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Mastering Guitar Licks and Phrases


Want to master cool guitar licks and phrases, but aren’t sure where to start? Check out these four tips to help you on your way:


Creating a Musical Conversation


Good music is much like good conversation — just the right mix of space and interplay of voices, with each thought serving to complement the whole while simultaneously provoking new ideas.

In other words, you don’t want to sound like you’re just regurgitating memorized phrases in your guitar playing anymore than you do in everyday communication.

Take your time, and always be conscious of the shape and contour of your phrases.

Shaping and Completing Phrases

Knowing how to shape and complete phrases is essential for every player who wants to polish their playing and connect with listeners. Because we use this same process in our everyday speech, most of us have an innate sense of when a phrase sounds final and when it doesn’t.

Therefore, you should treat your guitar playing the same way — don’t practice snippets of phrases or melodies out of context. Rather, always try to hear where your phrase is going, and where you ultimately want it to end up.

For example, if you ascend on the first part of the phrase, it sets up the expectation that the line will descend to produce a cadence — the feeling of relative finality — at the end of the phrase.

Remember that the chord tones of the tonic chord (the key you’re playing in) tend to be natural places of rest, while notes of other chords and non-chord tones tend to create varying degrees of tension.

Experiment with lines that begin with both ascending and descending contours, and follow your intuition to bring the line back to rest.

Let Chord Shapes Guide You

The good news about the guitar is that you can recycle many chord shapes to produce classy sounds.

For example, in the key of E, play the D string 6th fret, and B string, 5th fret. That’s a major 6th. Now slide both the D and B string notes up to the 7th fret. That’s a minor 6th. Move both strings up two more frets to the 9th fret, and you get the same shape that you started on, yet another major 6th.

Using the above example as a guide, practice playing major and minor 6ths in different keys, striving to use the same fingerings as you ascend and descend the scale.

Chordal and shape-based practice will greatly improve your knowledge of the fretboard and your ability to think vertically (i.e., harmonically) which becomes increasingly important as your playing develops.

Master Standard Chord Progressions

If you want to put all the pieces together to really take your playing to the next level, you need to master standard chord progressions.

Sure, it’s fun to venture out into the wacky and weird from time to time, but you’ll find that the wacky and weird only seem that way until you have a true understanding of the foundation: standard chord progressions.

Add these standard chord progressions to your practice routine:

I, IV, V

I, VI, II, V

I, VI, IV, V


For example, in the key of C:

I, IV, V = C Major, F Major, G Major

Use chordal playing as well as melodic improvisation over these progressions and your playing will start to take on new life.


Teaching yourself to play guitar can only take you so far. Reach the next level by learning from a guitar experts: Guthrie Trapp, Paul Gilbert, Keith Wyatt, and more.


Read more about guitar at ArtistWorks:

Learn to Play Guitar

How to Make Your Musical Resolutions Stick: Tips from Keith Wyatt

Guitar Tuning Notes: The Rockstar's Guide

11 Ways to Leave Your Musical Level





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