How to use jazz licks like a grandmaster and own your improvised solos


Ever wondered what exactly we mean when we talk about licks? In this article, I will explain what a "jazz lick" is, what it is not, and how thinking about licks as creative sparks will help you get better at jazz improvisation.

Licks are the raw material from which your solos are made, and the breathing soul of the LickStack.

But what exactly is a lick? How should we think about short snippets of music to use in our solos?

I have heard lots of expert opinions over the years, and the answer seems to depend on who you ask.

Today, I would like to share with you my way of thinking, which – to be frank – differs rather sharply from other opinions out there.

To illustrate my philosophy, I will walk through an elaborate definition of a "jazz lick" taken from, a source which I deem authoritative on the subject:

Jazz lick: a melodic line that an improviser has acquired for the means of reproducing note-for-note in their improvised solo. The line may have been learned from a recording, but most likely it was acquired through a jazz transcriptions book or a method book on how to improvise. The line may have been briefly played in all keys, however, more often than not a lick is limited to one key.

This is a textbook definition of a lick, and it is likely the conclusion of an accomplished jazz scholar’s thesis.

However, I must respectfully disagree and explain, in a purely academic way, what UTTER NONSENSE this is.

Let me go through this gem of baloney line by line, and point out what irks me so grievously.

Should licks be reproduced note-for-note?

A melodic line that an improviser has acquired for the means of reproducing note-for-note in their improvised solo

A lick is a melodic line. Can’t argue with that.

But am I to acquire the lick for the sole purpose of reproducing it note-for-note?

Of course I can reproduce a lick note-for-note, and I will very likely do so many times. But am I not likely to get bored once I have played the same lick note-for-note for a thousand times?

What if once in a while I decide to alter bits and pieces of it? How about I embellish a thing here and there, rearrange or swap sections, drop or add entire phrases? What if I feel like using only a part of it and fuse it with another part from a different lick?

I could imagine myself doing all of the above with a lick, especially during improvisation. Isn’t this exactly the point of improvisation?

Who is to stop me from turning the lick into something of my own? The international lick police?

Being a note-for-note copy should not be a defining characteristic of a lick. It is unnecessary at best, and outright harmful at worst.

I find the idea quite ludicrous that licks are handed down to us mortals by the almighty celestial lickmaker on tablets of stone, never to be altered in all eternity.

On the contrary, I view a lick as a very flexible construct, a temporary product of a creative mind who rearranged pre-existing pieces into something new.

Let me pull up an example to demonstrate what I mean.

The following is a performance of "I Mean You" by Thelonious Monk, one of the great kings of jazz piano:

During his solo (some time after 2:45), Monk picks up the main theme of his composition, like so:


Now listen on and see what the grandmaster does next. In the very next four bars he plays the theme again, but he gives it a slightly different spin through rhythmic and melodic variation:


And the next four bars are yet another variation of the same theme:


Do you see how the same theme can be molded into a number of different and yet similar variations?

Indeed, a true master like Monk will come up with these variations on the spot. This is what it means to improvise! You take a pattern (no matter from where) and turn it into something new.

Take a look again at the three licks above (or variations of the same lick – however you want to think of it). Can you tell which one is the "original"?

To me, it does not matter in the least.

The three licks can all be derived from one another, no matter which one you start with, or they can be turned into something else entirely. And it is possible, even likely, that Monk never played them the same way again in his entire life.

This is why I fundamentally disagree with the notion of a lick as a rigid structure.

In my opinion, the ultimate purpose of a lick is precisely to NOT be reproduced note-for-note, but to serve as a starting point for an infinite number of variations.

I encourage you to see the licks you find here on the LickStack (or anywhere else) as mere suggestions. What you make out of them is entirely up to you. Play around with them, experiment with them, make them yours and own them!

To give you an example, here is a variation of my own on Monk's theme:


I bet you could easily come up with yet another variation yourself.

Try it out!

Where do licks come from?

The line may have been learned from a recording, but most likely it was acquired through a jazz transcriptions book or a method book on how to improvise.

Phew! This sentence is not nearly as bad as the first one.

What irks me though is that they say that you will most likely find licks in a transcriptions book.

Undoubtedly, books are great sources from where we can pick up melodic lines or what I call "lick material". And you should welcome any chance to absorb licks or lick material from sheet music.

