Adjusting Bluegrass Licks


We’ve spent some time talking about how licks are a great way to get the vocabulary of bluegrass guitar, and play in an authentic bluegrass style from the very beginning. We also created a solo from our collection of Music Muse licks.

As you move forward in your bluegrass guitar playing, you’ll start to find that your favorite licks don’t always quite fit. Although a lick is a complete musical idea, all songs are not the same. What we’re going to do now is learn how to make adjustments to licks to make them more useful in a variety of situations.

In this article, we’re going to learn three ways to manipulate licks you already know. First, we’ll learn how add pick-up notes. Pick-up notes are usually two or three notes of a scale that help us get into the lick. Then, we’ll learn to tie two licks together to create a longer phrase. Next, we’re going to learn how to redirect licks to end on a different note.

This is important to be able to adapt to the chord progression of the song. Lastly, we’re going to use the licks we learned as a jumping-off point to create new licks. Essentially, the lick becomes a type of scale we can use for improvising or developing new ideas.

Section 1: Adding pick-up notes

One of the easiest changes we can make to our licks is to add pick-up notes. Pick-up notes are a few scale notes that lead into the lick from the previous measure.

They smooth the transition between different ideas, and lead the listener through the song. There can be quarter-note pick-ups or eighth note pick-ups.

Here is a bluesy sounding D-lick in Ex. 1:

bluegrass exercise 1

Let’s put a quarter note pick-up in. Ex. 2 starts on beat 4 of the previous measure.

bluegrass exercise 2

Ex. 3 shows two quarter note pick-up notes:

bluegrass exercise 3

Finally, there are three pick-up notes in Ex. 4

bluegrass exercise 4

Now let’s try out this G-lick, shown in Ex. 5:

bluegrass exercise 5

Adding a pair of eighth-note pick-ups, we have Ex. 6:

bluegrass exercise 6

Ex. 7 And now, three pick-up notes (watch your pick direction here):

bluegrass exercise 7

Notice that there is an accent mark on the downbeat of each lick. Play this note just a bit louder than the surrounding notes. The first beat of the measure is usually accented, which helps define where the beat is.

Section 2: Tying licks together

When I hear bluegrass guitarists play, I often hear a long, continuous string of notes.  One way to get into playing longer phrases is to tie together shorter licks. Let’s take a look at the two licks below in Ex. 8.

bluegrass exercise 8

You will notice that the last note of the first lick is the same as the first note of the second. This is an opportunity to tie them together, as in Ex. 9.

bluegrass exercise 9

To the end of that, let’s add a G-run, shown in Ex. 10.

bluegrass exercise 10

Let’s try the same thing in C. Ex. 11a shows four C-licks we can add together.

bluegrass exercise 11a

By joining the licks together where the last note of one equals the first note of the next, we get this very satisfying string of C-licks, shown in Ex. 11b.

bluegrass exercise 11b

Section 3: Redirecting licks

Though a lot of bluegrass songs have similar elements, each song is unique. A lick that worked very well in one song, may not work as well in another. Since licks generally follow the chord progression of the song, we sometimes have to make adjustments to fit the chords. Essentially, we are going to end the lick on the root note of the new chord.

This is where your knowledge of pick-up notes comes in handy. Think about what scale notes lead to the root of the next chord. You may have to change 1, 2, or 3 notes at the end of the measure to make it sound right. Here, trial and error work as well as knowledge, as you search to find a combination of notes that makes the transition seem natural.

Ex. 12 shows a stock G-lick:

bluegrass exercise 12

Let’s say that the next chord is a D. Ex. 13 shows how the lick might end. In this case, we didn’t have to change anything but the last note.

bluegrass exercise 13

Ex. 14 shows what we could do if the chord change was an Em instead. In this case, we changed the last note of the measure to better lead in to the final E note.

bluegrass exercise 14

Through some experimentation, you may find that you have to change more than one note to get the right sound. In Ex. 15, we change the last 4 notes to lead in to a C note.

bluegrass exercise 15

Ex. 16 and Ex. 17 have us leading to an F chord and an Am chord, respectively.

bluegrass exercise 16
bluegrass exercise 17

Learning to make this kind of small change is a great step toward taking ownership of these (or any) licks. You don’t have to completely invent a new musical idea, but you’re on your way to having command of those licks. Not only can you play them, you can also manipulate them into what you want them to be.

Section 4: Using Licks to Create Other Licks

Describing improvisation in words can be difficult to do. This may surprise you, but improvisation is something so human and so intuitive, that we do it every day without thinking about it. Say you’re walking down the sidewalk, and there is a big hole where the sidewalk should be. What do you do? You walk around it, or jump over it, without even a second thought.

In my bachelor days, I learned a lot about improvising as a cook. Often, I didn’t have all the ingredients that the recipe called for, so I’d open the fridge, see what was in there, and figure out a way to turn it into a meal.

In music, improvising works the same way. We use the tools and knowledge available We make decisions in the moment We live with the results of those decisions and move on to make the next decision

One of the most common tools improvisers use is scales. They take the 7 notes of a major or minor scale, or perhaps the 5 notes of a pentatonic scale, and rearrange the order of the notes.

Sometimes through practicing patterns and scales, and sometimes through trial and error, they find familiar pathways, and melodic ideas that they save for later to use when improvising. Some players get so comfortable with mixing up the notes that they know exactly what they will sound like before they play it, while others try new ideas so spontaneously that at times, they even surprise themselves!

Often students ask, ”when you improvise, do you use one scale the whole time, or do you change scales for each chord?” Depending on the situation, either approach might work, but let’s look at this another way.

Music Muse is all about licks, and if there is one thing we’ve learned in the bluegrass section of this website, it is that licks and chords go together. So, what we are going to do is take a lick, and rearrange the notes to try to create a new lick.

Let’s see what we can do with this bluesy lick, in Ex. 18

bluegrass exercise 18

Out of one G-lick, we created three more G-licks. The new licks retain the “bluesy” quality of the original lick.

Check out these C-Licks in Ex. 19

bluegrass exercise 19

Out of one C-lick, we created 3 new C-licks!


As you learn to do this through trial and error, inevitably, some licks will be better than others. This is normal. As an improviser, you’re always looking for the good ideas, and getting rid of the bad. Over time, you’ll find that you have a lot more good ideas than bad. Like a miner sifting for gold, you’re going to throw out a lot of dirt in your quest to get a few “gold” ideas!