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A collection of original blog posts of helpful information for students, aspiring trumpeters and improvisors. 

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How to Practice a Jazz "Lick"

JUNE 20, 2023

1.) Identify a musical Idea that you like and analyze it. (For example, take a short musical idea from Freddie Hubbard on “birdlike” or Charlie Parker on "Now's the Time") A 1-2 bar idea or less is best. The smallest musical phrases are the easiest to manipulate and connect to other musical ideas in many different contexts. Identify the chord changes that are happening with the musical phrase and identify the rhythms of the phrase as well as the harmonic relation to the chords. (Thinking in scale numbers can be really helpful here...ex. Bb major scale... Bb is 1, C is 2, D is 3 etc....Key of Bb...Happy Birthday melody first 6 notes would be 556517 or FFGFBbA.)

2.) Practice this idea out of time in 12 keys, and then in time with a metronome. Until the technique is fluent. Focus on time, tone, articulation etc. Try different ways of changing keys (ascend and descend in ½ steps, whole steps, minor and major 3rds, cycle of 4ths/5ths).

3.) Once 12 key fluency is competent, put the musical idea into a tune. A very familiar song form or tune is best for this. Perhaps the Bb blues. Practice transposing the lick to each of the key centers of the song and practice first out of time and then in time.

4.) Try the lick in some other contexts (tunes and song forms)

When speaking of retrograde and inversion, the composer Arnold Schoenberg used to use the analogy of a hat. A hat is still a hat no matter what angle you observe the hat at. This idea is called “unity of musical space”.

Now that we have mastered the original sound in 12 keys, we can change the musical phrase to become our own through musical variation.


A very FUN part of jazz music is finding your own voice and experimenting with musical ideas. There is freedom with a musical idea to explore new ways of playing this.

Some ways to make a musical idea your own through “Variation”:

a.) Rhythmic Displacement (start and/or end the lick on different parts of the beat)

b.) Changing the Rhythms of the notes (pick a rhythm and change the lick. I like adding eight note triplets for example.)

c.) Augmentation on the phrase (stretch the rhythm out). Turn a 1 bar phrase into a 2 or 4 bar phrase.

d.) Diminution on the phrase (compress the rhythm). Turn 8th notes into 16ths or ¼ notes into 1/8 notes.

e.) Editing-Change the order of notes. (retrograde-play it backward, inversion-change the direction, “retrograde-inversion”-changing the direction and then playing it backwards.)

f.) Strategically place chromatic passing tones (AKA “encircling”) into the idea and chromatically approaching different “targets” in the chord (like the 3rd of the V7 chord for example.) The best place to start encircling is to try adding 1 chromatic note above and/or below the chord tones of the lick.

g.) Incorporate a harmonic device into the lick. (Ex. Harmonic-transpose the lick up a minor 3rd, or a Tritone (tritone sub.)

h.) Composite licks-connect this lick together with another lick that you’ve been working on. Try adding scale steps and encircling to smooth out the “feel” of the phrase, or to change the rhythm.

i.) Try Combining different devices here to create your own licks (which you’ve been doing already up to this point in this process) and then practice those in 12 keys.

6.) Practice the new ideas on whatever tune you are working on

Start with 1 of the ideas (In the original form) and play in on EVERY chord of the tune, adjusting the lick to fit the chord, by either directly transposing the lick to the key or by changing the notes to fit the chord but keeping the same shape.

-Then allow yourself the freedom to explore the idea like earlier, but now within the song form of the tune that you are working on.

7.) Try alternating between 2 different licks on the form of a tune, out of time first and then in time.

Focusing on how the line feels rhythmically and ways to make it feel natural within the phrasing of the tune.

8.) Connect 2 musical ideas with encircling and other devices.

At this point we are no longer playing the original source material but are now playing our ideas in the style of a player that we love.

When practicing licks or patterns, IMHO it is WAY better to learn 1 lick that you can manipulate 100 ways, then 100 licks that you only can play 1 way. VARIATION is a HUGE part of composition, improvisation, exploration, and creativity when finding your musical voice in Jazz.


-Nate Nall

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