Jazz Concepts: How to Build a Solo Using Licks and Patterns

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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 motif or 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 remarkable.”

This month, let’s look at how to build a jazz solo line using licks and patterns. Through the development of jazz education, musicians have codified many typical licks that are used in improvisation. Two of the most famous resources are Patterns for Jazz [Jerry Coker, Columbia Pictures Publications] 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 repository of licks under their fingers and in their ears that they can grab to fit any musical situation.

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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.

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Example 3 brings us to a current Internet phenomenon. 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.

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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 harmony.

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Note the following:

Bars 1 & 9
The line in bar 1 is repeated in bar 9 up an interval of a 4th.

Bars 5–6
The triplet arpeggio on beat two in both bars is similar, with the notes changing to fit the harmony.

Bar 8
Here’s the lick from Ex. 2.

Bars 12–13
The simple triad lick is played on the Ebmaj7, and then transposed up by a 4th to fit the Abmaj7.

Bar 15
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.

Bars 17–23
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. In 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.

Bar 24
This is a whole-tone pattern, derived from the whole-tone scale, over the C7#5 chord.

Bars 25–28
Here we hear an F blues scale over the four bars of diatonic harmony. 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 moving harmony, but blues licks can add funkiness to a line.

Bar 29
Here’s the same lick as seen in bar 5. This arpeggio is repeated in bar 31, giving continuity to the line.

Bar 30
This is the “Cry Me a River” lick from Ex. 1.

Bar 31
The arpeggio is similar to the arpeggio in bar 29.

Bar 33
This is “The Lick” from Ex. 3.

Bars 35–36
This is a pattern using chord tones. Note that the note Eb on the Abmaj7 chord changes to an E natural to describe the C7alt chord.

A jazz solo should tell a story using accessible, listenable melodic fragments that are sometimes developed and repeated through moving harmonic structures. By using licks or patterns that accurately outline the harmony, a bassist can lead 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 want—tell your story!



Visit John’s website for sound files, videos, and bass-related material. johngoldsby.com