It seems we guitarists are foreordained/genetically predisposed/socially conditioned to slurp up other players’ licks, swallow ’em down, and then barf them back out. All over the place. Repeatedly and rather shamelessly—before the digestive juices have even had a chance to percolate, let alone suffuse or steep. We’re like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, only our bilious geysers hit everyone in the room, not just those in a 10-foot radius.
I mean, do you think there’s even a number high enough to quantify how many times 6-stringers have marshaled their fingers for a bluesy whole-step bend on the 3rd string, followed, of course, by a triumphant photo-op at the pentatonic minor’s root note on the 1st string, and then a reverse bend and pull-off from the same 3rd-string locale down to the oh-so-serious 4th-string root?
Mathematicians, we implore you—help us!
And let’s not forget the finale, the whole-step 2nd-string bend with the gyrating, back-and-forth climax between the bent 7 and the aforementioned 1st-string root. (Don’t forget your Oh-oh-oh-ohhhh face!)
To be fair, both these licks are pretty badass … until you realize A) that EVERYONE does them, and B) that absentmindedly hopping on the Blues Bend train to the 1st string is about as artful as farting in the tub.
On the bright side, at least the longer someone’s been playing, the likelier they are to resist the urge a little … to develop some sense of restraint, propriety, or shame. But for all too many of us these lick-spewing tendencies never really go away. It’s almost at plague proportions. Oblivious insecurity and the need to impress become paramount concerns: OMG—what am I gonna do to blow minds at the blues jam Wednesday night!!!!
And the thing is, it really doesn’t matter if you’re constantly replenishing your gullet with a fresh supply of finger tanglers. If cross-checking to ensure your latest rote feat matches the key of the backing track is the extent of your creativity and in-the-moment-ness, you’re still just a puking parrot.
So what’s the gosh-darn solution, O’ Effing Wise-Ass Shawn?
Why, chords, of course!
Chords? That’s whatchoo got?
I’ll say it again: Yes, friggin’ CHORDS.
More to the point, only other guitar wankers give a flying hoohah about vomitous streams of memorized tedium—and a slight few of those, too, to be honest. Unless your solos are part of a good song, and unless they’re memorable and unique, energetic and impassioned—and damn near songlike in and of themselves—you’re just an athlete trying to prove you’re not the weakest link in a room where everyone knows you should be benched.
Instead of combing YouTube or Spotify for supposed barnburners to add to your lick bag, wrap a Tucks medicated pad around your blazing insecurity and go collect some chords to add to your songwriting spice box. (I mean, for God’s sake—doesn’t the name “lick bag” alone tell you you’re up to no good???)
Barre chords and open-position chords are obviously indispensible. (I almost said “cowboy grips” just to avoid overusing “chords,” but that veers dangerously close to “lick-bag” territory, no? But I digress.) Nothing’s ever gonna put those two out of business. But sticking to only those is like seasoning with nothing but salt and pepper and acting like cayenne, coriander, allspice, cumin, turmeric, paprika, cardamom, and saffron don’t exist.
One approach that could be the musical equivalent of grabbing yourself a copy of Auguste Gusteau’s Anyone Can Cook is to put those (Ratatouille pun intended) ratty-ass scales you twiddle away on with your metronome to better use—i.e., choose unusual fingerings or note combinations from those scales to create your own chords. Stack octaves and/or omit the usual thirds and fifths. Discover the weird, dense, troubling beauty of seconds, sixths, and sevenths. Move either your go-to scale(s) or the ones you barely know around to advantageous fretboard locations where you can pull off a finger here or there to incorporate an open string that’s still “in key”—or not. (Dissonance is a viable spice, after all.) Either way, both the harmonic space between the notes and the different tension and timbre of the open strings will add texture and dimensionality to your voicing.
Once you’ve “created” a chord or two this way, that’s all you need. String one or two of the new grips together with some of the staple spices/chords and see how each brings new life to the other. (By the way, I used quote marks around “created” because some music-theory whiz will always know the academic name for your concoction, even if you don’t. Fear not, though: Unless you plan on a career in teaching or music engraving, it’s okay to be an ignoramus who only knows the chord-name basics and doesn’t give a flying cuss about the augmented and diminished crapola.) And if you really want to get weird, start creating your own tunings. Unless you’re one of the aforementioned Poindexters on music theory, there’s no way you’re going to put fingertip to string without coming up with some unique chord recipes!
Until next time, happy cooking, mesdames et messieurs!