A modular approach to constructing solos: How the LickStack works


The LickStack is an online resource for musicians to share short snippets of music – licks. This article explains the principle and motivation behind the LickStack and how the repository can be helpful to you to expand your musical vocabulary and construct improvised solos.

Welcome to the LickStack!

If you play jazz, (or blues, country, rock, pop, or any other form of modern music) and if you seek to improve your skills as a soloist, you have come to the right place.

The LickStack offers an online resource and community for any musician who aims to improvise music over chord progressions in a lead sheet.

If this sounds like you, read on and let me explain to you what you may expect to find here.

The challenge of building a solo over chord changes

Whether you are a beginner or an expert soloist, chances are you have struggled with improvising over chord changes in a lead sheet.

Here is a solo written out over the chord changes of "Green Dolphin Street":

image[green_dolphin_street, hand-written jazz solo over Green Dolphin Street]

I have been playing jazz piano for give or take a decade now, and building solos still doesn't come naturally to me.

"What on earth do I play over those changes?"

"Why do I keep playing the same boring old stuff?"

"Why can't I remember that awesome solo I came up with last week?"

Writing solos over chord changes is hard. And improvising a solo is even harder, I think we can all agree.

Facing this challenge, the LickStack is designed as a resource to help you get better at improvisation over chord changes.

In order to see how it works, we must briefly talk about the principle of “licks” and how a solo is constructed over chord changes.

A modular approach to constructing solos

A core principle of the LickStack is the idea that any solo you may hear can be broken down into short snippets of music, commonly called “licks”.

A lick as a short musical phrase or pattern that can be used in a solo.

licks are self-contained sections of an improvised solo. They usually have a clear beginning and end, and they most commonly span a length between 1 and 4 measures over a handful of chord changes.

Here is an example of a lick taken from the solo above:

image[lick_example, example of a jazz lick written out in music notes]

You are free to use it. Whenever you like.

Cool, eh?

But let’s take a moment to let this sink in.

Once you master this lick, you will be able to use it in any solo, in any lead sheet, whenever you encounter a Dm7-G7-C chord progression. It will be a permanent part of your musical vocabulary!

But it does not stop there.

The true power of licks is revealed once you break them down into the fundamental rhythmic and melodic themes they are made of.

Licks and the musical themes within are the fundamental building blocks that solos are made of, and the LickStack is designed to let us take full advantage of this principle in order to improve our improvisation skills.

This is best explained with an analogy.

Think of musical themes as Lego pieces

When was the last time you built something out of Lego pieces?

Let's say you have built a Lego castle (or someone else, it doesn't matter).

If you wish, you can disassemble your castle into smaller pieces. Take away a tower, or a wall. If you wish you can also disassemble these pieces down to the individual Lego bricks they are made from.

Nothing then stops you from taking the very same Lego pieces and building a different castle with them, by assembling them in a different way.

You may also borrow some individual lego pieces or pre-assembled "castle parts" from a friend. Maybe their castle has a particularly magnificent tower or drawbridge, which would look great on your castle too.

You see where this is going.

Just like a Lego castle, a solo can be taken apart into small fragments, which we call licks, and if you wish you can further divide these fragments into the fundamental musical themes they are made from.

Nothing then stops you from taking the very same musical building blocks and building a different solo with them, by assembling them in a different way.

You may also borrow musical themes or a pre-assembled lick or two from a friend. Maybe they used a particularly cool opening phrase, or a neat call-and-response pattern that would be a great addition to your solo too.

There you have it.

The licks you find on the LickStack and the musical themes within each lick are the building blocks from which an infinite number of solos can be built.

image[lego_unordered, building a lego castle from unordered lego pieces compared to building a solo from random pieces of musical vocabulary]

There is a problem with Lego pieces though.

I distinctly remember rummaging through my box with Lego pieces as a little boy, until I would find the one I was looking for through sheer luck.

And naturally, the more Lego pieces you amass, the worse it gets.

Once you start collecting licks and musical vocabulary, you will soon run into the same problem. If your collection grows to a certain size, you will spend most of your time rummaging through your notes before you find a lick or musical idea that fits with what you have in mind.

