Adding Licks to Your Solo

A lick is a short sequence of notes that sound musical. You can find hundreds of licks online and incorporate them into your improvisation. Here's an example of a lick.

(Notation: A3-6, D3-5, G3-5, B string shift, B4-6-4-6, E3-6)

Check notation for note sequence.

Licks are usually presented in tabs. The numbers are the frets, the lines are the guitar strings and zero indicates an open string. Tabs are easy to play but hard to remember.

You need a way to get the lick into your memory in a format that's instantly retrievable, like remembering a person's face. Here is a 13-digit number that's difficult to memorize.


If I make a small change to the number, it's easier to remember:

    At 8:45 call 323-0200 and pay $6.99 for chocolate donuts.

Our brains love structures like time, phone numbers and prices. It's like your brain has special places set aside for each of these structures.

By now your brain has a place for Freedom Blocks. If I tell you that I'm on the third row of square and stepping up to the next square. Your brain instantly has a picture of what I'm doing. You can literally juggle Freedom Blocks in your head.

Cartoon character juggling Freedom Blocks

Converting Tabs to Freedom Blocks

To remember a lick, you have to convert it to a Freedom Block picture. Start by playing the lick and looking for consecutive narrow and wide intervals. The narrow intervals are squares; the wide intervals are rectangles. Most licks use the major or minor pentatonic scales, so you'll only be dealing with those two types of intervals.

Once you get a picture of the Freedom Blocks, you can focus on what's happening inside those blocks. You're looking for a "gold nugget". It could be a repeating pattern, a series of hammer-ons or bends, a double stop or a series of pull offs. Whatever it is that makes that lick interesting and memorable.

If you run into a note that doesn't fit into a square or rectangle, it could be the blues note, or a chromatic walk up. Play this next lick and see if your brain recognizes the structure. Remember to allow for the B string shift.

(Notation: G7-8-9, B8-10, E8-10-11-10-8, B10)

Check notation.

It's a Freedom Block square with a blues note and a B string shift. Here's the picture you want in your brain.

Illustration showing previous lick sequence

As soon as your brain makes the Freedom Block connection, you can instantly play the lick in any major or minor key and move it to different strings without taking a second look at the tabs. Here's the same lick picture starting on the 5th fret of the A string.

(Notation: A5-6-7, D5-7, G5-7-8)

Check notation.

Once you have the picture, you can experiment and add your own embellishments.

"Composing is improvisation slowed down."— Wayne Shorter

Try to find the Freedom Blocks in this next lick.

(Notation: G7, E5, B5-8, E5, B5, E8-5, B5-8, E5, B5)

Check notation for sequence of notes.

The first two notes don't give us a clue, but the next two notes are clearly a wide interval on the B string. Moving along, you'll find another wide interval on the E string. So you've got a rectangle sitting on the B and E strings. The 7th fret note is part of a square, because you alternative from rectangle to square when stacking Freedom Blocks.

That's a lot of words to describe the following image. Once you see the underlying blocks you can easily move them to a different key or a different group of strings.

Original lick in key of A minor starting on 7th fret of B string. Same blocks can move up the neck and play in the key of E minor. The starting note would be the 14th fret of the B string. You could also move the blocks to the A, D and G strings starting on the 5th fret of the low E string. This lick would still be in the A minor pentatonic key.

Many licks have less than six notes. That doesn't give you a lot of clues. Treat licks like puzzles and you'll be amazed at how quickly the Freedom Block picture comes into focus.

Check notation.

The first interval, B10 and B8, is narrow so it's part of a square. The G note shifted down from G10 to G9 after leaving the B string. The entire lick is played in rows one and two of a square.

Check notation.

In this next lick, you'll slide from the 7th fret to the 9th fret.

(Notation: G5-7 slide 9, B8-10, E8-11-8)

Check notation for sequence of notes in this lick.

First, you're moving over two narrow intervals (5-7 and 7-9) on one string. Can you remember when you've done this move many times, perhaps with a slide?

Stepping squares showing how you move from row 3 in one to row 1 in the other.

It happens when you're on row three of a square( G5-7) and you're moving to row one of the next stepping square (G7-9)

The interval on the E string should be the third row, but instead of 8 to 10 we have 8 to 11, a wide interval. The note on the 11th fret is a blues note from row one of the next stepping square. It sounds complicated, but loses its complexity once you see the Freedom Blocks.

Check notation for sequence of notes in this lick.

Many times I've transcribed a lick from tabs to Freedom Blocks only to realize that I already know the lick. In fact, the previous lick was part of your first solo exercises.

Stepping squares continuing onto the B and E strings.

The next lick has three wide intervals. Play it and figure what is going on in that wide interval on the G string.

(Notation: e5-8-5, B8-5, G5-8-7-5)

Check notation.

Once you see the Freedom Block structure you're no longer confined to the tab sequence. As airline pilots say, "You're free to move about."

"I don't labour over my lead guitar solos; they're better just caught in the moment.— Bryce Dessner

Finding the Root of a Lick

Many of the licks you find online do not give you the key or root note. People suggest writing out the notes, looking for sharps and flats and cross-referencing that information with the circle of fifths. Sounds complicated.

On the other hand, if you're able to identify at least one Freedom Block in a lick, you can narrow the number of possible keys from 24 to 2. In the example below, the key is either C major or A minor.

Freedom Blocks provide you with two options for root notes

Which do you use? Well, it depends, but my first choice would be the minor key. You can't go too wrong no matter which one you choose, because A minor is the relative minor of C so they share the same notes. More about that later.

"A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence."— Leopold Stokowski

Open String Licks

Country Wester singer and guitar player

"All the moneys right down here." —Roger Miller

Roger Miller was talking about the first three frets of the guitar. Part of the appeal is you don't have to fret the open strings and they sound great. Try these next sequences in the key of G or the relative minor Em. The open strings make it easy to move around.

(Notation Key of G: E3, A0-2, D0-2, G0-2, B0-3, E0-3)
(Notation Key of Em: E0-3, A0-2, D0-2, G0-2, B0-3, E0-3)

Check notation

Here are licks using the open strings.
(Notation: E3, A0-1-2, D0-2-0, G0, D2-0, A1-0, E3)
Next lick starts on your high E string.
(Notation: e0, B3-0, G3-2-0, D0-2, G0, D2-0, A0-2, D0, A1-0, E3)

Try mixing chords with your open strings solo. If you know a G major or E minor chord, strum one and periodically launch into a short solo using the open strings.

G and E minor chord diagram

"The most exciting rhythms seem unexpected and complex, the most beautiful melodies simple and inevitable."  — W.H. Auden


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