Get More Mileage from your Licks

When people begin to learn improvisation, they often do so by learning “licks”. Licks are musical phrases that have been transcribed from other players and is a great way to develop an improvisational vocabulary. If you’ve learned several licks already, you might begin to wonder how many licks you should learn as a goal. The truth is you should be constantly learning new licks. Then you might wonder how to keep these ideas all organized and accessible in your brain at a moment’s notice. Then you realize that it’s nearly impossible to keep more than a few licks in your mind at a time.

A large musical vocabulary can be useful, but what is more important is how we can modify and develop a singular idea to create hundreds of variations. Take a simple arpeggio for example. How many ways can you play a major triad? First we can play around with the order of notes and come up with 6 different possibilities. Now, what if we took one of those versions and modulate it diatonically? Now we have 7 possibilities with that one idea. Combined with 6 possible orders of notes, we now have 42 possible ideas generated.

That was one simple example taken through two processes and ended with 42 possibilities. This gets exponentially greater as we use different processes and combinations of processes. We can alter an idea by rhythmically lengthening or shortening, inverting the intervals, parallel transposition, diatonic transpositions, etc.

So if you’re at a point where you’re sick of learning more licks, try to apply this thought process to what you are playing. If you can’t do it in a real time performance, try writing out your examples before playing them. You may soon be breathing new life into old ideas and getting even more mileage from them!

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The Five Scales to Conquer Jazz

Did you know that as complex and exotic jazz improvisation and scales seem to be, the majority of jazz vocabulary is derived from only five scales?

They are:

  • The major scale
  • The harmonic minor scale
  • Melodic minor scale
  • whole-tone scale
  • diminished scale

That isn’t to say that learning to use them well is easy, but I hope this can dispel any misconceptions about jazz improvisation requiring an encyclopedic knowledge of different scales.

So how can you get so much musical material from just five scales? Well consider that each of these scales have modes. The major, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales will each have seven modes and seven chords that can be derived from them. The whole tone scale only has one mode and the diminished scale only has two modes because of their symmetrical structure. Therefore they are often used in a parallel fashion.

What’s important is not how many scales you know, but how thoroughly you understand and utilize each of them. If you can do that with just these five scales, you’re well on your way to becoming a jazz musician!

Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!