Thursday, May 04, 2006


Licks are an important component of playing and learning any type of music. It builds confidence within the player to continue striving and learning.

I believe it is a good idea to learn a few licks and tricks early on in your development, then turn your focus to ear training. Ear training is the most important thing any player can do for his or her playing. When you truly "hear" a chord, it is nearly imposible for you to play "incorrect" things over that chord. Your fingers simply won't do it! [In this case, "incorrect" only applies if you have no clue where you are with a chord and you play something outside the chord structure. Someone who understands how a particular chord works, can play outside of that structure with confidence.]

There is a discernable difference between players who "hear" the chord over which they are improvising versus players who are simply playing something that is supposed to work over a chord passage. The later is like saying something perfectly in a foreign language without understanding a word of it versus using a limited vocabulary, but knowing what you are talking about. Which speaker is in a better position to express himself?

After a solid foundation is achieved getting the chord "into your ear," then I highly recomend learning some standard licks. By this time you will have an understanding of why those licks work.

There is no magic to doing this. Simply pick a chord, make a recording of it sustaining, maybe over a groove if you want to work on phrasing ideas at the same time, and just noodle over it. Start by spelling out the chord. Then play the appropriate arppeggio. Play some alternate arppeggios. Eventually, almost like magic, the sound of the chord will creep into your psyche.

I spent the last 4 years touring with the great saxophonist Plas Johnson [The Pink Panther theme; numurous solos on albums by Frank Sinatra and the like]. Plas is one of the most amazing soloist I have ever heard on any instrument [if you live in the Los Angeles area, you can catch him at the few jazz venues that still exist there]. Only Phil Woods or the late Harry "Sweets" Edison may be featured on more classic recordings as a soloist. Anyway, on many occasions, I have listened with amazement at Plas hear some chord passage for the very first time and play the most perfect solo instantly! It is because he hears the chords first!! Other players who in my opinion have an uncanny love for the chord include Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Pat Martino, Mike Stern, Herbie Hancock, Howard Roberts, Julius "Cannonball" Adderly and George Shearing to name too few.

Learn to love chords and harmony. Pick your favorite chord passage, make a loop of it, and just begin listen to it until the harmony gets into your cell structure. You already love music [hopefully]. You love to play. It shouldn't be hard. With a little patience, your playing level will take a huge leap forward.

Here are a few "lick" books that I recommend:

"101 Must-Know Jazz Licks" by Wolf Marshall
(Everything by Wolf Marshall is exceptional)

"Bebop Bible" by Les Wise
(This book is out of print, so you will have to find it on EBay or visit the music libraries of Berklee College of Music or Musicians Institute in Hollywood)

"Voice Leading for Guitar" by John Thomas

"Tons of Runs" by Andy Laverne

There is also a great funny book I bought once called something like "How to Fake Being a Jazz Guitarist." It had an amazing breakdown of the chordal and solo styles of all of the most influential jazz players including the gear they used and more.

The key is keep an open mind. Almost anything can be used to improve your playing. Do get too sacrosanct about licks versus runs versus free jazz et cetera. Jazz Nazi-dom does not confirm you as a player. It just makes you boorish. Cheers!


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