What is a lick?
A lick is a musical phrase. But not every musical phrase is a lick. To qualify as a lick, the phrase must stand out in some way.
As far back as I can remember, licks were those tricks that blues guitarists used, like bending up a note on the G string to meet nearly the same note on the B string. Things that would have the young players open-mouthed and saying “How did you do that?”
Since then we have come a long way. Hundreds of how-to publications offer collections of licks in all keys and on all instruments. And what do they all have in common? Could it just be the desire to amaze?
Of course, that’s a time-sensitive parameter. Like us, licks have varying lifespans before they hit the great cliché graveyard in the sky.
If we take some of the greatest licks by the greatest lick merchants from Frank Zappa to Michael Brecker, not forgetting the immortal Sonny Rollins, we see a common thread of speed coupled with surprise.
The speed bundles the musical idea into something that is hard for the ear to disassemble into its component parts, or even perceive sequentially. The ear performs a double take and asks “What just happened?”
The surprise could be a sleight-of-hand visit to a distant tonal centre, or a rhythmic twist of some sort. Surprise gets less amazing the more you use it, and this is one reason a surfeit of licks can come in for some negative YouTube comments.
Licks are not the only things that frequent this cognitive boundary. Alankars (grace notes) from India, trills from the Balkans, atari from Japan, and Irish rolls, crans and cuts all rely on fleet execution to have their effect. In all these styles, you may need a teacher to slow them down for you to help you master them.
Many of the most effective licks when played at half speed leave you wondering what you found so marvellous about them. Try slowing down any guitar shredding video and what are you left with? (Remember, you click on the cogwheel/daisy under the video to find half speed – doesn’t work with some browsers).
So my question is: since you have to practice them slow to start with, how do the people who invent licks know in advance that they’ll sound cool when up to speed? Or do they just tumble fully formed out of the skies?
I leave you with this treat from France’s finest guitarist who has gone into the subject in some depth. Here is his Musical Manifesto.