As you’ve started picking up the guitar to play, you’ve heard some terms that you don’t really know the meaning of. You’ve heard of licks and riffs, measures, and bars, and a host of other things that don’t mean a lot quite yet.

It’s great that you’re doing the research and trying to learn what these terms mean. While music is a deeply emotional, passionate thing, it’s also an intelligent art that requires knowledge and learning. And asking questions like “what is a guitar lick” will help you become all the musician you were intended to be.

Today, we’re going to help you out with some information on music genres, guitar players, and looking at some famous riffs and licks, and comparing these terms and how this impact the music of the world.

Genres of Music

Genres of Music

There are hundreds of genres and subgenres of music ranging from tribal African music to sacred hymns and songs. You’ve got rock and roll, Reggae, Calypso, Brit pop, classic rock, heavy metal, death metal, contemporary Christian, British hip hop, and so many others.

Here’s a limited list of some of the music styles that commonly use guitars.

  • Pop
  • Classic rock
  • Southern rock
  • Folk rock
  • Brit pop
  • Chicago blues
  • Swamp blues
  • Blues country
  • Australia country
  • American folk revival
  • Contemporary Christian
  • Christian metal
  • Ska
  • Cool jazz
  • Folk pop
  • Funk
  • Punk
  • Grunge
  • Experimental rock
  • Death rock
  • Speed metal
  • Symphonic metal

What is a Guitar Lick?

Guitar Lick

So, now it’s time to look at what a guitar lick actually is.

In the genres of blues, jazz, and rock music, guitar licks are short sequences of notes that are a phrase and pattern in music that repeats. Typically, guitar licks consist of a series of short notes that can be used in the melodies and the solos of songs. Depending on the genre of music a lick can mean different things.

Licks, specifically in rock and roll, use licks through a formula that uses techniques and variations to blend, merge, and develop sounds during a guitar solo. Jazz bands use licks during improvised solos with accompanies solo chorus, or unaccompanied solo breaks. These licks are usually original phrases that change throughout the song as the harmonies progress.

In country music, a lick describes a musical line that is a short interlude between singing and is typically played by guitars or fiddles. Additionally, these licks can be used at the end of a song. In flamenco, music licks are known as falsettos. Licks are also often the hooks that capture the imaginations of the audience listening to the music. The hook is often repeated throughout the songs, during the fill, which is a pause in the melody lines of the song.

Generally, a new musician learning licks uses the art imitation to replicate the sound and feel of someone else’s music. Imitating other musicians is an important form of learning, just like learning the right scales and chords are. Imitation allows musicians to learn to figure out their own style of playing. That’s why, so often in interviews, you hear a reporter or interviewer ask a musician who her influences are.

What’s the Difference Between a Riff and a Lick?

What’s the Difference Between a Riff and a Lick?

Most non-musicians don’t know the difference between a riff and a lick, if they even realize there is a difference. One way to think about riffs is to see them as thematic. Riffs operate as the main musical idea for a portion of a song, and typically involve repeated chord progressions that is repeated throughout the entire song.

Think about the song Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles. The guitar part is exceptionally distinct on the solo line. This solo line repeats several times throughout the song and including a variation of the riff towards the last third of the song. As a song progresses the riff will be repeated as it is developed throughout the song. This development will have variations, sometimes switching keys but always returning to the song’s main idea.

You can look at a riff as being the main theme of the song. It’s something that becomes forever tied to the song itself. If you would hear someone humming or whistling the riff itself out of context from the song, you would still be able to recognize the song. This distinctness essentially makes the riff itself a quote, and anytime someone else plays a given riff, it’s like an allusion or homage to that original song in which it first was played.

While a lick is a musical idea, it is often an incomplete idea that’s a stock phrase or pattern. A lick can be a fragment of a riff or solo. Due to their fragmentary nature, licks by themselves rarely become thematic and instantly recognizable. In fact, if a lick becomes thematic, it actually becomes a riff.

