How To Play Killer Lead Guitar Licks That Add Fire & Intensity To Your Lead Guitar Phrasing - Part 2

By Tom Hess


How many different ways can you play the same guitar lick without changing any of its notes? If you answered anything less than ‘40-50’, then you still have a lot of work to do to improve your lead guitar phrasing. Until you learn to manipulate and maximize the expression of any guitar lick, your guitar playing will always sound ‘average’ at best, no matter how fast you can play or how many exotic scales you know.

In the last part of this article (about playing great guitar licks) I showed you how small ornaments added to the final note of any phrase can make a MASSIVE difference in how the entire lick sounds. If you practiced the exercise I told you to do, then you have already seen and heard the improvement in the sound of your guitar phrasing. If you haven’t read the first article in this series, catch up by watching this lead guitar licks video to learn exactly how to alter the final note of your phrases to make them sound killer.

In this article I will show you an exercise that will get you on the right path to controlling the emotion of EVERY note in your guitar licks and guitar solos (in addition to ornamenting the ‘final’ pitch only). Note: you can do the guitar phrasing exercise that follows even if you haven’t yet read the first part of the article (but make sure to watch the video above to understand the concepts involved).

Exercise: How To Create A Limitless Supply Of Guitar Phrasing Variations

Step 1: Come up with a ‘short’ and ‘slow’ guitar lick. It should be no longer than 3-4 notes and should consist mostly of quarter notes or eighth notes. If your phrase is too fast you will not truly hear the nuances that you must hear for every note in the steps that follow. If your phrase is too long, then your mind will become distracted by playing lots of notes and won’t truly focus on ‘how’ each note sounds. So create a phrase that fits the 2 criteria above.

Step 2: As you have seen in the video above, the main variables that were used to alter the phrase included some combinations of:

  • Slides
  • Bends
  • Vibrato

Come up with at least 10 different ways to play your phrase focusing on ornamenting ‘only’ the FIRST note of the lick with some variations of slides, bends and vibrato. For now you can play the remaining notes of the lick using the original phrasing style they were in when you first created the phrase.

Important: you must still play all the SAME notes of the original phrase (without adding any new pitches) - only vary the way you phrase/ornament the ‘first’ note. It would be ideal if you could record your guitar playing while doing this (and then listen back to the recording to critique your own phrasing), but go through the process anyway even if you cannot record yourself. Your guitar phrasing WILL still grow tremendously in the process as your ears will try to come up with new ways to make the same set of notes sound great without the possibility of playing more notes. The result of this will be a ‘better’ sounding (more expressive) guitar lick. The goal isn’t to ‘remember’ all of the variations you create (that is neither useful nor practical), but simply to ‘go through the process’ of training your mind to not take notes for granted as you play them and get the most out of every note in your guitar licks.

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How To Create Great Guitar Licks
Follow these 5 steps to learn how to play great guitar licks.

For this step, create at least 10 variation ideas on the first note (that is the minimum - 20 or more different ideas will be far better) It is definitely realistic to have this many variations on any guitar phrase.

Step 3: Repeat the step above for the remaining notes in your phrase - one note at a time. When creating variations with one of the middle notes in the lick (for example note 3 in a 4 note phrase), you can play notes 1 2 and 4 either using the original way you did when you created the phrase or by using your favorite variation you came up with from step 2. The point is that your mind needs to only be focused on the ONE note you are ornamenting/varying and not become distracted with the other notes (yet).

By the time you finish this step, you will have found at least 10 ways to vary the sound of each note in your short original guitar lick.

Step 4: After you have gone through the process of making guitar phrasing variations on every note of your lick in isolation, make variations out of the ‘entire’ phrase. You will do this by combining together (at random) the variations on all the notes from steps 1-3. Since you have already found at least 10 unique ways of phrasing each note, you will have A LOT of options to choose from for mixing them all together at the same time in different combinations. IMPORTANT: in this part of the guitar phrasing exercise you must also RESIST the urge to add more notes to the phrase - instead, get as much expression as you can out of every single note from the original lick!

The reason why I didn’t start this assignment simply by telling you to do step 4 after step 1 (and instead told you to practice creating variations on each note in isolation) is because:

  1. The natural tendency for most people would be to simply focus on the first and final note of the phrase and ignore the middle notes (which are obviously also important). This ‘creativity blind spot’ is one of many reasons why most guitarists cannot make their lead guitar playing sound highly expressive.
  2. Unless you are already a very experienced guitarist (or have learned from an expert teacher how to practice guitar phrasing) you would likely ‘stop’ this exercise after coming up with 3-5 different versions of your phrase, thus missing out on most of the benefit of this assignment. This is why I emphasized the point of creating no less than 10 variations for ‘each’ note in your phrase.

Why Is This Guitar Phrasing Exercise Extremely Valuable For Your Guitar Playing?

There are 2 reasons why doing the steps above is key to improving your lead guitar playing:

1. You will learn the exact process for making ‘any’ guitar lick sound awesome, no matter what notes are being played.

2. This guitar phrasing exercise will get you to stop using the ‘possibility of playing more notes’ to cover up poor guitar phrasing. Breaking this habit will greatly improve the sound of all your guitar solos and improvisations.

What Should You Do Next?

1. Start to ‘practice’ the steps above on a regular basis with every new lick you learn. Do this until it becomes natural and intuitive for you to apply these ideas instantly to every new guitar lick you create.

2. Watch another video demonstration of me going through a similar guitar phrasing exercise with one of my students in this classic rock guitar licks video.

3. Get more guitar phrasing resources to learn more ways to improve the sound of your guitar licks.

4. Seek out a master guitar teacher who can show you how to develop the skills needed to express yourself with your lead guitar soloing. Then study with that teacher to fully reach your guitar playing goals.


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