How To Add Licks Into Solos

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In this post I’m going to go over the key area of how to add licks to your improvised jazz solos. It’s a great way to start building your jazz vocabulary for improvisation, plus it’s great ear training too!

For this I’m going to be using my “Top 5 Bebop Licks” introduced in one of my earlier posts. Please check that out or just grab the PDF download from the resources section below.

The licks are all in the sax friendly key of C major and therefore should fall nicely under the fingers.

As you’ll have seen from the PDF they all fit over the II – V – I chord progression. This sequence is the main building block of functional harmony and is hugely prevalent in jazz (especially jazz standards). It is therefore vital for us to understand and get to grips with.

Placing Licks in Context

Take a look at the the two examples below.

The first shows three choruses of a Blues in C (a good example would be “Tenor Madness” by Sonny Rollins). The other is one chorus of the popular jazz standard “Almost like being in Love” by Loewe and Lerner.

How to add licks into solos (Blues in C)
(Concert Bb for Tenor/Soprano Saxes & Concert Eb for Alto/Baritone Saxes)

In both cases I’ve shown examples where these II-V-I licks would fit in their most basic form.

Now look at the example chorus of “Almost like being in Love”. Here, I’ve introduced how you can begin to adapt these licks for more variety. For instance, the transposition and adaptation of “Lick 1” so that you can use it as a sequence (Section C). Also the extracted part of “Lick 3” so it fits in bars 26 and 27 (Section D). Finally, you can also find “Lick 3” in its complete form transposed to A major at the start Section C. This should demonstrate the value of being able to play a lick in as many tonal centres as possible!

How to add licks into solos (Almost like being in Love)
(Concert Bb for Tenor/Soprano Saxes & Concert Eb for Alto/Baritone Saxes)

How to Practise the Licks?

Your job is to play the written licks in the correct place during your improvised solos. At first they will probably stick out like a sore thumb. However, with time and perseverance you’ll begin to integrate them into your solos more seamlessly. The aim is for your own lines to flow around them smoothly, so that the licks make sense in context.

I recommend practising these licks until they are fluent and you have them memorised. Then, to make sure that you are placing the licks in the correct place, perhaps try playing through the chords as arpeggios with a metronome marking beats 2 & 4 (or using a backing track). Work your way through each chorus dropping the licks in the relevant places as shown. Doing this will really reinforce the structure of each piece and help develop your ear. It’s great practise!

Once you are comfortable with playing the chord progressions then move on to improvising over a complete chorus. Always try to use your knowledge of the arpeggios to outline how the harmony moves, and aim for smooth voice leading as you approach each lick.


Here are pdf versions of the above images, as well as the Top 5 Bebop Licks for your reference: –

You can also check out my recordings of the blues “Tenor Madness” and “Almost like being in Love” here.

For backing tracks, the iReal Pro app can be a very useful tool for improvisation practise and learning the chord progressions of jazz, latin and pop repertoire. It’s well worth checking out.

Why do we learn Licks?

Learning licks is the first step to sounding more “authentic” as a jazz soloist. How cool is it to think that at the very moment when you play a lick in the right context you sound just like Parker or Coltrane?! We should take such encouragement from that!

Over the years I have heard some players say that they don’t play licks and we shouldn’t either. Well, I completely disagree. All of the greats did it. Charlie Parker did it; Sonny Rollins did it; Joe Henderson did it; Hank Mobley did it. I can go on forever, and hopefully it proves a point. If it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for us mere mortals.

Learning licks and using them in the correct context is one of the most important ways for us to understand how to improvise. Only once you’ve assimilated enough of this language will you be able to create your own unique voice. It’s a lifetime of study, yet one that is truly inspirational and rewarding.

I hope this article helps shed some light on my approach to including licks in my jazz solos. If you combine this approach with regular transcribing of solos you can begin to build your own jazz vocabulary very quickly.

Enjoy the challenge, keep practising and very best of luck!

Do you have any questions about improvisation? Would you like to know more about jazz harmony? If you are thinking about having saxophone lessons please do not hesitate to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you!

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