Amazing Phrasing: 36 Ways to Personalize Your Lick Library

When it comes to getting from one note to the next, the string group is blessed with perhaps the most options of any other family of musical instruments.
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When it comes to getting from one note to the next, the string group is blessed with perhaps the most options of any other family of musical instruments. Guitarists in particular have under their fingers at any given moment a plethora of available techniques, including hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and slurs, string bends, finger vibrato, harmonics, and whammy-bar manipulations, all of which can be mixed and matched at will. Each technique, be it subtle or in-your-face, can be utilized to put a player’s unique expressive stamp on an otherwise pedestrian performance of a melodic line or lick. Let’s call it “finger grease.”

This month we’ll investigate how implementing and cross-pollinating these indigenous physical guitar techniques can have a drastic or understated effect on the sound and feel of any lick. You’ll only have to learn two licks, but we’ll be applying individual and combined phrasing options to create three dozen variations. Hopefully this will encourage you to expand your own cache of licks simply by altering the way you play each note.


We begin with the short melodic snippet shown in Ex. 1a, where every note is picked—think of it as the melody to “Alfie” or “Whistle While You Work”—but don’t be put off by its simplicity. While the lick is notated in the key of G Major, it can also be perceived as G Mixolydian, which means it will work over any chord in the key of G (Gmaj7,Am7, Bm7, Cmaj7, D7, Em7, and F#m7b5) or the key of C (Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7, G7, Am7, and Bm7b5). The fun begins in Ex. 1b as we add a single pull-off for some sax-y phrasing, and then introduce a hammer-on in Ex. 1c, before combining both in Ex. 1d. (Tip: Optional vibrato can be added to the D half-note throughout.)


The next four examples each bring a single string bend into the aural picture. Examples 2a and 2b feature a grace-note bend (relocated to the third string) on the first and third beats, respectively, while Examples 2c and 2d do the same with a pair of pre-bent Ds. Note how applying finger vibrato to a pre-bent note creates the opposite effect from adding it to a grace-note bend—one modulates up and down (think Clapton), while the other goes down and up (think Beck).

Examples 3a and 3b incorporate a second grace-note bend and pre-bend, before Examples 3c and 3d add a melodic (i.e., rhythmic) release to each opening bend and combine both bending techniques in the same measure. The next four variations feature the same opening and closing bends and releases appended first with a pull-off to beat two (Examples 4a and 4b), next with an additional hammer-on on the and of two (Ex. 4c), and finally with a melodic bend to D in Ex. 4d, which is played with a single pick attack. Feel the grease?


Ex. 5a introduces a grace-note hammer-on followed by a pull-off (a Jimi favorite) and a melodic finger slide before concluding with another grace-hammer on beat three. Ex. 5b reverses this strategy using a grace-note slur and melodic slide on beat one, a hammer-on on beat two (note the fingering), and another grace-slide on beat three. Ex. 5c adds a pull-off to sound the first four notes with one pick-stroke and ends with a grace-bend, while Ex. 5d goes completely legato using slides to surround a pull-off and hammer-on.

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The next four examples are as different as night and day. Ex. 6a remains in legato mode by moving the entire lick to the second string to utilize the open B. Ex. 6b features the same open B, but re-contextualizes the lick as a Chet Atkins-style run for maximum ring. Ex. 6c veers off into Beck/Hammer territory with a grace-bend and melodic release, a quick melodic bend from B to C (think Moog pitch wheel), a staccato C on the and of beat two, and a final grace-bend. (Tip: Try this one as a 5/8 loop.) Ex. 6d simulates Beck’s amazing faux-slide whammy bar manipulations with a downward bar bend on beat one, beat two’s grace-note bar release followed by a hammer-on, and an unpicked bar dip to trigger the final C-to-D grace-bend.

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Also very Beck-y is Ex. 7a, where we transpose the notes up one octave and use the whammy bar to manipulate a single, third-string/2nd-fret D harmonic and play the entire lick as a simulated soprano voice. Finally, there’s the obligatory legato tapped version in Ex. 7b, which returns all five notes to the third string. (Tip: Add vibrato with your fret hand’s second finger.) That’s 26 ways to play the same lick. Got any more? Let us know.


Switching to a minor state of mind (think G Dorian or G Blues), Ex. 8a demonstrates our basic, unadorned 5-4-b3-4-5-root lick, to which we first add a combo hammer-pull move (Ex. 8b), and then a vibrated grace-hammer to the final G half note. Ex. 8d revises the fingering to accommodate a pair of grace-note hammer-ons. Things get progressively greasier as we introduce a grace-bend and release and grace-hammer (Ex. 9a), a pre-bend-release and hammer-on followed by a grace-slide/slur (Ex. 9b), and a Beck-style staccato microtonal bend in Ex. 9c. But slipperiest of all is Ex. 9d’s whole-step pre-bend and partial release (approximately 3/4 step), which is held to create three consecutive quarter-step pre-bends (two with staccato phrasing) before concluding with a quivering grace-hammer. Talk about sweet-and-sour!

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It’s back to the bar for another faux-slide treatment via a whole-step bar-bend and hammered quarter-step bend in Ex. 10a— try reducing the opening bar-bend to a half-step for an authentic blues harp vibe—and the quick whammy dips and fret-hand taps that trigger every note in Ex. 10b. We’ll close out with a pair of melodic slides in Ex. 10c and the single-string legato combination of slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs shown in Ex. 10d.

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Keep in mind that all of the previous phrasing variations can be played at any tempo on different strings in different octaves and transposed to any key. I hope you will explore the myriad applications of these and other amazing phrasing techniques and adapt them to your own personal musical vocabulary. They may just take you to places you never knew you wanted to go!