The Reason “Licks” Became a Four Letter Word

Images by William P. Gottlieb – https://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/4843755786/ and Brianmcmillen at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

This article is in response to an article by renowned NYC jazz saxophonist, Mike Lee titled, “How Did ‘Licks’ Become a Four Letter Word?”. Click here to read it if you haven’t done so already.


Mike and I agree on one thing. There is no faster way to go from a clueless beginner to sounding like a jazz musician than learning licks. I’m going to explain why, in my opinion, it’s a shortcut you shouldn’t take and how it’s a dead end in the long run.

Magical Entropy

Jazz has a delicate balance between order and chaos. There is something terrifyingly chaotic about standing on stage without knowing what you’re going to play and knowing you’re going to be judged for it, so it’s understandable why many musicians prefer to play it safe and prepare licks at home to play at their shows.

The problem is that chaos is where the magic is. Maybe not if you play a couple of shows a month, but definitely if you perform nightly. If you let yourself improvise every day on stage for thirty days you’ll notice you make tiny changes to your playing every night and by the end of the month they accumulate to something substantial. Your understanding of your playing and the direction you want to take it will be much richer and deeper.

The Safe Route

If your playing is mostly comprised of playing licks you will be executing your licks better, but you will be stuck at the same spot musically. Furthermore, you’ll find that the more you play your licks the less impact they seem to have for you, the band, and as a consequence the audience.

Let’s take the lick approach to the extreme.

Sit down and try to write the perfect chorus over a blues. You’re welcome to use licks from any saxophonist in history you wish.

Did it work? Of course not. What limits players is rarely the format (playing in real time), but their imagination.

Breaking Out of The Comfort Zone

If you want to get better you will need to start noticing new things in music:

  • rhythms that are not in your wheelhouse (different subdivisions, ways to switch between subdivisions, groupings, etc)
  • articulations
  • sounds you’re not utilizing and harmonic tools you are not aware of.

But beware – the same temptation to organize things too quickly can be detrimental here as well. If you want to play more triplets in your solo it’s not enough to learn a lick of triplets. You’ll need to insert triplets to your playing in a way that allows you to develop ideas, improvise, and that leaves enough chaos for you to improve and explore.

Being Prepared for “Real World” Musical Situations

Another issue with learning licks is how inflexible it makes you as a player when it comes to playing in varied situations. I’ve heard players that spend their time learning modern jazz licks rife with substitutions and superimpositions get completely and utterly lost on simple swing songs since none of their licks work.

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Some might say that while basing an entire solo on licks is not necessarily great; it’s good to learn some licks to use in your solos as needed. It’s important for me to pause here and say that I don’t encourage ignorance.

It’s essential to transcribe other players and figure out what they do, but the next step should be an analysis of the components and a thorough breakdown of the lick  – not memorizing and parroting.

Examine if there are any physical movements inside the lick you find difficult or awkward and learn how to smooth them out and incorporate them into your playing. Figure out how the notes fit in the harmonic context, the rhythms sit against the groove and what is emphasized by the tone and the articulation that player is using.

At the end of the day a lick is a pre-set combination of rhythm, pitch and timbre in a way that fits a musical situation which will never repeat itself identically. What you should do is train yourself systematically in rhythm, pitch and timbre to be a creator of licks, rather than a repeater of licks.

Danny is a co-leader of the jazz-fusion band Marbin. To download/stream a live recording the band recently made available for FREE please visit: https://marbinmusic.bandcamp.com/album/alabama-sock-party-bootleg