How to Really Learn Guitar Licks like you Learned to Speak

How to Internalize Guitar Licks

Many of you have heard a comparison of music and language. The idea is that the ‘language’ of any kind of music is made up of phrases or vocabulary that can be manipulated to tell your ‘story.’  It takes improvisation past scales and other raw materials to a place where you’re making real music.

The vocabulary, or guitar licks, I’m talking about are typically shorter guitar licks between 1/2 and 4 bars long.  The goal here is to learn the phrase so well that you can eventually play it naturally while improvising and change it to fit the situation you might be in at any given moment.  You also want to know the lick so well that you can play it in other areas of the neck and in other keys.

This kind of study is what really will set you apart as an improviser.

Where to Find the Guitar Licks

Anything you listen to can be a source of vocabulary.  If you focus on what you actually like you will end up with a wealth of stuff that you love hearing.  So don’t worry about any ‘essential licks’ or solos.  Find things you like and use that vocabulary.

If you really are stuck, here are some suggestions:

Charlie Parker

Wes Montgomery

Clifford Brown

Pat Martino

I Don’t Want to Sound Like a Copy of…

Sometimes you may wonder if you’ll end up sounding like the player you’re working on.  I have three responses:

1)     You’d only be so lucky to sound like Charlie Parker!

2)     You won’t sound like that person.  Each player has their own filter that they create their unique sound through, including their experiences and how they react to sounds..

3)     All major players have described a process like this when they learned how to play jazz.  It’s a natural state that will pass.


Here is a pretty standard jazz guitar lick.  I suggest only working on one or maybe two licks each week so you do not get overloaded.  It’s difficult to really learn something if you’re working with several subjects.

First, spend your practice time memorizing this lick.  It’s a short (1 bar) ii-V-I lick in the key of C.  Try playing it fast, slow, medium, etc.  Play around with the accents.  You can learn a ton from playing just one lick for 30 minutes.


Next transpose the lick-or change the key.

1)     Analyze the lick

First, figure out the degrees of the chord for each note.  Our lick looks like this:

 2)     Pick a New Key

Find a key you want to transpose to.  Let’s use F.

3)     Move the lick to match up with the new key

The lick starts on the 5th of the ii chord, so now we just move that up to the note D and play the same fingering. Making new fingerings will be covered later.

4)     Think about the notes you’re playing in the new key

Make sure you understand what notes you’re actually playing and how they relate.

Now, try to transpose it to C, F, Bb, and G.   Once you feel comfortable with that start to transpose it to all other keys.

Apply It!

It’s not all that useful to know a bunch of licks without context.  Once you know a lick start applying it right away.  As a side note, I have discovered a ‘language hacking’ writer who’s secret is to ‘speak from day one.’  Use the same secret with jazz!

To begin applying, try forcing it into tunes you’re practicing.  You are probably either learning or performing standards most of the time.  When you start to force the lick it will sound, well forced.  But this is an important part of the process.  You will learn to fit it in naturally as you do this.

Remember how you would use new words after learning them?  They probably sounded pretty weird, but the more you kept at it, the more you would be able to use them in a meaningful way. Jazz improvisation works the same way.

What’s Next?

Hopefully this primer on vocabulary has inspired you!  The next step would be to listen for something you want to learn and go through these steps.