Licks Are Good For You

Recently, someone asked me about licks and stated that “using saxophone licks is not improvising.” I agree with that statement, but only to a point. After all, licks are like vocabulary. It’s all about how you put things together in the moment.

Someone with a good vocabulary may or may not be a good writer/story teller. The same goes for saxophone licks. They can serve a useful purpose…I’ve used all of these words before, but I’m putting them together right now for this sentence. The way that I use words is the same way that I use musical vocabulary.

Hearing in harmonic context…hearing multiple ways of playing something, keeping track of what you just played, interacting with the musicians, using theme and variation, using voice-leading to tie everything together…that’s improvising.

Reprinted from a recent Greg Fishman Newsletter. Check him out:

So, what are licks?

Licks are not improvisation, any more than a vocabulary list for a spelling bee is a poem or a story. And yet, someone who knows the meaning of the words, and how to use them spontaneously and in multiple contexts, can mix some of those words with others, off the top of their head, to express an idea.

Licks provide stylized vocabulary. They can help you hear your way through a single chord or through a sequence of chords. A solo should never just be a string of unrelated licks, just as a sentence should not be a list of random words in your vocabulary.

A player should be skilled enough with his vocabulary so that a pattern or lick will fit in the beginning, middle or ending of a larger idea. I also find it valuable to create variations on any idea, lick or pattern.

The key to using licks is to make it sound like you’re not actually using any licks. If they’re going to be used at all, they should blend into the fabric of the solo.

My early days

I can remember back to my earliest days of study, figuring out my favorite Bird, Trane, Stitt licks, etc., and using them to understand how they approached hitting a particular chord or progression of chords. I’m listening to Cannonball right now, and he’s quoting Bird…it’s vocabulary that you won’t find by just playing scales or arpeggios. Licks are infused with the musical syntax of the great players of the past and present.

Studying saxophone licks or phrases is simply a way of getting a handle on the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic elements of the language. They serve a purpose by providing your ear with good examples of what it sounds like to clearly portray a chord or chord progression.

Practice in all keys

Even if you never play a “lick” in your solos, practicing licks/patterns in 12 keys can strengthen your connection with your horn and increase your technique and accuracy. Think about this…we practice scales constantly, but we wouldn’t just play an entire scale exercise in the middle of a solo. The scales and chords are also a part of our vocabulary. I think of the scales and chords as being non-stylized vocabulary, while the licks are stylized vocabulary.

If you were trying to force a particular word into a conversation, it would distract you from listening to the other person, and it will also distract your thoughts. It’s the same with licks. A solo needs to be developed as it’s happening. If, in the natural course of the solo, a phrase (lick) sounds like it fits easily and organically into the line you’re playing, and if it relates musically to what was just played, you can use it. On the other hand, if it’s a musical non sequitur, you need to avoid it and play something that better fits the context of the solo. It’s really the same as any spoken language. It’s about using the language to express yourself clearly.

Strengthen your connection to the horn

One more thought on saxophone licks. When I was in first grade, I remember that a teacher didn’t like the way I pronounced some words. The teacher had me meet with a speech therapist just a couple of times. The speech therapist had me read through many lists of words, out loud, and she gave me feedback that helped me sharpen up my pronunciation.

Outside of that particular setting, I would never use those exact word lists again, and yet, they served a useful purpose, because they helped me improve the clarity with which I spoke. I believe that licks can work in this way, as well. Whether you play them in your solos or not, working with them can help to make you a better player because they strengthen the connection between you and your instrument. The licks can help you address deficiencies both in your technique and in the way you hear things.

How do you start?

Everyone should take the time to develop their vocabulary. How do you get started? I started by borrowing (stealing) saxophone licks from the old masters, and then started coming up with my own. Start with a short lick of your own, maybe just over one or two chords. However, you should also try something in a larger format, like an etude over the form of a standard tune. The larger format will let you develop your ideas and see where they lead. You’ll need to decide just how long to develop an idea before it’s time to start with a new idea. This is really the act of composition. Whether you compose a two measure lick, a thirty-two bar tune, or a full symphonic work, the act of composing is the best thing for finding your musical identity.

If you look at any of the etudes in my jazz saxophone etudes series, you can see that, while I’m using mainstream swing/bebop jazz language and vocabulary, the etudes are not simply a string of stand-alone licks. There’s development and use of sequence, use of space. I tried to create well-balanced ideas that feel natural. Two of my former teachers encouraged me to write etudes: Alan Swain and Joe Henderson. Both described the process as a slow-motion way of improvising, where I could take the time to explore my musical choices, and that the etudes would give me a glimpse into the future as I would eventually be able to make those musical decisions in real-time as I improvise with a live group. That advice has served me very well over the years, and I recommend this same approach for my own students.

Contact Greg Fishman today!

If you’re enjoying this article, and if these words are making sense to you, contact me by email ( to schedule a Skype lesson and we can fully explore these concepts together.

If you would like to self-study these concepts, please check out my book series “Hip Licks for Saxophone, Volumes 1 & 2“.

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