Lead guitar looks impressive, which is one of the reasons why a lot of students also tend to be intimidated by it.
But basic lead guitar – and I do mean basic – is much easier to learn than basic rhythm guitar. Surprised?
After all, with lead guitar, you only have to play one note at a time. So, if you start slowly and focus on precision rather than speed, you’ll find it easy to get a foot in the door.
Let’s explore how to play open string licks, just make sure you've some quality electric guitar strings.
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What Are Open String Licks?
A lick is a segment of music usually not repeated over the course of a song (although you might hear variations on it). Sometimes it’s also called a fill.
For example, let’s say a singer finishes a phrase, and there’s a two-bar gap between when he stops and starts singing again. That’s the perfect time to insert a bit of ear candy with a lick – something that brings variety and interest to the song (especially since most songs are very repetitive and may only have one or two chord progressions).
We’re going to be trying out some open string licks – some easy, and some a little harder to play. But just because the term “open string” is in there does not mean that we will only be using open strings. Rather, the open string notes are key parts of the licks.
A Simple Open String Lick Using The Pentatonic Scale
The E minor pentatonic scale is the perfect scale to use for open strings licks, because all open strings can be a part of the lick. The E, A, D, G, and B notes all belong in the scale!
If you aren’t familiar with the pentatonic scale, this would be a good time to learn these five important guitar scales. The E minor pentatonic scale is made up of the notes already mentioned, but in this order: E, G, A, B, D.
Other than that, there isn’t much to the following example. We’ll be making good use of open strings, but there aren’t any big stretches, or even hammer-ons and pull-offs. Even beginners should be able to pull this off with a bit of practice:
An Open String Lick On One String
It’s easy to use an open string as a recurring note, especially if you’re playing a lick on a single string. This can sound pretty impressive, and many a guitarist – from Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young to Kirk Hammett – often take full advantage of that “extra” open note that’s part of the scale they’re playing.
For this example, we’ll use the E major scale, which is made up of E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, and D#. The lick itself is played on just one string. But the great thing about this exercise is that you can transfer it to other strings and play it exactly as shown. The only thing that changes is the scale (B major on the second string, G major on the third string, etc.).
Give this a try, and pay careful attention so you don’t lose your place:
An Open String Lick With Stretching
Now it’s time to have a little more fun with the E minor pentatonic scale.
It’s easy to play this scale in the open position. But what if you accessed all the notes between the open note and the fifth fret? That makes things a little more interesting.
Since the pentatonic scale only has five notes (“penta” means five), when you take this approach you’ll start repeating a lot of the same notes at different octaves, but the effect is cooler than you might think.
Confused? No problem. Have a look at this example and you’ll see what I mean:
This type of playing can often be seen in country music, but that isn’t to say you can’t apply it to other genres too.
An Open String Lick With Hammers & Pulls
The examples are starting to get a little trickier, so if you’ve been following along so far, good on you. It means you’re at least an intermediate player (unless you can only play the above at extremely slow tempos).
If you remember the one-string lick from earlier, then you may have noticed that there are some excellent opportunities to hammer-on from and pull-off to open strings to embellish. These types of licks can make you sound faster than you are too.
We’ll use two strings in the following example instead of just one, but the idea is the same, and so is the scale (E major).
Putting It All Together
We’ve looked at a few different examples of open string licks. I’ve kept them relatively simple, and you can play with the tempo, phrasing, and even the note order to your heart’s content. You might even be surprised by the variations you can come up with.
But I will give you one more example to try in the key of G minor (G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F). This scale will limit the number of open notes we can access (A, D, and G), but instead of just using scales that make it easy on us, it’s also good to challenge ourselves to come up with ideas when there are more limitations.
Again, use the following example as a starting point to branch off into your own ideas:
I don’t know about you, but I find it inspiring to work on licks like these. It forces you to reach for intervals and note combinations that you might not use otherwise, and that gives your licks a unique sound.
Now, if you’re more of an improvisational guitarist versus someone that plans everything out, then you’ll want to make a mental note of “open note licks” so that you remember to branch out while you’re performing or recording. I tend to be this kind of guitarist myself, so I must make a mental checklist of everything I can pull off in the moment if I want to create variety (double stop licks, string skipping, arpeggios, etc.).