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!