We all know a great lick when we hear one: Jimmy Page’s solo breaks in “Whole Lotta Love,” say, or Mark Knopfler’s blistering triads in “Sultans of Swing.” Moments like these grab our attention and brand our ears forever.
Sometimes, though, we’ll stumble upon a great lick subliminally and suddenly find ourselves playing it over and over again and wondering, Where have I heard this before?
Through the years, these licks have accumulated in a six-string lexicon of sorts. And like great writers who are able to find the right word to make a point, great guitarists are always able to pluck the perfect lick from this lexicon to express exactly what they’re feeling, right in the moment.
And just as the best writers string those words together to form lucid phrases, the best guitarists link their licks to form living, breathing musical statements.
In this lesson, we present 30 licks that span the greatest decades of rock—from the Fifties through the Eighties. Learn them, master them, and keep them on file for the next time you feel like speaking your soul through your guitar.
Origin: This lick comes from the aggressive rock and roll soloing techniques popularized by Chuck Berry and, later, Keith Richards.
Theory: Selected chord tones, paired on adjacent strings, are bent in unison, approximately a quarter-step sharp.
Playing Tips: This technique works best on the B/G and the E/B string sets. Barre the string couplets with the 3rd finger of the fret hand and bend up (toward the ceiling). Try to keep the strings parallel to each other as you nudge them just a bit sharp.
Origin: This melodic, singable guitar line comes courtesy of the crafty, song-first lead guitarist George Harrison.
Theory: This collection of notes, carefully chosen from the C major pentatonic (C D E G A) and C Mixolydian (C D E F G A Bb) scales, is dispatched with a soulful delivery.
Playing Tips: Our figure is chockfull of vocal-like legato moves—hammer-ons, slide, bends and glisses—which are ideal tools for expressive soloing, especially when playing ballads.
Origin: It’s rooted in Eric Clapton’s slamming turnaround lick from Cream’s live, blues-rock interpretation of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.”
Theory: The A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G) lies at the heart of this 16th-note fueled phrase. Note how the inclusion of a C# note makes for a nice major/minor interplay.
Playing Tips: Audition this lick in the turnaround (last two measure) of any 12-bar blues in A.
Origin: This lick is based on the frenetic opening measures of Jimmy Page’s solo break in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
Theory: Carved from 12th-position E blues (E G A Bb B D) and open-position E minor pentatonic (E G A B D) scales, these licks incorporate an array of rhythmic feels: 16th notes, 16-note-triplets, and 32nd notes.
Playing Tips: The second measure is a prime example of the rewards of playing licks in open position.
Origin: Inspired by the closing moments of the soul-stirring guitar solo in “The Wind Cries Mary,” this example captures the very essence of Jimi Hendrix’s R&B-influenced lead/rhythm style.
Theory: Basically a double-stop treatment of the F major pentatonic scale (F G A C D), this passage closes on an “amen” Fsus 4 (F-Bb-C) to F major (F-A-C) chord move.
Playing Tips: Although Hendrix crafted this phrase to service an F chord, try using it over the relative Dm chord.
Origin: This is just one in a long line of choice G Dorian licks similar to those in Santana’s classic cut “Evil Ways.”
Theory: Carefully selected G Dorian (G A Bb C D E F) notes blanket an archetypal II–V (Gm-C) Latin vamp.
Playing Tips: A good way to approach this slice of G Dorian is to visualize it as a finger-friendly G minor pentatonic (G Bb C D F) scale pattern, with the added notes A and E.
Origin: This southern-fried pull-off frenzy recalls the plethora of show-stoping motifs that cycle throughout the guitar extravaganza that is the outro to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
Theory: A handful of notes from the G minor pentatonic (add 9) scale (G A Bb C D F) are played in a relentlessly repetitive fashion.
Playing Tips: This example is a testament to the notion that it’s okay to repeat yourself while soloing.
Origin: These blazing triads are in the style of those at the moment of truth in Mark Knopfler’s lyrical outro solo from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.”
Theory: Here we have a pull-off motif, on adjacent strings, constructed from D minor (D-F-A), Bb (Bb-D-F) and C (C-E-G) triads.
Playing Tips: Fretboard activities are pretty simple on this one; it’s the picking direction where you’re likely to hit a snag. Try using a downstroke on every attack except for the last 16th note in each group, where you should use an upstroke. Or play it like Knopfler—fingerstyle!
Origin: This major-pentatonic pizzazz is a nod to Dickey Betts’ motif-oriented solo in the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica.”
Theory: A one-octave slice of the D major pentatonic scale (D E F# A B) is played in constantly shifting sequential patterns.
Playing Tips: Don’t make the mistake of passing this soloing style off as prosaic; it takes lot of mental stamina to sustain the momentum as well as the relentless rhythmic repetitions (in this case, steady eighth notes).
Origin: These open triads call to mind the moments just prior to Eric Johnson’s famous “Cliffs of Dover” riff.
