How to Turn Your Stale Old Licks into Fresh New Music

Read Time 3 Minutes

Have you ever picked up your guitar, found yourself picking some safe, reliable old licks, and felt a bit stale?

Guitar HandsPlateaus and ruts are a natural part of every guitarist’s journey. The good news is that even if you’ve stayed on a plateau for a long time, you can easily shake free of your muscle memory habits and start creating fresh new material again—all you need is a little determination, the right methods, and a bit of technical know-how.

“Play something new” is good advice, but it doesn’t give us much actual guidance, does it? How does one just play “something new,” exactly? It’s a vague instruction, too vague to really act on. And that’s where the Four Categories of Change come in.

Four Ways to Change it Up

You can use the four categories of change to invent ideas for a solo; turn reliable old licks into fresh new variations; or transform familiar melodies into bold new creations of your own.

  • addition
  • subtraction
  • rearrangement
  • substitution

Whenever your hands feel locked into playing a certain lick a certain way, these categories are great for brainstorming ways to switch it up and try new variations.

Change up a chord progression

Let’s say you’re working with a chord progression that sounds okay, but it isn’t really turning you on. To make the progression more interesting, you could try any or all of these:

  • add notes to any one chord to alter it
  • subtract a chord change, and sit on the previous chord longer instead
  • rearrange the chords into a new order
  • substitute one chord for another

And these are just a few examples. Of course, if you’ve got some understanding of chord theory, you’ll find it easier to take apart chord progressions and put them back together again in interesting new ways, but it’s not absolutely required to start applying the four categories of change (I call them “The Four Cats” for short) and writing new material.

Some artists who are considered the most original in music history have actually just deliberately taken someone else’s work and altered it using the methods above until the work really does become entirely transformed, and becomes its own truly original creation.

One example is jazz legend John Coltrane’s track “Countdown” from the album Giant Steps. “Countdown” began its life as a version of Miles Davis’s “Tune Up.” Coltrane transformed the tune into his own unique creation, starting by simply making heavy chord substitutions.

Change up a lick, riff, or melody

  • To change up a melody of any kind, including a lick or a riff, you could:
  • add notes from the same key or scale the melody’s notes are drawn from
  • subtract notes, sustaining other notes longer to fill the space
  • rearrange notes from a melody into a completely new order
  • substitute one note for another

Depending on the number of changes you make, and the importance of the changes you make, these little edits could be used to create variations on an existing theme, or could sprout something totally new.

After all, if you make enough little changes, one at a time, you could eventually transform the theme of “The Nutcracker” into Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” and back again.


The Four Cats of Change also offer a way for you to imitate favorite artists, while also developing your own unique style one change at a time.
The four categories of change can be a lot easier to apply if you notate the lick before beginning to alter it. That way you can really see each note visually represented, so you can precisely change a single note without affecting the notes around it. If you know music notation, that’s ideal, but if not, you can certainly get by with tablature too.

There’s another advantage to using the Four Cats: when you take some lick that you’ve had on autopilot for weeks or even years and apply even a small change to it, suddenly you’re forced to think carefully about what you’re doing again. Suddenly you have to slow down and really pay attention to what your hands are doing, and why. You may be asking why that’s a good thing—it’s because if you’re thinking about what you’re doing, you’re learning. As guitarists, we learn nothing while our hands are on autopilot. Make even a small change to something you’ve memorized, and you’ll find yourself having to learn it all over again.

You may stumble as a result of the change, but that’s a good thing. Make yourself think, make yourself stumble, and you’re likely learn something.

Go try ‘em

Although they can be summed up in just a few minutes, the Four Cats are the secret to conscious creativity—you could spend a lifetime exploring them and never reach the end. Best of all, these methods don’t depend on “inspiration.” You can use them anytime you want, at a moment’s notice.
Keep them under your hat. You might even write them on a slip of paper and tuck them into your guitar case:

  • addition
  • subtraction
  • rearrangement
  • substitution

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Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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