Under normal circumstances, a lick has to be combined with other licks to become a completed musical idea. As licks are not thematic and lack a certain association to a song, they can be transferred from song to song without alluding to the original song it was used in. Licks are also used a lot in solo work by guitarists of various experience. More experienced guitar soloists can use licks to give added structure as needed to their work. Less experienced players can use licks as a paint by numbers structure to help them until they gain experience to create their own music.

When comparing the differences between riffs and licks, it’s important to remember what roles each play in a song. Due to licks being fragmentary and incomplete ideas by themselves, they can be removed easily from a song and the song can still function. On the other hand, if you remove a riff from a song, the song will lose a fundamental part, and the song can usually become completely unrecognizable.

Why Learn Different Styles of Licks?

Why Learn Different Styles of Licks?

There is a lot to gain from studying the work of those who have musically paved the way over the years. For a musician, it is important to learn licks that other musicians have written. Learning these licks is a form of imitation.

The learning process of hearing and practicing other licks is just as an important to a guitarist as learning scales and chords.

An important way to look at it is unless they are exposed to outside influence, most musicians tend to always play within the style they first learned to play in.

One of the best ways to break out of this box is to study different genres and the musicians within those fields. Imitating other styles and forms is key to expanding your musical repertoire and growing as a musician.

You can online to search out the most famous and important guitar licks of all time. Try looking up “the best guitar licks in rock and roll” or “best jazz guitar licks.”

Songs with Famous Licks and Riffs

There are thousands of great songs with recognizable licks that have helped to make rock and roll, and honestly, the rest of the music of the world, what it is.

Here are a few of the more famous licks that it would pay to know.

  • “Day Tripper” – The Beatles
  • “Back in Black” – AC/DC
  • “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie
  • “Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream
  • “Money” – Pink Floyd
  • “Dream On” – Aerosmith
  • “YYZ” – RUSH
  • “Money For Nothing” – Dire Straits
  • “Whole Lotta Love” – Led Zeppelin
  • “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N Roses
  • “Layla” Derek and the Dominoes
  • “Walk this Way” – Aerosmith
  • “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple
  • “Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes
  • “Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne
  • “Born To Be Wild” – Steppenwolf
  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
  • “Iron Man” – Black Sabbath
  • “Barracuda” – Heart
  • “Fortunate Son” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • “You Really Got Me” – The Kinks

Famous Guitarist You Should Know

In addition to knowing famous riffs, it’s important to know the guitarists behind them.

While this list is by no means all inclusive, these are some of the most famous guitar players that should be known and studied by any aspiring guitarist.  Their musical styles, song-writing, and guitar playing can help improve your own guitar playing as you listen and study.

  • Brian May
  • Nancy Wilson
  • Chuck Berry
  • Alex LIfeson
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Paul Gilbert
  • Beck
  • Steve Morse
  • B.B. King
  • Jimmy Page
  • Mick Ronson
  • Les Paul
  • Eric Clapton
  • Buddy Guy
  • Jack White
  • Neil Young
  • Bob Dylan
  • Randy Rhoads
  • Neal Schon
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Jackson Browne
  • Jimmy Page
  • Gregg Allman
  • Dave Gilmour
  • Joe Walsh
  • Jeff Lynne
  • Gary Moore
  • Steve Cropper
  • Lindsey Buckingham
  • Bo Diddley
  • Ritchie Blackmore
  • Tony Iommi
  • George Harrison
  • The Edge
  • Slash
  • Joe Bonamassa
  • Ray Vaughan
  • Paul Kossoff
  • List Element
  • List Element

To Be a Better Musician: Play Something New

Playing a guitar

While it’s important to spend a lot of your practice time playing the same songs so that you can fully learn them, it’s also important to learn new things.

Learning new licks and riffs on the regular will improve your playing by significant amounts. Dedicate some time to study through listening and playing along as you listen to the greats.

KEYWORD: guitar licks

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