The Same Old Tired Licks

I’m sure most of you know the feeling… you sit down to do some practice, and you find yourself playing the same old stuff, getting bored and frustrated, and it often leads to putting the guitar down, and if it happens often enough you’ll find your guitar a few years later gathering dust and wondered what happened!

People ask me about how to escape this kind of very often, and there are solutions, but it depends on which version you’re suffering from.

Most commonly, I find beginner and intermediate level players saying that they play the same songs and riffs all the time. This one is the easiest to fix – all you have to do is learn some new songs! But before you choose a new song to learn there are a couple of things to think about that will help stave off the problem in the future. 

Always try to choose to learn songs that you really love, there’s no point in practising something you don’t like unless you’re doing it ‘for work’, which is an entirely different conversation. 

The first thing to think about is the difficulty of a chosen song and your ability to play it, and be honest with yourself. I recommend most students have (at least) two songs they are working on at any one time – one within their technical ability and they should be aiming to play the whole song along with the original recording. I would suggest that these songs become a repertoire and a great thing to do is to make a playlist of songs you learn so you can have a jam day every few weeks and play through all your repertoire in a set. It’s a great thing to develop if you want to play in a band or jam with other musicians.

The other song you are working on should be something you really love that is perhaps is beyond your current technical ability, but you aspire to play it one day. The idea here is to enjoy the journey and when you accept that you ‘shouldn’t be able to play it yet’, you can enjoy the progress and work on smaller achievable sections – but you should also not feel tied to it. Maybe you only look at the song a week or two and move on and revisit it later. If you find it easier than you thought to get down, maybe it moves to your repertoire. Above all else, these songs should be fun.

Most students that follow this approach find that they get a feeling of accomplishment from their continuously growing repertoire and enjoyment from working on songs they love even if they can’t play them so well. It’s a great way of breaking out of a rut and avoiding the same one in the future. You can apply the same logic to working on techniques and concepts too.

Another common variety of the “same lick frustration” that tends to affect intermediate players comes when improvising and noticing that your ‘pet licks’ are becoming dominant. I think it’s important to realise that pretty much every improvising musician has ‘licks’, ‘lines’ or ‘concepts’ that they use regularly and that is totally as it should be. Licks are simply words and all great poetry usually needs to use words that people are familiar with. If you’re in any doubt about this, do some transcribing of whoever your favourite player is and look for the same licks, lines or concepts and you’ll get to grips with it pretty quick.

Problems usually occur when we find our favourite (pet) licks are coming forward too often or too close together. I have a couple of exercises to share that I find really helpful when I get in this muddle myself, and I hope they might help you too. 

The first step for me is to learn a new lick, phrase or concept and develop it over a five-minute backing track. Often I listen to someone who I really dig and find a single lick that I think is cool and that I would like to work into my playing. I transcribe it, figure out what is going on harmonically (looking for the essence or the concept behind it if there is one) and figure out where on the neck it feels nice under my fingers. I will then start improvising over an appropriate backing track (or an inappropriate one if I’m in that kind of mood!) trying at first to use only that lick. Then I move into developing it in as many ways as I can and eventually start mixing it in with other licks I know in the hope it will become ‘part of the family’. I’ll often grab a few licks or ideas from something I have transcribed recently and do the above process with each lick and then try blending them together.

The second is that I record myself playing a solo over a 5-minute backing track – a long time to take a solo. I then listen back and keep an ear out for my pet licks and phrases. I note down a few (sometimes mentally, sometimes I tab them out) and then record another solo over the same thing and avoid those licks. I listen back to that one and take note again of the offending pet licks, write them out and avoid those too. At some point, the tired old licks have been replaced with new stuff. If not or I’m feeling really stuck I learn a bunch of new licks (see above).

There are of course many other ways to break out of these ruts, but I hope you’ll find these effective if you find yourself bored of the same old tired licks!

Food For Thought