Jazz Improvisation: Licks as a Learning Tool

By: Mike Oppenheim

Eastman_PG2_Pagelli_Jazz_Guitar_tpThe use of pre-composed licks as an essential step in learning to play jazz, and especially jazz guitar, seems to be a foregone conclusion. While many teachers qualify this approach by stating that licks are only a springboard to improvisation, the value of having a catalogue of memorized and applicable licks is almost dogmatically engrained in jazz guitar pedagogy.

Perhaps some students are capable of learning this way, eventually incorporating licks they have learned into their own personalized sound and expressive tendencies. I personally have never been able to do this. Never once have I been able to memorize a lick, anticipate an approaching ii-V-I, recall the lick, apply it in the appropriate place, and maintain any semblance of a coherent musical idea through this process.

There are many reasons I do not subscribe to the practice of incorporating licks into my improvisations. For me, it stifles creativity, interrupts continuity, and mutes my own voice.

Further, I think it takes a tremendous amount of mental effort that would be better suited to keeping track of the song form, relationships between the melody and harmony, scalar orientation, and simply listening to the overall interactions of the ensemble.

However, I certainly see the value in studying pre-composed lines in an effort to understand essential musical devices in jazz guitar improvisation. This article offers an alternate, and complementary, way of advancing your improvisation through the study of guitar licks.

I tend to avoid the term “licks” in my teaching, instead favoring “pre-composed lines,” because I feel that “licks” are associated with a mechanical, as opposed to musical, device. However, I will use the term licks throughout this article, acknowledging them as a musical and theoretical model of improvisation, for consistency.

So how does one use licks as a learning tool without applying them in improvisation? I propose a number of questions through which a student can deconstruct and analyze the musical processes at work in the composition of licks, and ultimately, in spontaneous improvisation.

Interrogating the Lick

The first questions to ask when studying a lick relate to your personal aesthetic responses to its sound. The answers are subjective depending on your own tastes and preferences. First, do you like how it sounds? Does it sound fresh and unique, or trite and cliché? Is it a general sound you would want in your own playing? Can you hear it as an extension of your own creative vision? Even if you don’t respond positively to a certain lick, it is worthwhile to explore its structure and composition in order to identify the specific features you do not like.

The next questions deal with how the lick sounds in the context of jazz as a genre with a broad number of sub-genres and historical categories. Does the lick sound traditional, modern, avant-garde? Can you associate with a particular time period or style of jazz (ie. Ragtime, Dixieland, Swing, Bebop, Soul Jazz, Cool Jazz, Bossa Nova, Jazz-Fusion, etc)? Does it evoke any of these sounds? You can categorize licks to begin building a database of musical tendencies in these specific styles of jazz improvisation.

Now we can begin approaching questions about the structural features of the lick itself. These are general observations about the lick that don’t rely on specific theoretical descriptions. How many bars is the entire lick? How many beats is the lick from the first articulated note to the last (e.g., 8 beats, 5 ½ beats plus 2 ½ beats rests prior to first pickup note)? What key is it in (though bear in mind that all licks can be transposed to any key)? What chord progression is the lick played over? Where do the chord changes occur (e.g., beat 1, & of beat 4, etc.)? This is a second method of categorizing and comparing licks in addition to the stylistic categories mentioned above.

Now we begin our general observations of the rhythmic and melodic features of the lick.

First examine the rhythmic features. Where does the lick begin and end, from the first articulation to the last sustain? Are the majority of articulations occurring on the beats or on the & of beats? Are the note durations varied (i.e., many note values or all eighth notes)? Are the note values primarily short or long (one beat or less vs. greater than one beat)? What are the longest and shortest notes? What is the largest gap between articulations? Are rests incorporated into the lick? If so, where do they occur and how long are they sustained? How are the beats divided (e.g., triplets, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc)? Is there syncopation (i.e., ties between beats or over barlines)?

