Jazz improvisation is hard.
The first time I encountered a lead sheet, I had no idea where to even begin.
All you have is a sequence of chord symbols, and somehow you are magically supposed to know how to fill your solo with improvised music.
What on earth do I play over these changes?
Fortunately, some people have it all figured out.
Here is an example of Keith Jarett soloing over “Georgia on My Mind”.
This blows my mind!
Keith seemingly enters some sort of trance state, in which he comes up with an endless stream of amazing musical patterns. He seems like a wizard to me, who conjures up the most elaborate shapes, patterns and colors out of thin air.
How am I supposed to get anywhere close to this level of genius?
I have been playing jazz for give or take a decade now, and I am nowhere near where I would like to be in terms of solo skills.
But I think I have discovered the secret sauce to getting better at jazz improvisation.
Let me explain.
Start by building your musical vocabulary
I have previously explored the parallels between music and language.
An early step in learning a foreign language is to acquire a basic vocabulary of words and phrases to use in conversations.
It is difficult to speak Japanese if you don’t know any Japanese words. Before you can even begin to form coherent sentences, you must acquire a basic vocabulary of useful words and phrases.
Learning music works the same way.
If you wish to acquire fluency in jazz improvisation, you need to
build a solid foundation of musical words and phrases.
Just like words are the building blocks of sentences, licks are the building blocks of your solos, the raw material from which your improvised music is constructed.
Thus, a sure way to get better at jazz improvisation is to acquire and learn as many licks as you can.
Once I realized this, I had a simple formula in front of me to improve my skills as a soloist:
Find lick – practice lick – use lick. Rinse and repeat.
The neat thing is that you can do this at your own pace, step by step, one lick at a time.
With each lick you add to your musical vocabulary, you inch one step closer to becoming a master soloist.
Does this make jazz improvisation any easier?
Probably not. But it makes the learning process a whole lot more manageable and less intimidating.
Once I started systematically collecting licks, with a conscious effort to improve my musical vocabulary, my improvisation skills took a rapid turn for the better!
If you struggle to fill your lead sheets with music or if you hear
yourself playing the same boring old stuff over and over again,
building a solid collection of licks is the first step you can take to
push your improvisation skills forward.
To get you started, Here are 3 sources of licks that offer a virtually endless supply of musical words and phrases.
Source 1: Recordings of your favorite solos
Let’s start with the big ticket item.
Picking up musical vocabulary from recordings is the most popular way to acquire licks and solo material.
The idea is to listen to a tune or solo to pick up musical vocabulary by ear. This is most commonly done through transcription, i.e. writing musical vocabulary on paper.
As I am a fan of ear training, I have suggested an alternative method, which I call “transplay”, where instead of writing music notes you work with your own recordings to internalize musical phrases and patterns using your instrument.
I give this approach the most weight as it comes with a double benefit.
- Recordings are by far the richest source of music. No matter which
genre or style you prefer, there are countless examples of almost
every genre of music that has ever been played, and almost all of
this is available to you.
- Learning music by ear is one of the most powerful skills you can
develop as a musician. Sharpening your ears to recognize rhythm and
melodies is a real-life improvisation skill that will serve you well
down the road. And the only way to sharpen your ears is by actively
listening to a lot of music.
Audio recordings have been around for give or take 150 years, and millions of recordings have been produced since. Nowadays, you will most likely find them online, but physical sound media from the good old times are an equally valid source of audio recordings.
The procedure is simple:
Start by listening to as many recordings as you can get your hands on. Ideally, you want to cover different styles of music, try to capture as much diversity as you can.
Once you come across a recording that really resonates with you, take some time to listen to it again, but this time pay attention to the details.
What is it that makes it sound so cool? Can you identify short sections of music that you find particularly catchy?
Oftentimes, I react positively to self-contained pieces of musical vocabulary that have a clear melody, a beginning and an end.
Let’s use Keith Jarret’s solo above as an example. Around 2:57 there is a neat lick that I felt like playing.
This short phrase is a ready to use piece of musical vocabulary, and I decided to pluck it and add it to my personal musical vocabulary.
