What Is a Lick In Guitar?

Like other lines of professions, music has its coded language. Musical language and terms break down into different genres. For example, in “guitar language”, terms like guitar lick, guitar riff, and melody may mean different things. 

In theory, these terms may be hard to understand, especially if you are a beginner learning to play the guitar. Many of the musical terms become clearer with experimentation and practice, as opposed to reading about them.

A guitar lick is an important part of a song that gives uniqueness to how a guitarist plays. In this article, we help you understand what a guitar lick means in simple terms, and how to apply it when playing guitar.

What Is a Lick In Guitar? (In Simple Terms)

A guitar lick is a series of guitar notes that are well improvised, to make the sound unique, without having reference to a certain song.

When you hear the term guitar lick, you might take it literally. Some guitarists have licked their guitars after a fantastic performance, but this is not what we are referring to. 

Performing a guitar lick is mainly used to spice up a song or to create an extra touch of music when playing. Guitar licks are played in small amounts, which could be why it is called a lick.

When Is a Guitar Lick Played?

Guitar licks eliminate the monotony of playing. If you are new to licks, here are a few instances where you can play a guitar lick:

  • For solo guitarists
  • For rock
  • Blues
  • Jazz
  • To change the mood of a song

Are All Guitar Improvisations Licks?

A guitar lick stands out from other improvisations. Not all alterations played by guitarists are guitar licks. Guitar licks can be played several times with added alterations to make them sound different each time.

Guitar licks can be played during the intro, and in the middle of the songs. The licks are altered to sound different each time they are played.

How to Alter a Guitar Lick to Sound Different

If you are solo and you want to make things interesting for your rock crowd, you should try licks several times.

To avoid being bored with the same lick, making a small alteration works wonders. For instance, you can add two notes to your lick to lengthen it. Making alterations are favorable for instant improvisation because they do not take much time to master.

The purpose of making guitar lick alterations is to avoid repetition. If a guitar lick is repeated severally, it stops being a lick and becomes a rhythmic element.

What Is a Guitar Riff?

A guitar riff changes a simple song to be unforgettable. It is usually a repeated phrase and becomes what identifies a song as unique. When a riff is not played in a song, it alters it to something different.

Guitar riffs are not done randomly, they are well-planned and composed to be the base of the song. Guitar riffs are created in such a way that they become what identifies a certain song.

Guitar Lick vs Guitar Riff

A riff is the main ingredient that makes up a song. It is repeated severally within the song to make it memorable. A lick on the other hand is a spice-up to a song and is not repetitive.

A guitar riff plays a major role in the foundation of the song and without it, the song is completely different. Although a guitar lick does a great job of spicing up the song, it can be excluded without making an impact on the song.

While a riff creates the mood of a song, adding a guitar lick makes the song interesting. A lick can be used to make the guitarist unique and show off their skill.

Riffs are also used in other musical instruments as they form the mood for the song. The guitar lick is a privilege only guitarists get to explore.

Consider the riff as icing on a cake, while a lick could be the little stars’ decorations that add to the icing or the sprinkles on the icing.


What Is the Difference Between a Lick and a Solo?

While a lick is a small series of chords played to spice up a song, a solo can have many licks played together with melodies.

Is a Bass Guitar Lick Different?

A bass lick is shorter than a guitar lick. There is no difference in the principles applied when playing a guitar lick, you only play the series of chords on the bass. 

What is the distinction between a guitar riff from a hook?

While the riff is a short, repetitive, and catchy melody that creates the uniqueness of a song, a hook is part of the song that gets the attention of the listener. Unlike a riff, a hook rarely recurs to ensure the impact is not diluted.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does licks mean in guitar?

A guitar lick is essentially a series of notes that artistically embellish the music piece being played. This sequence of notes is expressed over a series of chords that move through a progression, hence painting a more vivid musical picture. Aspects such as rhythm, melody and harmony all come together in creating a lick. Drawing from my personal experience as a guitarist, I can tell you that licks are remarkable means to present your individuality and interpretation of a piece of music. By playing licks, you embed your personal touch, style, and influence on the song. For example, imagine playing a blues standard. By integrating personalized licks, you go from purely adhering to the piece to narrating your musical tale through the blues’ already laid harmonics structure.

What is the difference between a riff and a lick?

Conceptually, a riff and a lick may seem similar, but in practical application they serve different purposes in music. Essentially, a riff is intended to establish the vibe, it’s persistent and repetitious, contributing significantly to the song’s unique fingerprint. Nonetheless, a lick is designed to demonstrate the guitarist’s prowess, often shining through during solos or when improvising over an already established melody. Reflecting upon my journey as a guitarist, I remember my early days spent diligently learning and practicing riffs of classic rock songs. The goal was to emulate the established rhythm and essentially master the vibe of the track. However, as I matured as a player, my focus shifted towards licks. I was no longer content with just replicating the vibe, I wanted to make my mark, carve out my space in that song, and I did that through unique licks. To put it simply, riffs make a song memorable, however, licks are instrumental in showing the guitarist’s style and virtuosity.

What is the difference between a hook and a riff?

Both a riff and a hook play integral roles in shaping a piece of music, yet they are fundamentally different. A riff is a repeating melodic phrase that’s catchy and constantly reoccurs to give a piece its distinguishing character and structure. However, a hook is any part of a song designed methodically to captivate the listener’s attention. It’s also catchy, but unlike the riff, it doesn’t make frequent appearances, providing it more significance when it does occur. As a musician, I have often used hooks to instantly draw the listener’s focus to a unique element in the song. These hooks have manifested in various forms, such as catchy lyrics, noteworthy guitar lines or even distinctive drum patterns. On the other hand, riffs help create a familiar atmosphere throughout the track by frequently recurring.

Why are guitar licks important?

Having been a guitarist for numerous years, I can confidently state that licks are crucial to guitar playing. These miniature solos not only decorate your music but also help you express yourself more articulately. In essence, a lick is like a spoken sentence in a conversation. Learning how to formulate your own licks, understanding their structure, and artfully incorporating them can greatly enhance your musical lexicon. It’s also a fantastic way to broaden your soloing range and offer surprises and flair to the listeners. When I was just starting out, familiarizing with different licks was like exploring a treasure trove. With every new lick mastered, I felt a notch up in my musical expression. Not to mention that the more licks you know, the more “languages” you can speak on your instrument – from blues and jazz to rock and country, the options are truly numerous.


I'm Johnny, the guy behind Guitar Manifesto. I've been playing guitar since my teens and now that I'm in my 40s, I'm all about sharing what I've learned to help you become a better guitarist.

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