Theory: This lick is a succession of inverted and root-position open triads (chord tones voiced in wide-interval form). Here they are, in order of appearance: 1st-inversion Em; root-position Am; 1st-inversion G; root-position C and D.
Playing Tips: You may want to use hybrid picking for this tricky lick. Strike the A and D strings with the pick and pluck the B string with your ring finger. These types of open-triad shapes make for great chord voicings, too.
Origin: This majorly melodramatic and stirring lick is a throwback to Brian May’s incomparable eight-bar solo in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Theory: Hard to believe but this is simply a book-matched run up the Eb major scale (Eb F G Ab Bb C D) capped off with a whole-step bend. Its hipness lies in its intense rhythmic syncopation.
Playing Tips: The lesson here is to never underestimate the power of rhythmic variation. Just a touch can wipe away the predictability of ordinary scale runs and sequences.
Origin:Jeff Beck is the chief practitioner of whammy-bar wizardry, as this lick—a tribute to his haunting instrumental balled “Two Rivers” (from Guitar Shop, 1989)—will attest.
Theory: A true guitar master, Beck is particularly adept at crafting pitch-perfect whammy-bar melodies. What’s more, this D major lick is exclusively drawn from harmonics!
Playing Tips: That initial pre-bend is total guesswork until you get the feel for it. Practice the proper pitch angle by hitting the harmonic first and then raising the pitch a whole step with the bar.
Origin: Talk about a lick frozen in time! This tapping template is similar to the jaw-dropping opening measures of Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption.”
Theory: This series of arpeggios is played along a single string in legato fashion with a pick-hand tap maneuver initiating each cycle.
Playing Tips: As with a fret-hand pull-off, a pick-hand tap pull-off requires the fretting finger to come off the string at a slight angle—either up toward the ceiling or down toward the floor. This aids in maintaining even dynamics.
Origin: In his legendary hired-gun work with contemporary group Steely Dan (“Kid Charlemagne”), Larry Carlton consistently displayed the fine art of keeping one’s rock wits about him, even when surrounded by jazz changes.
Theory: In this thinking-man’s lick, chromatic passing tones decorate (and help to link) Em7 (E-G-B-D) and C6 (C-E-G-A) arpeggios as well as a blues C Mixolydian (C D E F G A Bb) phrase.
Playing Tips: Try out this technique of chromatic embellishment on your ho-hum minor pentatonic phrases to see what you can come up with.
Origin: This lick is inspired by the emotional heights of David Gilmour’s final solo in Pink Floyd’s “Money.”
Theory: Not much theory here—just physically demanding bends from hell that are launched from the highest fret on the neck.
Playing Tips: If you think about it too much, you’ll psyche yourself out—especially on that 1-1/2-step bend on the B string. Tap your primal energy fount and try to visualize yourself playing an octave down in 10th position.
Origin: Minor-pentatonic professor Angus Young hands his master’s degree in guitar on the opening measures of AC/DC’s
“You Shook Me All Night Long.” We learned this similar lick in his class.
Theory: G minor pentatonic (G Bb C D F) supplies the notes, but phrasing, tone, feel and attitude are the heart and soul of this blues-rock lick.
Playing Tips: Take a cue from Angus: Whatever you play, play it like you mean it.
Origin: A display of embellished pentatonics, this licks recalls the Joe Walsh–Don Felder guitar face-off at the end of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
Theory: B minor pentatonic (B D E F# A) forms the foundation of the lick, but the note choice at the arrival of the V chord (F#7) suggests B harmonic minor (B C# D E F# G A#).
Playing Tips: Here’s the fret-hand secret for that final legato phrase: Shift up to 9th position, fret the B and D notes with your 1st and 4th fingers, respectively, and perform the final slide-bend-release maneuver with your 1st finger.
Origin: This slippery passage is just one of a seemingly inexhaustible collection of mind-boggling flashy licks from Joe Satriani’s 1987 solo outing, Surfing with the Alien.
Theory: Fueled by whole-step slides and open strings, this example heads lickety-split from the nether regions of the fretboard down to the mid-neck areas, all courtesy of the E Dorian mode (E F# G A B C# D).
Playing Tips: Take your time with this knuckle buster. As with all of Satch’s musical statements, there’s a lot of finesse rubbed into this passage.
Origin: Who says macho guitar didn’t start until the Seventies? A tip of the hat to perhaps the earliest rock and roll lick on record—Danny Cedrone’s energetic solo in Bill Haley and the Comets’ 1955 smash hit Rock Around the Clock”—this lick oozes machismo.
Theory: The A Mixolydian mode (A B C# D E F# G) supplies the notes, but the real start of the show is the driving 16th-note rhythm of the tremolo-picked attack.
Playing Tips: Practice this one slowly at first, and use a consistent down-up-down-up picking pattern.
Origin: This Brian Setzer–inspired lick pays homage to the rockabilly greats of the Fifties: Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins and Paul Burlison, among others.
