5 cutting-edge prog guitar licks you need to learn

Misha Mansoor
(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic)

Prog has seen a huge resurgence in recent years and although the roots go back to the ’70s with bands like King Crimson, Yes and Rush laying the foundations, modern players are still finding new ways to innovate and push the boundaries of guitar further. In this lesson, we’ll look at some of the technical and creative approaches used by some of today’s finest players. 

As you work through the tab exercises, try to listen out for phrases that sound familiar. Though I haven’t copied any riffs or licks directly, these ideas home in on rhythmic ideas, melodic phrases and playing techniques that are part and parcel of prog guitar today. 

From the piano-like tapping techniques of Covet and Chon to the technical metal mayhem of Protest The Hero and Between The Buried And Me, there’s plenty to get your teeth into.

Example 1. Yvette Young / Mario Camarena-style tapping

(Image credit: Future)

At first sight, this opening example looks like a pain in the backside to master, but it’s easier than you might think! 

Hold down the 7th-, 8th- and 10th-fret notes as a chord throughout, then all you have to worry about is tapping. Tap with your first and second fingers on the middle strings and your third finger on the first two strings.

Example 2. Plini / Misha Mansoor-style melodic phrasing

(Image credit: Future)

Modern prog isn’t just technical wizardry. Players like Plini, Periphery’s Misha Mansoor and Aaron Marshall of Intervals effectively use lyrical, jazz-fusion inspired melodic lines over djenty rhythms, and that’s what you’re looking at here in this Dorian mode lick. 

Pick softly to allow the melody to connect smoothly. Careful slides and an even vibrato will help the notes sing. 

Example 3. Roman Ibramkhalilov / Acle Kahney-style syncopation

(Image credit: Future)

Here, I demonstrate the rhythmic trickery of bands like Ukrainian prog/metalcore masters Jinjer and UK prog-metal titans, Tesseract. ‘What’s the trickery?’, you ask? Well, our drop-D tuned riff repeats every five eighth notes, which syncopates and displaces when played against the 4/4 backbeat. Clever stuff!

Example 4. Tim Henson / Manuel Gardner Fernandes-style harmonics

(Image credit: Future)

Acts like Polyphia and Unprocessed have taken clean-tone riffing to new heights in recent years, incorporating natural harmonics seamlessly into intricate chord melody grooves. 

For the clean harmonics here, position your finger directly in line with the fret and lift your finger off as soon as you pluck the string. Play the riff with a pick, fingerstyle, or a combination of the two. 

Example 5. Tim Millar / Paul Waggoner-style technical riffing

(Image credit: Future)

To wrap up, we enter the world of technical riffing, with acts like Jason Richardson, Protest The Hero and Between The Buried And Me proving there’s always something heavier and more extreme around the corner. 7/8 time gives a progressive flavour and the rapid switch between straight 16ths and 16th-note triplets is typical prog fare. 

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Charlie Griffiths

Charlie Griffiths plays guitar in acclaimed prog-metal outfit Haken, and has a wealth of experience handling corporate and session gigs for genres as diverse as rock, heavy metal and pop. He has been a regular contributor to Total Guitar, Guitar Techniques, and Guitar World for over a decade, and released his debut solo album Tiktaalika in 2022.