THE MUSICAL TERMS LICK,
PATTERN, VAMP, RIFF, AND
LINE HAVE SUBTLE
differences in meaning. The word “line” refers to a longer
string of notes—an
entire bass line or solo
chorus. A riff is a short pattern of notes that might be repeated several
times, usually as a background
behind a solo. A vamp is a repeated harmonic or rhythmic pattern of usually two
or four bars; “vamp”
can also be used as a verb, as in “We’re going to vamp on
the first four bars of
this tune until the singer
figures out when to come in.” A musical phrase is a short melodic
theme. A pattern is also a
musical phrase, but is commonly used to describe melodies that musicians use
when improvising over
chords and scales. “Lick” is an old-school term for a
musical phrase or
pattern, usually one to four bars
long. It just sounds hipper to say, “That lick was killin’,
man,” rather than,
“That phrase you played was
This month, let’s look at how to build a jazz solo line
and patterns. Through the development
of jazz education, musicians have codified many typical licks that are used in
Two of the most famous resources are Patterns for Jazz [Jerry Coker, Columbia
and Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns [Nicolas
Slonimsky, Schirmer], a
book purportedly used by
saxophonist John Coltrane.
Licks and patterns do not have to come from books. A lick can be a
short quote from a standard
song melody, a classical theme, a characteristic pattern from your favorite
bass hero, or just a series of
notes that sounds good over a particular chord. Experienced players have a
of licks under
their fingers and in their ears that they can grab to fit any musical
Example 1 is called the “Cry Me
a River” lick,
because it comes from the first two bars of the standard
song. Example 2 shows a common but useful
pattern over a dominant chord that most college jazz
majors master by their third semester.
Example 3 brings us to a current Internet
Everyone plays “The Lick”—from Keith
Jarrett to Esperanza Spalding. The Lick might be
the only musical phrase to have its own Facebook
page, where fans document subtle, and not-so-subtle,
occurrences of the pattern. Described by the
curator of the fan page as “Doo-ba-dih-bee-dWeedoo-
daah,” The Lick ascends the first four notes of a
minor scale, then moves down to the 9th (the 2nd),
the b7th, and finally up to the root.
Example 4 is an
étude—a solo line—based on
the harmony of the ubiquitous standard “All the
Things You Are.” This line is full of patterns using
chord tones, scale tones, and chromatic passing tones. In addition, there are
certain licks that are
repeated, developed, and transposed to fit the changing
Note the following:
Bars 1 & 9
The line in bar 1 is repeated in bar 9
up an interval of a 4th.
The triplet arpeggio on beat two in both
bars is similar, with the notes changing
to fit the harmony.
Here’s the lick from Ex. 2.
The simple triad lick is played on the
Ebmaj7, and then transposed up by a
4th to fit the Abmaj7.
This is an enclosure—notes that encircle
an important chord tone from above
and below. In this case, the F# and A
enclose the root, G.
The IIm–V–I lick in bars 17–19 is transposed
in bars 21–23 to fit the harmony.
Note that the target note in bar
19 is D, the 5th of the Gmaj7 chord.
bar 23 the target note is Bb, the #11
of the Emaj7#11 chord. Rather than transposing
the pattern note-for-note,
changing the target note
adds a surprise ending to the phrase.
This is a whole-tone pattern, derived from the whole-tone scale,
over the C7#5 chord.
Here we hear an F blues scale over the four bars of
I chose these notes carefully to stay true to the harmony
while adding a bluesy sound derived from the F blues
scale. It’s a
“handle-with-care” situation when using a blues scale over
harmony, but blues licks can add funkiness to a line.
Here’s the same lick as seen in bar 5. This arpeggio is repeated
in bar 31, giving continuity to the line.
This is the “Cry Me a River” lick from Ex. 1.
The arpeggio is similar to the arpeggio in bar 29.
This is “The Lick” from Ex. 3.
This is a pattern using chord tones. Note that the note Eb
Abmaj7 chord changes to an E natural to
describe the C7alt chord.
A jazz solo should tell a story using accessible, listenable melodic
are sometimes developed and repeated through moving harmonic structures.
By using licks or patterns that accurately outline the harmony, a bassist can
the listener through any harmonic structure, no matter how complex. Listeners
want to hear logical solo lines that make clear musical statements through
repetition and development. Let’s give ’em what they
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