Jazz LicksLink to Full Article on the Jazz Advice Blog

Although many interpretations of a lick exist, I’m going to give you my best definition based upon how I’ve most commonly heard the word used and applied to jazz knowledge.

It’s a melodic line that an improviser has acquired for the means of reproducing it note-for-note in their improvised solo. The line may have been learned from a recording, but most likely it was acquired through printed material, or other secondary sources. The line may have been briefly played in all keys, however, more often than not a lick is limited to one key.

That’s all there is to a lick. You don’t know how to vary it rhythmically or approach it with a group of notes. You can’t alter the line or combine it with other lines you know. The concepts you have practiced cannot be applied to this static entity. Nothing affects it. It fits in one spot and it stays there for it’s measly life. Starting to understand what I mean by a lick?

Where you learn language

As opposed to learning them from a book or from the web, you learn language with your ear. You hear it and imitate it until you know it. You don’t sit there ripping one note off, writing it down, ripping the next note off, writing it down…that’s how you learn licks, not language.

You want to take language from your heroes. Not people you’re supposed to like; emulate the people you actually like. If you don’t like John Coltrane or Stan Getz, don’t learn language from them. If that’s the case, I feel sorry for you, but that doesn’t matter. Learn from your personal heroes.

How you learn language

When a toddler starts talking, they have their favorite words. They say them over and over and over…That’s how you learn language. Just like a child, you copy your heroes (in the child’s case, these are their parents), find something they say that you love and play it over and over and over.

You’re of course familiar with the saying, “Don’t discover yourself. Create yourself.” This is what you’re doing. You’re creating yourself from the ground up. You get to choose each and every little influence. Choose wisely. Then put in your time to own each piece of language you select.

Hear it in your head during all this time.

  • Sing it
  • Learn it in all keys
  • Play it slow with a metronome in all keys
  • Play it faster with a metronome in all keys
  • Play it in various root movements. For instance, play the line in descending whole steps, then ascending minor thirds, then major thirds etc.
  • Learn to vary the rhythm of the line at will
  • Learn to approach the line with an eighth note, then two eighth notes, then three etc.
  • In a similar fashion, Learn to add notes to the end of the line
  • Integrate triplets into the line
  • Start the line on different beats
  • Combine the line with other lines you’ve learned
  • Combine half of the line with another half of a line you know
  • Add alterations, such as the #9, b9, #11 (same note as #4 or b5), or b13 (same note as b6 or #5) to the line

You don’t have to do all the variations mentioned. The point is, there are infinite ways to vary the line for the purpose of obtaining complete mastery with it. You goal is to use a piece of language as a springboard for your own creative thought in the moment, not as a copy-and-paste phrase as if it were from a phrase book.

Just as we do not have to think of each letter, word, or grammatical rule when we speak, our aim is to develop a similar fluency with the jazz language.

What you can do with language

This is the most important difference between licks and language. Licks are static. Language is dynamic. Licks are limited. Language is limitless.

Practicing melodic material in the aforementioned way converts lines into language. Many of the things you can do with language are similar to the suggestions of how to practice it.

You can do these things with language While you play a tune in real time:

  • Hear the line perfectly in your head
  • Have the line at your fingertips for any key you encounter
  • Be able to vary the line rhythmically
  • Add notes to the line or remove them at will
  • Combine one piece or part of language with another
  • Apply rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic concepts to pieces of language
  • Use the line as a basis or starting point for your own creativity, in the moment

These are just a few things that you can do with a line if it’s truly language and not a lick. The main difference is the flexibility you’ve attained. If you’re bored with your playing, then you know you have licks, not language, because if you had language, you’d be constantly creating new ideas and combinations. With language, you’re always finding new places where you can use it, or different ways to distort it. It’s constantly evolving, changing , and merging with other things you’re working on.

If you want to truly understand how to construct lines that flow effortlessly over chord changes, have infinite options when you encounter the same changes time and time again, if you want to stop sounding like a foreigner to the jazz idiom but instead a local…Stop learning licks and learn language. You’ll be happy you did.



Great resource with some great Jazz Licks for you to use.

Jazz Patterns & Licks

How many jazz improvisers construct a completely original solo? It may be fair to say that most players rely on scales and patterns (aka licks, phrase or in more academic circles, formulae). Jazz is an ever evolving language, the established patterns and licks are borrowed, adapted and mutated into new ones. New styles of jazz sometimes dictate new harmonic structures. The great players often combine spontaneous original invention with established patterns to create new and fresh yet stylistically relevant solos. Beginners and more average players may have flashes of real invention, but usually need to fall back on use of scales and patterns just to give the brain a rest.As well as the patterns on these pages, you can also find many more on the saxophone pages, including plenty of IIm7-V7-Is, diminished and whole tone patterns and licks. These can be easily adapted for any instrument.

Lick of the Week

Each week I will be adding a new lick here, so bookmark the page and check back regularly:

Here are a few to start off with (to learn in every key of course):

Enclosures and Neighbour Notes

IIm7 V7 I with neighbour notes and enclosures

This first one is a bit involved but a very cool sounding lick. If you want to analyse it then it starts wit a suspension on to the 3rd of the Am7, then the next two notes enclose the root. You may wonder why G# on Am7? Well it works well in this enclosure situation as it is a chromatic neighbour note of the A, like a leading note that gets there via the B. From there on it’s quite straightforward with descending motif on the strong beats A to G which then leads nicely to the F# of the D7 (voice leading). The last scale run down from F# to resolve again with voice leading includes the flattened 9th for some flavour, though it could just as easily have a natural 9th.

Again, with this one you might be wondering about off notes, e.g. why we have an E natural in the key of C minor. As with the previous lick it is a neighbour note to the F of the D minor 7 flat 5 so it works well a semitone lower leading into the F (like a leading note). C# on a Dm7? Yes, it’s a chromatic passing note as well as a neighbour note. Again on the descending phrase we have a b9, and then this couples with another neighbour note, the F#, to enclose the G as it all resolves nicely to the 5th of the C minor and down on to the root.


This one is quite straightforward, a scale run down from the F of D minor 7 flat 5, voice leading to the 3rd of the G7 and then again via the F to the 3rd of the C minor. The final motif uses B as a neighbour note to the root of C minor



Another neighbour note as a leading note in to the root of the D minor 7 b5. It’s quite common to hear the major 7 used like this on a minor 7 chord, as long as it is functioning as a neighbour note or as a passing note.


By now you will be getting the picture: E natural neighbour note on to the F. Nice voice leading from C (the 7th) to B (the 3rd of the next chord) and a scale down with the b9. On the second beat of the C minor we have another enclosure and a neighbour/leading note.




This is a very nice pentatonic lick and is deceptively easier than it looks or sounds. It’s a bit more than just a lick really. This is in D minor and can be used over a one chord D minor groove. It slips into a G# minor pentatonic, but then lands back  nicely onto G, from where you could continue in D minor (looking nonchalantly as if you hadn’t just done something very clever!)