Theory: The C blues scale (C Eb F Gb G Bb) rides the i chord (Cm) before giving way to a G augmented arpeggio (G-B-D#) and a G whole-tone (G A B Db Eb F) phrase over the altV chord (G7#5).
Playing Tips: Dial in a short slapback delay setting (approx. 80–10 mx) and a healthy dose of spring reverb.
Origin: One of the great blues-rock guitarists of the Seventies, Robin Trower used stock minor pentatonic licks like this to great effect in tunes like “Day of the Eagle.”
Theory: You’ll recognize the pattern as box 1 of the C# minor pentatonic scale (C# E F# G# B), but the resolution to the E note unmasks the lick’s E major pentatonic (relative major) tonality.
Playing Tips: Most guitarists will attack this lick using only their 1st and 3rd frethand fingers. Try using your 4th finger for the notes on the 12th fret.
Origin: Prior to his untimely passing in 1971, Duane Allman produced some of the greatest rock-flavored slide guitar licks ever committed to record. This beauty takes us back to that special evening in 1971, when the Allmans played live at Fillmore East.
Theory: Mixolydian is the mode of the blues, particularly blues-rock, and in this slippery medium, Allman milks the D Mixolydian (D E F# G A B C) mode for all it’s worth.
Playing Tips: Allman plied his slide in open E tuning on this one, but seeing as this lick occurs on the top two strings, you don’t need to retune your guitar.
Origin: This gem has been heard in so many songs that it’s impossible to pinpoint an origin, but without a doubt its most famous rendering occurs during the climactic end to Jimmy Page’s solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”
Theory: This repeater contains the 5th, b7th and 4th scale degrees of the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G). Typically, after playing this lick, you should resolve to the root (A).
Playing Tips: Practice playing this lick with your o3rd and 2nd fingers on frets 8 and 7, respectively, and then try using your 4th and 3rd fingers in the same manner.
Origin: This is another common repeating lick made popular by Jimmy Page (end of “Stairway to Heaven”) but also heard in countless other classic rock solos, for instance Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
Theory: The three notes in this lick (G E B) constitute a 2nd inversion Em triad. Generally though, this example is simply considered a cool E minor pentatonic (E G A B D) lick.
Playing Tips: A sextuplet is composed of six notes in the space of one beat. Because this is a three-note lick, you can think of each three-note grouping as a 16th note triplet.
Origin:Stevie Ray Vaughan was first and foremost a blues guitarist, but rock guys worship him more than they do many rock guitar heroes. And why not? With cool licks like this in his oeuvre, SRV helped those rock players find their groove.
Theory: This lick is rooted in G minor pentatonic (G Bb C D F). The b9 (Ab) adds a touch of chromaticism.
Playing Tips: Grace notes can be very effective tools. Practice consistent timiing on the G–A moves in measure 1.
Origin: More grace notes, this time from the father of heavy metal guitar, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi.
Theory: This motivic device, over a C#m harmony, is culled from the C# minor pentatonic scale (C# E F# G# B).
Playing Tips: The syncopation in measure 2 is a common rhythmic tool for chording as well as for single-note lines. You should become familiar with this feel.
Origin: The guitarists of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, early Def Leppard) were weaned on Tony Iommi, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, who in turn were bastard children of the blues. Thus, much of these metalheads’ vocabulary was based on blues licks, only played through a wall of Marshalls. This Judas Priest shout-out is a classic example.
Theory: This is a no-frills F# minor pentatonic (F# A B C# E) line over an F#m chord—it doesn’t get any simpler.
Playing Tips: The first two beats are eighth-note triplets; the final two, 16th notes. This is a tricky transition in any setting Practice nailing the rhythm with a metronome. Start slowly and get it right before speeding up.
Origin: Borrowed from Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith, you could say that is originated in hell.
Theory: Like the previous Priest example, this lick comes from the blues, specifically the E minor pentatonic scale. Tossing in the 9th (F#) as a leading tone and bending it to the b3rd (G) to cap this lick is a nice touch.
Playing Tips: Whereas many bends in rock lick don’t tae up any rhythmic space, these do—and to great effect. Practice them in strict time.
Origin: Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray favored more classically constructed lines than his bluesy counterpart, Adrian Smith. Such a leaning can also be heard int he work of Randy Rhoads. This legato-laced lick is reminiscent of that sound.
Theory: This pull-off fest is pulled from the E Mixolydian b6 scale (E F# G# A B C D).
Playing Tips: This is a 4th- and 1st-finger workout. For a fun legato exercise, try extrapolating the lick to include the rest of the scale tones.
Origin: Repeating licks aren’t just for Skynyrd solos. This Randy Rhoads–inspired line is easy to play but sounds might impressive at quick tempos.
Theory: This is a four-note sequence from the F# minor pentatonic scale (F# A B C# E).
Playing Tips: You’ll have to make a quick jump to the full-step bend in measure 2. To nail the pitch, use several fingers to assist when making the bend.