This concept is another very simple one to add to your guitar playing that you can devote as much time as you want to it, varying from day to day. It consists of choosing a lick or melody that becomes something you spend some amount of time on every day- from as little as 5 minutes, to as much as you care to.
The main criteria for choosing your lick is that it should be easy and it should be something that you like. Don’t choose something that you can’t already play, and don’t choose something that you think may teach you a lot but you don’t actually like.
The lick I chose is a basic major 7th arpeggio type lick that I got from a Ted Greene book. I simply opened the book, played the first lick, liked it, and that was it. It’s not hard or complex. I say I like it, but it’s not something I ever care to use in a song- it’s really just an arpeggio; but for some reason, I like to play it and hear it.
What you do with it is up to you. It should be a source of curiosity that makes you dig into music to answer questions you have.
When I first began this activity, I would basically play the lick as a warm up, somewhat absentmindedly. But soon, I started to explore it. I first began to play it as perfectly as I could: making the rhythm as smooth and consistent as possible, and making each note as pure as I could. Then, it started to branch off into many other topics.
A lick or melody consists of a few basic things: melody, an underlying harmony, rhythm, key, and fretboard location/fingering. You can use your lick to explore any of these avenues. You can even put it into different styles; if it’s a country lick, try it out in a jazz tune, changing it up as needed.
By having one idea that you are very familiar with, it makes learning anything easier. For instance, if you are trying to improve your alternate picking, why learn a whole new melody or scale exercise, when you can play your lick that you already know, and simply create a picking exercise out of it that accomplishes what you need. This allows you to focus on what you want to accomplish, opposed to spending time learning the musical elements, and then eventually getting to work on what you originally intended.
Of course, if you need to learn the solo to Purple Haze, only playing this lick isn’t going to get you there, but it will help in many other ways.
When I first started to spend time with my lick and I realized how much it was teaching me, I thought to myself “If this simple lick has so much to show me, think of what a complicated thing can do!” I decided to switch to Charlie Parker’s “Conformation”. After about 5 minutes I realized that it wasn’t the same. The idea of using a simple melody or lick is that it isn’t difficult. Also, all complicated things can be reduced down to simple concepts, and 99% of the time the focus is on very simple things that everybody can understand with possibly an occasional complicated thing thrown in. This is much like when we speak- most of the words we use are basic ones (the, and, but, etc.), and complicated words are used only when necessary. It is usually easy to spot someone who is attempting to appear smarter than they actually are just from their needless use of big words.
This activity isn’t meant to imply that you only play your lick- you can play whatever you want, but you devote some time to your lick each day. Like I said, sometimes I play mine for 5 minutes, other days all I do is play my lick. It becomes a very familiar sound, and kind of like a friend.
Some suggestions for what to do with your lick:
Change harmony- if it’s a major lick, make it minor, or dominant.
Play it in different keys.
Change the rhythm.
Rearrange the notes, or add and/or subtract notes.
Play it in as many places on the neck that you can find.
Use open strings or harmonics.
Use it to learn the names of the notes on the fretboard.
Use it for various picking patters
Use it to build speed.
Play it on one string.
Don’t think that you actually have to do any of these suggestions- these are just some of the things that I have done. Most importantly, let your lick lead you. Music is all about blazing your own path, and the inspiration for that is your curiosity. My lick has taught me a lot, but if I list everything that I have worked on with it, it gets interpreted as a sort of overwhelming list of things that you might feel you have to learn. Don’t think that way. I have a few books by people such as Ted Greene and Mick Goodrick that are more like encyclopedias. They are incredible and awesome books that have so much information; a lifetime’s worth, actually. I have spent many hours working on them, but when I look back on it, I don’t think I have learned very much from those books. I can imagine that these guys decided to write those books because they were excited about the new concepts they devised or found and wanted to show them to people. I would see the books as a mass of info that I had to learn. I have done similar things in my own teaching, in which I find a new way of making sense of the fretboard that I find exciting, and it quickly grows into mammoth proportions when I finally cover all of the avenues. I think that everyone would benefit from this approach and I want to share it with my students. When I show it to them,all I see is either confusion, or that overwhelmed, hopeless look. The concept that I find exciting and makes me want to dig farther and farther into it, loses something when it is presented to a student. They see it as more stuff to learn. But, if that student could be inspired to dig into a concept themselves, discovering new ways of seeing music and the guitar- that’s where real progress is made. Basically, you want to “write your own book”.
This concept is similar to the idea presented in my earlier blog about simplification.
Don’t try to get better by adding more things to your collection of things that you “kind of“ know- instead, learn what you “kind of” know better.
By working on a lick like this, you become much closer to mastering it. This sort of approach then bleeds over into all of your other playing. If this lick helps you understand chords better, that becomes apparent in everything else you play.
Of course, this concept isn’t guaranteed to help you in every aspect of your playing, but it will help you in many ways. Every little bit counts.
There are no real rules here- only guidelines. If you choose a lick, and then a few days, or even a year later are unhappy with your choice, change it. Maybe you want to choose a chord progression instead of a lick. But the basic idea is to have one musical thing that you spend time playing every day and you get to know really well. If you find yourself saying “I need to improve my speed”, use your lick to create an exercise.
I once read about a Zen method of learning how to paint which involves painting the same plant every day for a year. That may sound like you would only become good at painting that one plant, but I don’t think so. I would expect that for the first few days or weeks it might be boring, but soon you would start digging deeper and finding new ways to paint that plant. Not only would you technique improve, but your ability to see objects would improve also. This lick is your plant that you explore daily.