Question from a student about learning licks

This question was from a Canadian student of mine named Bryan who I've been teaching via the internet. 

"David, just a quick question. Is it normal to spend an hour or more trying to learn a lick? I was learning the last four bars of Chris Potter's RC solo but it felt like it took forever just to get the fingers to work through the notes in every key. I realized that I wasn't putting enough time on learning licks to the point of being effortless, so spending so much time just getting one 'thing' down is a pretty new concept."
My answer:
I must say that I feel that learning licks in every key is a total waste of time. First of all, licks work better in certain keys and do not lay well on the horn in others. Second, if learn a pattern in 12 keys then you're much, much more likely to repeat yourself. Even if you play the same lick in a different key it's still going to sound like you're repeating yourself. Wouldn't it be more productive to learn 12 different licks in 12 different keys than to learn one lick in 12 keys? It really wouldn't take much more time and you'd end up with 1200% more usable material at the end of the day.

Don't get me wrong, learning to play in every key is critical, but learning licks in every key isn't the best use of practice time even though it's generally accepted as the way to learn jazz. Instead, practice moving small cells around to different keys, not entire phrases. This way you'll still learn to play ideas in different keys without becoming a lick machine.

A good example of what I'm talking about is Mr.X's (well known teacher at a major Jazz school) teaching method, which is the common way of going about learning to play. He gives all his students pages of Bebop licks and makes them learn them all in every key. What's the result? They end up all sounding as stale and contrived as he does. Mr.X has this certain 9 note chromatic approach that he likes (C.B.Bb.D.F.A.Ab.F#.G) and he likes to play things in every key. Once I counted how many times he played this one very recognizable pattern in one solo and I think it was something like 13 times, in different keys mind you, but it still sounded redundant.

The saxophone is set up a certain way ergonomically and some phrases just don't work well, or even sound good, in certain keys. A good illustration of this is to try to play through the Charlie Parker Omnibook in concert or Bb. The lines do not sound smooth and so they do not make as much musical sense. You would never want to play most of Birds phrases in keys other than the key he played them in. That was part of what made him sound so great, his lines were so effortless. They wouldn't have been effortless if he had been playing those lines up a minor sixth or up a fifth. Even Bird would've sounded clunky.
I realize that many teachers would strongly disagree with me about this, but it seems pretty clear to me. The main thing to watch out for when you learn licks is not to sound like you're playing licks, so learning everything in all keys is obviously not the best solution.


Sax Sensei said...

This is a great answer. I remember when I first started studying jazz, I didn't really get the point of memorizing licks and now that I'm a bit better, I still don't get it :-)

I've been thinking about the idea you mentioned - practising moving small cells around to different keys - for some time now. I call them "mini-riffs" and have tried to collect my thoughts on this idea here. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Nice videos Sensei. I'll link to you.

Sax Sensei said...


I was curious if you had any thoughts on the approach. I get very frustrated seeing people spend so much time doing things like trying to learn licks in 12 keys, learning which scales "go" with which chord, etc. Yes, these things are important but they often forget that it's all just a means to an end, to be able to play music :-)

chayjazz said...

I agree David. I tend to learn licks and patterns in 12 keys but only use them in 1 or 2 keys in any "real" playing situation (it's funny, when you analyze a lot of solos by the masters they never play their vocabulary in multiple keys) .

But I would add that learning things in all keys helps your technique immensely! And it helps in learning to hear how things sound on the horn (if that makes an sense).

zahiir said...

Great article, I've always believed that the twelve key approach is a little misunderstood. The purpose is not to be able and play in all these keys but be able to mechanically work through the horn and recognize the weaknesses and address them from a technical aspect, not to mention the ear training aspect which is a whole other matter. I liken it to sports where you more often than not learn series of fundamentals only so that you can be able to enhance your natural abilities or even tendencies

Unknown said...

I've been having trouble posting comments here. Just wanted to say that I loved this post and also enjoyed the recent Scofield clinics.


giopagoda said...

