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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 most experienced jazz players’ 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”: it’s best to really know a few licks rather than memorizing lots 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 comes into play when writing a novel for example: The development of the story (jazz solo) is more important than the amount of different sentences (jazz guitar licks) used in the book (jazz song). The point being that the story must go somewhere!



Jazz Guitar Licks: Bluesy Stuff (Major)

The most obvious jazz guitar licks are coming from the blues scales. The blues permeates jazz improvisation since the very beginning of jazz. See the index of ALL blues lessons on this website. All aspiring jazz guitarists have to learn at least some blues! 🙂

The blues licks come from the blues scales (obviously). And blues scales are simply pentatonic scale 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 C major blues scale along with a few nice licks.

Jazz guitar licks: C major blues scale

“Major” Blues Licks:

Jazz Guitar Licks: Some 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 some very common blues progressions on this page here.


Jazz Guitar Licks: More Bluesy Stuff (Minor)

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

Jazz Guitar Licks: C minor blues scale
“Minor” Blues Licks:
Jazz Guitar Licks: C minor blues licks

This C “minor blues” scale is often used to improvise 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.

Other “Blues Licks” Resources

It’s important to note that the “relative minor” concept also applies to blues scales. This means that azz guitar licks that work in C “major blues” will also fit in the A “minor blues” scale. In fact alternating between the major and minor blues scale is a very common thing to do for jazzer. Here’s beginning blues improvisation video to help you with that:


Furthermore, 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 the article “How to Use Blues Lines Over Standards” for some ideas and inspiration.


II-V Jazz Guitar Licks (in One Bar)

The II-V progression with chords that last only two beats is something that was brought mostly by the bebop movement of the 40’s and 50’s. It forces the player to be specific, clear and concise in his ideas. You have no time to think when chords last only two beats (especially at faster tempos!) The following jazz guitar licks are built this way, as “short II-V” ideas.

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).

Jazz Guitar Licks: on short II-V

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

Jazz Guitar Licks: on short II-V

This process is called octave displacement or “spinning”. 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

Easy “Plug in” Licks Parts (some assembly required!)

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

Jazz Guitar Licks: on short II-V

Take it and “plug it” with the other G7 ideas above. You’ve got a few notes and creativity. How far can you go?

Now, how about this one  G7 (with a b9) idea landing properly on the I chord.

Jazz Guitar Licks: on short II-V

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!

Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony


II-V Jazz Guitar Licks (in two bars)

The II-V progression with chords that last a bar each is also part of the bebop movement. Although, we can hear lots and lots of those “long II-V’s” in the way standard tunes have been harmonized by jazzers. The resolutions of the 7th (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):

Jazz Guitar Licks: long II-V's

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

Jazz Guitar Licks: long II-V's


Another typical bop lick:

Jazz Guitar Licks: long II-V's

Another with octave displacement

Jazz Guitar Licks: long II-V's


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! 😉

Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony

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

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