Here is my version of it:
This is all it takes to add a piece of musical vocabulary to your collection. Listen to a tune, stop when something catches your ear, spend some time on your instrument to copy it, and record yourself playing it.
The last part is crucial.
Believe me, there is no worse experience than finding an awesome lick in the morning and by lunchtime you don’t have the faintest idea anymore what it was that sounded so great or where it came from.
If you wish to systematically collect your musical vocabulary, take notes. For reasons explained earlier I suggest you use audio recordings for this.
Record your licks, and never lose them again.
This way you can also track your progress, literally one lick at a time, which is a great way to stay motivated.
Source 2: Good old sheet music
As argued before, jazz is hardly a written language.
Nonetheless, sheet music as a source of solo material should not be neglected. We have access to a substantial collection of written music, accumulated over centuries. All this stuff is there to use!
What may surprise you is that you can get ideas for your jazz licks from any kind of music. You do not have to start with jazz at all.
For one, classical music can easily be adapted into jazz with only minor modification.
What I find particularly interesting are the pieces of music that fall somewhere into the early developmental stages of jazz. I am thinking of works by Scott Joplin or George Gershwin.
Here is an excerpt of Gershwin’s “three preludes”:
image[gershwin_prelude2, excerpt of George Gershwin’s Three Preludes with a short left hand lick underlined ]
The left hand traces a very jazzy/bluesy base line. The short lick I underlined is a formidable piece of musical vocabulary. Why not adapt it as a right hand melody? Here’s my version:
Dig up your old sheet music, no matter if it’s jazz or not. It is full of little musical gems like this one that you can adapt to use in your solos.
My point from above counts here too. Record yourself playing the licks you take from sheet music, to capture them for future use.
Source 3: Lick collections
You are not the first one to listen to recordings or work through sheet music to find licks for your solos.
Scores of people have done this before, and many have kindly shared their licks, either in transcribed form or as recordings, or both.
So why not save a step and acquire the licks that others have so kindly provided for you?
I suggest you start with youtube, which is home to countless talented licksters. Just type in piano licks, guitar licks, <your instrument> licks and see what comes up.
(Side note: you are absolutely allowed and encouraged to learn licks from other instruments than your own. The music doesn’t care!)
Another excellent source of licks is right here under your nose.
The entire purpose of the LickStack is to serve as a platform where we
can all share our musical vocabulary.
Feel free to help yourself to the collection of licks here on the LickStack. You can browse a complete list of all licks here.
Think of it as a dictionary of musical words and phrases. Dictionary entries are presented on a panel with an audio recording and a chord chart, and it is designed to make learning by ear as easy as possible.
Here’s a lick I uploaded a while ago:
Use the tortoise button to play the audio at half speed. This is convenient especially for fast licks like this one.
The transpose function will transpose the audio and the chord chart for you, if you wish to learn a lick in a different key from the original.
The crowdsourced licks you find here are either transplayed from first-hand sources or they are the products of our community's imagination. In either case you are free to use them!
The LickStack also allows you to upload your own recordings, and you can keep them safe and organized in your personal collection. This is a way to collect and store your musical vocabulary in one place, so that you can refer back to it at any time.
If this sounds useful to you, take a minute (or less) and create a free account.
Make your licks your own
Collecting musical vocabulary from recordings, from sheet music or from lick collections such as the LickStack is a good way to improve your improvisation skills.
If you decide to do this systematically, I can guarantee that
you will see tangible results within a short period of time.
But this is only the beginning, the next step will be to make the licks your own.
Contrary to popular belief, licks do not have to be reproduced note-for-note. Quite the contrary!
Play around with those licks. You are in a position to do this systematically now, because you have a physical collection of your musical vocabulary in the form of recordings.
Spend some time on each lick in your collection and try to modify them. Change the melodic line, rhythm or accentuation, combine bits and pieces of your licks into new licks. Play your licks in a few different keys, and try to use these elements next time you run through a solo.
Is jazz improvisation still hard?
But he more you actively engage with the material in your lick collection, the more familiar you will get with your musical vocabulary.
This way you will gradually get closer to fluency in the language of jazz, one lick at a time.