Will learning licks help or hurt you?
This past week, one of my Skype students asked me an important question at the end of his lesson: “Jeff, should I be learning licks?”
To give you some context, we had been working on an exercise in which you take a simple one-bar phrase and rhythmically displace it so that the starting note shifts over x number of beats. Something like this:
The exercise can be as challenging as you want depending on the rhythmic complexity of the initial phrase and the level of subdivision by which you’re displacing (i.e. quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, sixteenth notes etc.).
What does this exercise have to do with the question about learning licks? Wait for it — I’m getting there.
I showed this rhythmic exercise to my student because he was improvising on a blues, and afterward he commented that he felt his playing sounded too square. I suggested that the main cause was that he was starting all of his phrases on beat one, which resulted in an overly predictable solo. The same thing happens when an improviser starts every phrase with the root of a chord. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with playing on the first beat of a measure or emphasizing the root of a chord. But, when done repeatedly, you end up sounding, well… basic.
Okay, so back to licks. I don’t think licks are inherently bad. Several of the products I sell on my website are collections of licks. Shameless plug: Tastiest Blues Licks You’ve Ever Heard, Guide to the Bebop Note, etc. The fact is, studying jazz vocabulary is an integral part of becoming a proficient improviser. That doesn’t have to mean everything you play ends up being a lick that someone else has played previously. But you can learn a lot about how to achieve a particular sound by analyzing and internalizing phrases that resonate with you and/or are deeply embedded in the vernacular of whatever style of music you’re learning to play.
Now, what I don’t advise is spending all of your time memorizing licks and then whipping them out in a solo expecting to sound like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Here is the analogy I came up with for my student:
If you want to be a comedian, you’re much better off learning how to be funny, as opposed to memorizing a bunch of random jokes. Sure, with the latter approach, you may get some laughs. But once you run out of jokes, what else do you have to say? And if you’re in a situation where you need to improvise, well then you’re really screwed.
Alternatively, if you spend time learning the underlying principles of how to be funny, you won’t need to rely on other peoples’ material. You'll be able to make a joke out of anything you want.
The rhythm exercise I showed my student is designed to help an improviser make even a simple idea sound hip. It’s a study in the how not the what. I encourage you to look for lessons in the how, both within licks and through exercises like the one described above. It’ll make you a better improviser. No joke.