A similar set of general questions is applied to the melodic features of the lick. What is the contour of the lick (i.e., ascending, descending, mixed)? When do changes in direction occur (e.g., beat 3, & of beat 2, following large intervals, after repeated notes, etc)? What is the melodic range (e.g., one octave, one octave plus a major third, etc)? Are notes repeated consecutively? Are there repeated motifs or sequences? Are the intervals primarily small or large (P4 or less vs. greater than P4)? What are the smallest and largest intervals? Is there significant stepwise motion (three or more consecutive minor or major seconds)? Is there significant movement by thirds (three or more consecutive minor or major thirds)? Is there significant movement by fourths (three or more consecutive perfect or augmented fourths)? These tendencies would suggest scalar motion, arpeggiation, and quartality, respectively.

By answering these questions, you can compile a database of the features of a particular lick. For example, a lick categorized as bebop might be characterized by lasting two bars in length, including 2 ½ beats of rest prior to a pickup, occurring over a ii-V-I progression.

Rhythmically, this lick might consist entirely of eighth notes. Melodically, the contour may be mixed, within a one-octave range, moving primarily by step, using repeated motifs, and switching direction following three iterations of a motif.

This could be contrasted with a bossa nova lick that might last eight beats over two bars, occurring against a chord progression of I7-bII7. This might have short and long note values lasting from one-half of a beat to three beats. Perhaps syncopation, rests, and quarter note triplets are incorporated within the rhythmic framework of this lick. Melodically, we might find this lick characterized by an ascending contour, a range of 1 ½ octaves, primarily large intervals, and significant movement by fourths.

By assembling this general information, we can begin to build a set of grammatical tendencies to aid us in achieving a particular sound. We have gathered this information by using a lick as our model. However, instead of, or in addition to, having a lick ready for recall in performance, we have a generalized set of rules that can be applied, even with minimal theoretical grounding.

Analyzing the Lick

To delve even deeper into the construction of a lick and the musical principles expressed therein, one may conduct a more extensively theoretical analysis. This includes looking at the scalar, harmonic, and melodic properties of the lick. These topics will just be mentioned briefly, as a full explanation of each would be well beyond the scope of this article.

A scalar analysis of the lick consists of determining the scale or scales used to construct the melody. These may include major scales, modes, altered scales, whole tone and diminished scales, or any other number of unconventional note collections. Whatever the scales may be, it is necessary to determine which scale occurs against which chords, and when the scale changes, if it does.

A harmonic analysis of the lick refers to identifying the role of every note in the melody as it relates to the underlying chord. These may include chord tones, upper partials, alterations, or non-chord tones. By identifying the particular function of each note in relation to the harmony, one may find principles at work, such as emphasizing upper partials or alterations.

The melodic analysis of the lick is an examination of how the lick progresses from note to note. This may include identifying notes as passing tones, chromatic passing tones, leaps, leap recoveries, appoggiaturas, neighbor tones, auxiliary tones, etc.

Upon completing this analysis, we may have a description of our hypothetical bebop lick described above such as the following. The lick might consist of the Locrian and Aeolian modes, with the scalar change occurring between the V and the i. The lick might emphasize alterations such as flat and sharp ninths, with extensive use of appoggiaturas, passing tones, and chromatic passing tones.

The analysis of the lick provides a complementary set of “rules” or tendencies in addition to the more general features gathered from the prior line of questioning.


Despite my aversion to using licks to directly expand my improvisational vocabulary, I recognize the great value they provide as models of successful improvisation. Using the line of questioning outlined above, I hope you can use licks to expand not only your playing, but your understanding of jazz improvisation.

About Mike Oppenheim - Multi-instrumentalist, Mike Oppenheim lives in Vancouver, Canada, and plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and Mohan Veena (Indian Classical Guitar). While earning his degree in music at Kenyon College, he joined the Indonesian Gamelan ensemble. He interned for the Calliope Society of Folk Music in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mike also apprenticed in guitar building under luthier, Bob Zatzman. He moved to Canada to earn a masters degree in Ethnomusicology at the University of British Columbia, where he performed with the UBC African Drum and Dance Ensemble and the UBC Capoeira Angola group. Mike teaches on-line guitar lessons and can be reached at: mikeopmusicATgmail.com or through his website: Mike Oppenheim Music.


One Comment

  1. Jazz Article at Guitar International Magazine | Mike Oppenheim (1 year ago)

    [...] International Magazine has just published my article “Jazz Improvisation: Licks as a Learning Tool” on their website. This article provides a method for getting the most from pre-composed licks as a [...]