But be aware that this book-first ideology can be dangerous. It gives us the impression again that melodic lines have to be "copied note-for-note" from somewhere to deserve to be called licks.

"Play the lick as it is in the book."


"Because the book says so."


Once again, don’t commit the fallacy of thinking that you are not allowed to change and experiment with a snippet of music once it has found its way into your head.

I am more inclined to agree with the first part: The number one source of your licks or lick material should be recordings.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for you as a musician to make use of your ears. Being able to pick up melodic lines by ear and reproduce them faithfully is nothing short of a superpower. And it is a superpower that can be acquired by training!

Licks are stored as recordings on the LickStack for precisely this reason.

So where do licks come from? From books or from recordings?

What if I told you that most of the time, they come from YOU?

Think about the above example again. Monk came up with three variations on a theme, three licks if you will.

Now, where do you think he got the theme itself from?

We can only guess, of course.

Maybe he had stumbled upon it during a practice session? During a jam session? Maybe he had heard it from someone else or from a recording?

My point is that he must have remembered the theme or a small part of it from somewhere.

Creative intuition is a subconscious process. Think of the theme as a creative spark that emerges from the depths of Monk's memory, without deliberate thinking. As a gifted and well trained improviser he seizes it immediately and turns it into the 3 licks, first in his mind, and then in practice.

It is a common misconception that music is improvised "out of thin air".

It may certainly seem so, because Monk is a genius and a new lick can form in his mind within the blink of an eye.

But no lick is entirely new. Neither your licks nor Monk's licks.

Some part of a lick is always recycled from a piece of music that you have heard before, whether you can put your finger on it or not (or whether you admit it or not).

This is a necessity. If you have never heard any jazz in your life, it would be all but impossible for you to come up with a jazz lick, however hard you try. If you have no old jazz stuff in your memory, you will never produce any new jazz stuff, because there will be nothing for your creative mind to feed on.

The way we create new things is by taking existing things and rearranging them in new ways, or by taking existing things and changing them, or by taking existing things and building on them.

Thus, with the exception of any licks that you have copied from somewhere 1:1 (and without error), YOU will be the source and creator of any jazz licks in your repertoire.

Your musical vocabulary will be inspired by themes you have heard before. But as you experiment with each lick you pick up, you will give your repertoire of licks your own unique touch.

And when you use your personalized licks in action, you will not sound like Monk, you will not sound like the transcription book (God forbid), but you will sound like YOU, and you will own your improvised solos!

Are licks bound to a specific key?

The line may have been briefly played in all keys, however, more often than not a lick is limited to one key.

Please, PLEASE unlearn what you just read.

Whoever came up with the preposterous idea of restricting a lick to a single key: Speak for yourself! If anything, YOU are restricted to one key by your own choice, not the lick.

"Hey, I found our old ice cream machine in the attic!"

"Oh, cool! Let's try a bunch of recipes!"

"I wish. But we can only ever make vanilla ice cream."


Why don't we play my variation of Monk's theme in the key of G instead of F?


How does that sound?

Now go ahead and listen to the lick in all 12 keys. You can use the transpose function for this, or play it yourself (for better quality).

Which key do you like best?

Most of the time I find it hard to tell!

I understand that you can have a favorite key to play a lick in, just like you can have a favorite flavor of ice cream. But don’t ever let this be a hindrance during improvisation.

On the contrary, being able to use licks in all 12 keys is a wonderful thing, because you are exactly 12 times as likely to find a passage in your lead sheet where you can put the lick to use.

In other words, any licks you learn in 12 keys will be exactly 12 times as useful!

Let there be no limits to your creativity

Whoever wrote that specific article on, don’t take this personally!

The article may – in my opinion – draw an unnecessary distinction between “licks” and “jazz language” (licks are pieces of language to me). But to be fair, it is well worth a read for all the practical advice, and the website is actually full of good jazz advice!

Fact is, if you ask 100 experts what a lick is you will get 1000 opinions. And it is ultimately up to you how you would like to think of licks and what you would like to do with them.

If there is one take-home message from my musings (rant?), it is the following: Let there be no limits to your creativity.

I will leave you with my simple definition of a lick:

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

That’s it. A lick is no more and no less.

Go ahead and take the very next thing you hear, or the very next thing you come up with.

If you can think of a way to use it in a solo in any shape or form, it qualifies as a lick, and it will be welcome on the LickStack.


Variation of lick 228


Variation of lick 228

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