Last updated on July 12, 2019
As guitarists we spend a great deal of time learning and honing our scales in order to improvise, but more often than not this leads to somewhat lackluster results. This is where learning to solo is a lot like learning to speak another language; you can’t just learn a bunch of grammar and structures (scales) and string them together hoping to make sense (intelligible output). What’s missing is vocabulary, or in guitar terms, phrasing, lines, licks, runs, and spontaneous melodies. In other words, it’s changing your thinking from things like, ‘Okay, if I play C Lydian over a Cmaj7 chord it’ll work’, to something more along the lines of, ‘Okay, Cmaj7 chord coming up, what vocabulary do I have to negotiate this chord?’ Luckily, this is what Google and our favorite players are for.
The Google Lick Library
I can’t say I did the majority of my learning via the internet, but what this does provide is another perspective on how to use the internet for things you would have liked to have been able to do back then. If you do a Google image search for say, “Steve Morse licks”, you get exactly what you asked for: an endless source of Steve Morse licks, or licks with chromatics or lines ‘in the style of’ the great man. Back in the day you would have had to either work them out by ear, or spend a ton of cash on books, transcriptions and tabs. However, with the advent of the internet all of the aforementioned content is now freely and easily available in a matter of seconds.
So this is exactly what I did and came across this lick:
It’s a Steve Morse style chromatic type lick over a G7 chord, but before you go ahead and play it, ask yourself what you would play over a G7 chord. G Minor/Major Pentatonic? G Blues? G Mixolydian? G Lydian b7? G Phrygian Dominant? What’s your G7 vocabulary?
There are many ‘grammatically correct’ possibilities available depending on various factors such as the chords either side of the G7, the genre of the music, etc., but if you examine this lick there’s actually more ‘grammatically incorrect’ stuff going on in it than anything else, but it works and sounds good so it counts as a phrase, or the vocabulary we’re looking to learn in order to bridge the gap between grammar and real language, or in this case, scales and actual music.
Once you get this lick going and get a feel for it, you can play with the idea a little. Perhaps you wouldn’t have thought of starting a lick over G7 on a Bb (the minor third), and having the B (the major third) in there as well, but now you know a lick that does all this and that can be used as a springboard to create your own similar licks and runs.
Same Chord, Different Lick
What you could then do is look at how another of your favorite players would tackle a G7 chord. Here’s a Robben Ford lick I came across:
Again, there are various well-placed chromatic notes in there, the lick starts on D (the fifth of G), and resolves to the root. It’s a fairly simple lick but the phrasing here is what makes it stand out.
What to Do Next
Now you know where to find them, you can go ahead and plough through the bottomless pit of licks available on the internet for your favorite players, and start turning your knowledge of scales into a source of sophisticated licks and phrases to play when the moment arises. If you can read music, you have the advantage of being able to examine licks from players of other instruments and add them to your repertoire.
Over to You
So, what do you play over a G7 chord? How extensive is your vocabulary?
Check out the backing track below with 8 bars of G7 for you to experiment over. Record yourself if possible and notice how ‘grammatically correct’ your lines are, and whether you need to work on making them sound more natural, which you can do by raiding the Google lick library and building your vocabulary over pretty much any chord, and in a range of styles.
The takeaway here then is not just to learn a bunch of licks by your favorite players, but to take it one step further by really examining what they’re doing, borrowing their ideas and incorporating that into your own playing.
Once you’ve widened your vocabulary over one chord, start looking at how your favorite players move seamlessly through two or three chords, and the devices they use to link them, which you’ll also see crop up in the Google lick library!