Three Quick Lessons from Three Classic Sax Licks

Dexter Gordon
Photo by pavdw

This guest post is from world touring keyboard player Steve Nixon. He is the owner of the jazz education website

Ok, saxophone players. I have a confession to make right off the bat.

Even though I’m a piano player I’ve always had a secret connection to the saxophone. The first time I heard Sonny Rollins as a kid I just about lost it!

I can’t even keep track of how many times I listened to Saxophone Colossus or Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, or a Love Supreme.

There’s just something about the tone, the feel, and the articulation that a sax can get. It really is an amazingly expressive instrument.

Piano is, of course, expressive as well, but in a much different way than the sax. Every instrument has it’s own unique qualities. It’s for this reason that I’ve spent a ton of time in my development learning from and listening to sax players.

Sure, I’ve grabbed plenty of influence from Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and Barry Harris, etc. etc.. But, I think I’ve learned just as much, if not more, from listening to people like Bird, Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley, and even Maceo Parker. Please don’t tell my piano playing friends if you see them. I’m sure you guys can keep a secret right? ;)

So, to pay homage to my sax-(morphed into piano)-playing influences I’d like to share three very cool jazz saxophone licks with you guys.

We’ll take a look at a Dexter Gordon lick, a Harold Land lick, and Sonny Criss lick. (Notation, audio recording, and tips below.)

Are you ready to learn? Well, let’s get started!

(Notation is in concert key for ease of use)

1. Harold Land Lick

Bb Instruments

Eb Instruments

A quick tip while learning this lick.

Harold lands on the 3rd of every chord on beat. Additionally, almost every downbeat in this lick contains a strong chord tone. That’s why even if you don’t play the piano chords behind this lick you can still hear the changes.

2. Dexter Gordon Lick

Bb Instruments

Eb Instruments

A quick tip while learning this lick.

Pay special attention the nice rhythmic ending Dexter plays on this lick. He ends his line using 2 eighth notes on beats 1 and the” & of 1″. This is a classic bebop way of ending a phrase. It’s a very strong rhythmic resolution and it grooves!

Practice Tip: Take an hour and practice ending all your phrases using 2 eighth notes on beats 1 and the “& of 1”. By mastering this ending you’ll notice an immediate improvement in your sense of phrasing.


3. Sonny Criss Lick

Bb Instruments

Eb Instruments

A quick tip while learning this lick.

Sonny uses 2 chromatic descending notes (C and B) to set up the Bb chord tone on beat 4 of measure 1. This technique is called an approach pattern. Instead of playing the Bb on beat 3 Sonny extends his line by adding these 2 chromatic notes.

Approach patterns are wonderful ways of adding chromaticism to your lines and extending your lines in a very musical way. When you play these you’re essentially delaying the resolution and encouraging forward motion through your phrase.

They’re a huge part of jazz improvisation.

Practice Tip: Take an hour and practice improvising over your favorite jazz standard. Use the 2 descending chromatics approach pattern that Sonny uses on this lick. So, in other words practice landing on a variety of chord tones from 2 chromatics above.

I think you’ll really love this sound!

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this jazz sax lick lesson. It’s been a pleasure sharing this lesson with you and expanding my audience! Keep swingin’ my friends.*

A special thanks to Doron for allowing me to share with his community here.

Steve Nixon is the proud owner of and He is also a world touring keyboardist who has performed with Grammy Award winners Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor. His newest DVD, The Jazz Masters Method can be purchased here: