what he plays comes from what he's hearing in his head. What are you hearing in your head when you think about a cool solo? Record it and then use your current musical vocabulary to create an actual solo from that. You don't have to be able to play like the best to do this. Just use the tools you already have to come as close as you can. Because what's in your head, is an expression of emotion, not a display of licks, and that's the place you want to get to.

Becoming a blast to listen to

If you constantly focus on and strive to play what you hear in your head, you will soon forget about how many licks you know. When you remove your focus from the notes you're playing to the general sound and feel of the solo, you also move into the ranks of the pros. Singing the solos you want to play, removes the limitations of what you can do on your instrument. Your ideas become intuitive and creative - they wont be based on what licks you have at your disposal but instead they'll be an expression of you. With time you move from having to prepare every solo to being able to play what's in your head on the spot. Forget about whether you sound repetetive or not and get into being a blast to listen to. That's the lesson.

The evil scale patterns of doom

Now here's the shape that I use in today's lick. It's based on the A-Harmonic Minor. As you can see it's the same shape repeated in three different octaves

This pattern inverts itself further up the fretboard. Try playing the same lick in this pattern as well:

One of the reason why these patterns sound so dark is that they revolve around the diminished triad. In this pattern I've marked the notes (grey) of the diminished triad, following the pattern exactly:

This diminished shape fits both pattern of course. Try playing some well known licks using this scale pattern and see if you can come up with something new and interesting.