Playing Licks Between Chords
Weekly Newsletter #64
October 29, 2022
One of the questions I get asked all the time is, “how do you consistently play licks in between chords?”
It’s a common question and one that’s worth exploring.
If you’re playing a blues progression or something else in which you’re mainly playing chords, connecting two of those chords with a lick is a fantastic way to convey your musicality and personal playing style.
But accomplishing that is very difficult for many players who don’t know where to begin.
Lots of guitarists try to “write” licks that will fit between two chords, but that really only leads to playing that same lick over and over again. It makes the playing sound contrived and boring.
True freedom is the ability to improvise licks in between any two chords and be able to land on the new chord at the right time.
I’m going to show you three steps to follow when practicing this and soon enough you’ll be improvising licks between any chord progression you want.
STEP 1 - Scale & Location
The first thing to do when you’re playing through a chord progression is to analyze and understand the harmony.
Is everything within one key, or are there chords that are pulled from multiple keys?
For example, if you have a chord progression such as: C - F - Dm - G. It’s pretty safe to say that it’s in the key of C.
However, a 12 bar blues that uses chords such as: A7 - D7 - E7 is not simply in one key.
In this case you have to understand that you will need to think of at least two separate keys for this progression.
When you decide on the key(s) of a progression you must then decide on the scale that you’ll use to play over that key.
If we take the first progression: C - F - Dm - G, then you can safely use the C major scale, however you could also use the Am scale (since they are major/minor relatives), but you could also use either the C major or Am pentatonic scales.
Deciding on the scale then leads you to the location for that scale.
The goal is to strum along to the chord progression, immediately break into a short lick (it has to be short because it must fit between chords…most often one bar or less), and then land on the new chord and resume strumming.
In order to do this you must choose the location for the scale you want to play so that it’s physically close to the chord shapes you’re playing.
You don’t want to be playing chords in the 1st position and try to jump up to the 10th position and then jump back. That will definitely lead to errors and hiccups in the lick and rhythm of the song.
Remember, you’re not playing a solo, the idea isn’t to show off, but simply play a musical idea that connects two chords.
Step 2 - Resolution Note
It’s important that you’re lick is a cohesive phrase and not a random series of notes with no meaning.
The rhythm is paramount to this, because in order to land the end of your phrase on the beginning of the next chord, you must have an internal feel for the tempo and rhythm of the song.
Knowing where beat 1 is, at all times, is the key to doing this successfully.
If you can predict where the new chord will occur beforehand, then you need to improvise your lick with a target note in mind.
This is your resolution note, and it must be part of the new chord.
If you’re going from a C chord to an F chord then you must try to end your phrase on one of the notes of an F chord: F - A - C.
Doing this is what allows the phrase to sound seamless as it transitions into the next chord.
This is easier said than done, and many players attempt this and yet it still doesn’t sound quite right.
The reason is most often poor voice leading.
The way to approach your resolution note is to try and avoid that note as much as possible during the bulk of the lick, this way when you hit the note at the end of the phrase it has more meaning.
It’s like avoiding the punch line of a joke until it’s time to make the listener laugh. If you give it away early, it loses all meaning.
Additionally, good voice leading for these “filler licks” is often a result of approaching the resolution note in step-wise motion, or with small leaps.
You don’t want to go from a high note and jump down an octave to a low note because that distance between them makes the phrase sound disjointed and not complete.
Instead, try to keep your licks within one octave, usually in the higher register and target the resolution note by walking into it from above or below, or potentially a small leap such as a minor or major 3rd, but not more.
Step 3 - Fingering
All of this sounds great, but if you can’t execute your idea seamlessly while transitioning into the new chord, it won’t have the intended effect.
This is why the fingering of your lick is so crucial.
Keeping the lick in the higher register is important because it allows for the fingering to be more natural and fluid.
The idea is to make your resolution note the highest note of the new chord.
Thinking this way means you can plan for the fingering of the lick by imagining the shape of the chord you’re about to play.
If your playing an open G chord and the highest note will be the D on the B string 3rd fret, then you must plan on using either your ring or pinky finger for that note, since that’s the finger you use for that note while playing the chord.
This means that as you approach your resolution note, you must make sure that you will land on the target note with the correct finger.
If you approach the note using step-wise motion then you can simply walk into the note using the desired finger.
For example, landing on that 3rd fret D with your ring finger, might mean that you remain on the B string and play the 6th fret F and 5th fret E all with your ring finger.
Shifting your hand back, playing a large portion of the lick with one finger, ensures that you’ll land on the correct finger, allowing you to make the chord in time to strum it as the final note of the phrase.
Fingering is truly one of the most important elements to this and will become much more natural the more you practice these steps.
Putting It Into Practice
At first, you’ll have to plan things out, but don’t plan the licks themselves.
Instead, decide on the scale and what strings/frets you’ll play it on (keep them on the higher strings if possible.)
Then decide the target notes for each chord in the progression.
When you go to play the chords, begin by simply running up and down the scale in step-wise motion, attempting to land on the target note while fretting the new chord.
You might find that you mistimed it and had to jump several notes in the scale to land on the target note in time.
That’s ok, simply try again and take that into account and try to avoid those large leaps.
This isn’t a battle that will be won overnight, but it is worth the effort.
Practicing this alone will allow you to be really critical of yourself, because there won’t be any backing track or music covering up if you stop playing while you think for a second or two.
Take your time, map out your approach and fingering to your target note and just keep practicing using that target until you can successfully time the phrase to coincide with the new chord.
It will happen and once it does, you’ll be able to slowly but surely replicate that success, and push the scales and phrases farther and farther.