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Guitar World
Guitar World
Simon Barnard

Shred to impress with these fast guitar licks that sound harder than they actually are

Steve Vai live onstage with the original G3 lineup in 2024.

Having a set of fast lead licks is a useful tool to add some flair and spice to solos. Quite often, these licks may sound a lot harder to play than they actually are, creating quite the illusion for the listener. 

There are many techniques that work well for playing fast lead licks. Legato is a great example of this. Even a simple two-note trill played at speed can sound flashy. Adding a third note takes the excitement up a notch. 

Combining the picking hand to add some tapped notes takes things even further. Not only does this sound flash and enable fast licks to be played with some ease, it also looks incredibly cool! 

Of course, there are other techniques which can be employed. Fast alternate picking can be tricky when navigating multiple strings at speed. However, playing single-string licks with alternate picking can be much easier for the picking hand, although still requiring an element of coordination to make sure both hands sit together in unison. 

Sweep picking is another example that can be modified to allow fast licks to be played at speed. Five or six-string sweeps can be hard to play, although three-string sweep picking licks are much easier. Triadic sweep picking licks can be repeated multiple times in the same position, again creating the illusion of technical prowess.

The best and most musical way of incorporating these kinds of licks into your repertoire is to fuse them with more melodic phrases. For example, ending a line or section of a solo with a fast lick or indeed series of fast licks is a great way of adding excitement.

The movement from a slow or mid tempo melodic phrase to something with a little more flash and virtuosity will usually sound more musical (and ear catching) than when compared to blazing streams of fast notes. However, there are numerous players and listeners who like long bouts of fast, stamina straining phrases. It’s akin to a Formula 1 race or exhilaratingly long fairground ride! 

The following five examples show how the techniques mentioned earlier can be used to create fast lead licks. All of the examples are written in the key of A Minor and I would urge you to transpose them into different keys so that you can be as versatile as possible.

For the study piece, I opted to use the relative major of A minor, which is C major. With these keys being so closely linked, you will notice that some of the shapes and positions are the same.Therefore, any of the licks found throughout the examples and study piece can be used over both A minor and C major keys. Now, grab your guitar and get down to learning this month’s examples and study piece!  

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 6, Bass 6, Middle 9, Treble 7, Reverb 3

For the examples I used a bridge humbucker pickup through an overdriven amp with extra gain from an overdrive pedal. I then added delay and reverb. Any bridge pickup will work well for a biting rock tone, although some fast players, including Gary Moore and Steve Morse, are as happy playing fast on the neck pickup (try it!). Add reverb and delay to taste. 

Exercises 1-5

Exercise 1. Sweep-picked arpeggios

This three-string sweeping example is based around an A minor arpeggio and is a great repetitive lick to add to your repertoire.

Exercise 2. Legato

The A natural minor scale is used here in a descending sequential legato lick, which can be moved up and down the neck using a variety of shapes and patterns.

Exercise 3. Alternate picking

This alternate picking lick uses the A natural minor scale on one string. The trick here is to make sure that both hands are coordinated and fluent. 

Exercise 4. Two-handed tapping

This A minor pentatonic tapping lick can add some impressive flash to your playing. Again, coordination is the key to sounding slick and confident.

Exercise 5. Single-string legato 

Milk this single-string repetitive legato lick for as long as your fingers can hold out for. It’s perfect for posing on stage with your picking arm held high, Jimi style!

Study piece

Bars 1-4 We kickstart this piece with a legato idea. Aim for consistent timing and phrasing so that the lick locks in with the backing track. Bar 5 starts off the main solo with an ascending legato scale run before a frantic Cmaj7 lick featuring alternate picking in bar 6. 

Bars 7-8 feature more alternate picking, which you might find challenging. If so, just drop the tempo with a metronome to build up to the required speed if needed.  

Bars 9-10 feature a series of pentatonic-based tapping licks as a contrast to the previous alternate picking line. Accuracy and consistent phrasing and dynamics are key here.

Bars 11-12 close our piece with some more legato ideas using a slippery three-notes-per-string C major scale idea. Ensure that your hands are coordinated and that the lines sound even.

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