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Jazz Guitar Licks

Some Common Phrases

The jazz guitar licks presented on this page are common public domain phrases. They are part of every experienced jazz player's trick bag. I've grouped them into:

-Blues Licks

-Short II-V jazz guitar licks

-Long II-V licks

I find that the best way to go about using licks is to know their "architecture": really know a few licks rather than memorizing many of them. When you really hear a lick you can create countless variations on it.

What we call "jazz vocabulary" is often simply ornamentations of basic licks and ideas. Outstanding players create the best improvised solos based on only a handful of ideas...

...that applies even to John Coltrane!

The same concept applies to writing a novel for example: The development of the story (jazz solo) is more important than the amount of different words (jazz guitar licks) used in the book (jazz song).


Bluesy Stuff

The most obvious jazz guitar licks are coming from the blues scales. They are pentatonics with an added tone. The extra note (aka blue note) creates the "bluesiness" of the licks.

The "major blues" scale consists of the major pentatonic (1 2 3 5 6) with the added b3. Here's the scale and a few licks (in C):

"Major" Blues Licks:

This C "major blues" concept is often played in the first four bars of the blues in the key of C. Note the presence of both major AND minor thirds. (See common blues progressions here.)


Next, the "minor blues" scale consists of the minor pentatonic (1 b3 4 5 b7) with the added b5 (or #4). Here's the scale and a few licks (in C):


"Minor" Blues Licks:

This C "minor blues" is often sounded in the fifth bar of the blues in the key of C. The minor third and the "blue note" give the scale it's "down to earth" feel. See all the blues free video lessons here...

Note: The "relative minor" concept also applies to blues scales. Jazz guitar licks in C "major blues" will also fit in A "minor blues".

Remember that bluesy jazz guitar licks can also be applied on non-blues tunes (such as standard and rhythm changes). Mature jazz players can and will play blues lines anywhere. In fact, my personal favorite players are bluesy most of the time! For instance, check out the way Metheny and Scofield improvise very bluesy lines on non-blues songs. Try it yourself: blues-up your jazz guitar playing. Also see "Using Blues line Over Standards" for inspiration.


II-V in One Bar

The II-V progression with chords that last only two beats is part of the bebop movement of the 40's and 50's. It forces the player to be specific, clear and concise in his ideas. The following jazz guitar licks are built this way.

The most important aspect of any of those licks is the resolution of the b7th (of the II chord) to the 3rd (of the V chord). It defines the chord change clearly.

In this case, C to B when going from Dm7 to G7.

The other important resolution is the final note. The examples here resolve to the 3rd or 5th (of the I chord).

Taking the last part (G7 to C) of the preceding licks and transposing them up an octave we get :

This process is called octave displacement. It would also be possible (and advisable) to take the entire licks up an octave. Having many "versions" of the same lick is ideal to increase potential development of your ideas

So how about this : Here's a Dm7 idea that also encloses the necessary resolution (C to B).

Take it and "plug it" with the other G7 ideas. You've got a few notes and creativity. How far can you go?

How about this one : G7 (with a b9) idea landing properly on the I chord.

In summary, I just provided you with two short Dm7 licks and three short G7 licks. With patience and dedication they can become a wealth of musical treasures. They can even open doors to other building block of jazz vocabulary. Explore!

Need more inspiration and ideas to play on the II-V progression? Play through Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony by Bert Ligon. Tons of great stuff!


II-V in two bars

The II-V progression with chords that last a bar each is also part of the bebop movement. The resolutions (see above) are still present here but everything is much more flexible. There's room for different ideas.

In general, they contain more scale runs (or scale fragments) than their shorter cousins. They also have more chromaticism and "outside" notes.

This one has all the notes of the C major scale (plus a chromatic passing tone):

Now transposed higher. It's the same lick, but an octave higher:


Another typical bop lick:

Another with octave displacement...


Work with these jazz guitar licks and make them your own. Find the foundational notes of licks and build them from scratch. Longer II-V phrases are very flexible. Since only the "core" of the lick matters, you can ornament it in many musical ways.

Need more inspiration and ideas to play on the II-V progression? Play through Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony by Bert Ligon. That'll keep ya busy! ;-)

Good luck and Have Fun creating your own jazz guitar licks!