I'm a subscriber of your blog and love it. Just wanted to comment that, although I agree that learning licks on all 12 keys is useless if you think of them as phrases to "take out of the oven" (as a friend says) all of a sudden during a solo, it is very useful if you study it creatively. If a lick doesn't work in specific keys, think of it as a stepping stone to start developing your own phrases on that key. It is really important in the sense that you get the "language", the basic style of the music (I say that as a Brazilian guitarist who found use on jazz licks in that sense).
Even in "original" keys (or "good" keys for the licks) the whole purpose is to play with it long enough so you can internalize the style and create various phrases on your own that will become part of your subconscious repertoire, and there are a number of ways to do it. The guitarist Julian Lage for example thinks about direction, starts from variations that have similarities to the original lick (same length, same basic rhythmic feel) and freely exploring it until he has phrases that many times have nothing to do with the original, but maintain the "jazzy" feel.
Just my 5 cents. Thanks a lot for all the great stuff in your blog.

Sax Sensei said...


>>> The purpose is not to be able and play in all these keys

I don't know if that's quite right (although I get the feeling you maybe meant something a little different).

I would say the aim is to be able to play in 12 keys. The ultimate goal is to be able to hear ideas in your head, then be able to translate that into notes on your instrument, regardless of what key you're in. To be able to do that, you need technical proficiency in all those 12 keys. I talk to students about "fluency" in all 12 keys - most people can improvise alright when they're playing in C but less so in F#, not because it's necessarily technically more difficult, it's just that they're less used to it i.e. less fluent.

If we're talking analogies :-), I compare learning music to learning a language. First we learn the alphabet (notes), then vocabulary and set phrases (licks), then grammar (chords, scales and other theory). These are the building blocks of language/music, and we build on them to then really start learning - higher-level things like composition, narrative, character development (improvisation).

Unknown said...

Being a private teacher myself who has been exposed to, and even tried to teach the "lick factory" approach, I can say I disagree with it too. It doesn't yield a lot of creativity and seems to encourage finger moving over hearing the changes...something I find a gigantic number of students guilty of doing.

My work with Bergonzi had a novel approach to this...he had me compose licks inspired by models I've transcribed myself. Original material, but taken from the harmonic or rhythmic vocabulary of my favorite players. He then had me work those ideas through a grid of chords, and then apply to songs.

For me, this inspired more creativity. I was able to assimilate language in a more creative way, and it helped me more deeply play what I hear since they were my ideas to begin with. I also found warping these ideas into different chords let the ideas become cells for improvisation, rather than "insert lick into chord A".

chicken little said...

Licks are for ice cream cones. Not playing improvised music. It is a crutch, a contrivance and lazy to play licks.
When a well very well known saxophonist came to my northeastern music school to give a clinic my teacher refered to this player - derisively - as a "lick machine". At the time he was the most mimicked player around. Somethings never change.

Unknown said...

I agree that I would hate being known as a "lick machine," but going back through some of my favorite Charlie Parker solos, I find that he frequently made use of familiar material. Many would call this his bag of tricks or, more accurately, his style. While I am not a fan of blindly drilling your fingers over the multitude of patterns and key signatures, working through your new favorite lick to in all keys to discover how it lays on the horn and how well your fingers can take it is a valuable part of being a musician. My newest favorite is this Charlie Parker Ornithology Exercise. It goes through all keys, and it lays better in some than in others, but it is that discovery process that I am most interested in. That's where I learn something about myself as a player.

Unknown said...

Adam, I think you got it right. A lick should be a medium from which you extract a concept (harmonic, melodic or rhythmic) and build upon. Also, as you suggested, applying the concept on chord progressions or tunes as soon as possible forces you to make music as opposed to the equivalent of "lifting weights".

Great article!

Me Me said...

Wow! Interesting and heretical!

David Carlos Valdez said...

That's me, the heretic!