Now, would you agree that building a Lego castle would be much easier if Lego pieces were organized in a way that allows you to quickly find what you are looking for?

This is the core function of the LickStack.

The LickStack is not merely a dump for random licks, but a neatly organized collection that allows you to quickly find pieces of musical vocabulary from which to build your solos.

image[lego_ordered, building a lego castle from neatly ordered lego pieces compared to building a solo from neatly ordered musical vocabulary on the LickStack]

How licks are organized on the LickStack

My goal with the LickStack is to make creating and learning licks as easy as possible.

I initially thought about writing licks out in music notes, like the examples above.

But let’s be honest. Nobody likes reading music notes, and writing the darn things is even more of a pain.

To avoid the hassle that comes with music notation, the LickStack works entirely with audio recordings.

Here's why I like audio better:

For one, this will allow you to create a lick and "conserve" a musical idea in a breeze. All you have to do is record yourself playing.

More importantly though, learning licks from audio has the neat side effect of training your musician’s ear. I am convinced that learning how to play by ear is one of the most valuable skills a musician can develop.

So here’s how licks are presented on the LickStack.

You will see a small panel that contains basic information about the lick, an audio recording and a chord chart. This is the above lick in the LickStack format. Play the recording as many times as you want!


The buttons on the lick panel represent some tools and functionalities.

Most notably, you can transpose the lick into any key you want, and you can slow down the payback rate for easy learning.

Here's a complete list of the things you can do:

image[lick_infographic, infographic describing the controls on the LickStack lick panel]

How to find musical vocabulary on the LickStack

The LickStack is a massive box of Lego pieces. But you will never have to rummage through it yourself. Appropriate to our day and age we have an automated tool for this!

Chances are you will want to improvise over various different chord progressions, and you may also want to try different musical styles, ballads, rock, blues, latin jazz, swing, upbeat bebop.

The LickStack's search engine will allow you to search our data base for exactly the pieces you are looking for.

You can input a sequence of chords and the search engine will present to you any licks that match your changes, in any key you wish! You can also search licks by author, by instrument and by keyword tags to find the exact genre and style you are looking for.

This is how I suggest you get started. Pick a lead sheet you would like to solo over, then head over to our LickFinder tool, enter some chord changes and see what licks come up for you to use.

Here are some licks found by our search tool that also match the Dm7-G7-C progression above.

Swap them out however you like!




Join our community and become an active lickster

The ultimate purpose of the LickStack is to help each one of us become a better soloist.

With this in mind, let me summarize three ways the LickStack can help you on your journey:

  1. The LickStack is a repository for short snippets of music ("licks"). These licks contain musical patterns and themes ("musical ideas") that you can use as building blocks to develop your own solos. A dedicated search engine will help you find pieces of musical vocabulary that fit with the chord changes in your lead sheet and with the style and genre you are looking for.
  2. The LickStack provides a home for your personal collection of musical vocabulary. You can mark any licks that catch your ear as favorites and set them aside for future study. This is a way of actively building your musical vocabulary to gradually improve your skills as a soloist.
  3. The LickStack is a community resource. If you stumble upon a neat lick or musical idea, you can upload a short recording here and add it to the LickStack collection, where it will be available to all of us. Any licks you upload here can also be linked to external resources such as your own page or youtube channel. This is meant to foster exchange of ideas and collaboration between fellow enthusiasts.

Keep reading the LickStack blog for weekly food for thought about musical vocabulary and learning music by ear.

Think of the LickStack not just as your collection of musical Lego pieces, but as our collection of musical Lego pieces.

Sign up today and invite your friends and neighbors. The more of us participate and contribute their Lego pieces, the more useful the LickStack will be to all of us.

Imagine the castles we can build!





If you found this article helpful and/or interesting, please consider sharing it with fellow musicians!

If you wish to stay up to date about the newest articles and licks, consider joining the LickStack community and start your very own collection of licks!

Sign Up Now

You are invited to explore our collection of crowdsourced licks:

Browse Licks

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