• Develop techniques to
milk everything from your
• Learn how to tailor each
phrase to specific chords.
• Create simple phrases over
more complex harmonies.
Click here to download the sound clips from this lesson.
How many times have you left a gig or a
jam session feeling less than inspired by
your playing? After rehashing your stable of
licks and ideas, you’re tired of hearing yourself,
and everybody else’s ideas sound far more
inspired than yours. I confess, I’ve felt this
way many times. Instead of giving up though,
I search for ways to remedy this problem.
Typically, my initial thoughts are “I’m going
to transcribe so-and-so’s entire album,” or
“I’m going to shed 50 more ii-V licks.”
While these remedies may be beneficial,
why abandon the licks you already know?
Let’s look at a few ways we can increase the
ROI (return on investment) of those old licks.
To breathe new life into tired licks, try moving
them around. Start by transposing the
lick into new keys, ideally all 12 keys. This
may seem obvious—and to some it will
be—but it’s an important step that must
not be overlooked. Fig. 1 is a lick that we
will spend some time with in this lesson, so
take a moment to get it under your fingers.
In Fig. 2 we see the chord progression
of Eb6/9–Db6/9. To apply our lick from
Fig. 1 to this progression we need to transpose
it so that it will work over the Db6/9.
While retaining the same fingering, shift
the original lick down—towards the headstock—
two frets and you’ve just transposed
it to Db. Spending time transposing your
favorite licks in to all 12 keys is a great way
to increase a lick’s ROI.
Here are three suggestions for moving a
lick to different places on the fretboard:
(1) Same pitches, different string group.
(2) Same pitches, different fingering. For
example, if you start a lick with the
2nd finger, try starting it with the 1st,
3rd, or 4th finger.
(3) Move the original lick up or down
one or more octaves.
In Fig. 3, I’ve taken our original lick and
played it in two different octaves. Mapping
out a lick with the above suggestions and
playing those variations in all 12 keys will
greatly improve your mastery of the lick,
increase the lick’s potential uses, and will
expand your fretboard knowledge.
In and Out
Play through Fig. 2 again. At the points
where the chords change you may hear that
the line has a broken or jagged sound. This
is because the lick has simply been shifted
from one key to the next. This abrupt shift
breaks the flow of the musical line. To avoid
having your licks sound as though they’ve
been dragged-and-dropped into your solo
without considering the line’s musical continuity,
you’ll need to vary the way you play
into and out of the lick.
In Fig. 4, I’ve made a few adjustments
to the original lick in an attempt to create
a more musical line. The example begins
with the lick transposed down one octave.
However, the last four notes of the lick have
been changed. Instead of keeping the shape of
the original lick—where the end descends—I
adjusted the lick so that it ascends to connect
to measure three, where the lick is transposed
to Db and is in the original octave. When the
chord progression moves back to Eb from Db,
there’s another adjustment to the original lick:
At measure four, the end of the lick ascends
to connect to G at the beginning of measure
five. This finishes the example with the original
lick. These few slight adjustments create a
more cohesive musical statement.
Flavor to Taste
Our final investment strategy is what I’ll call
Flavor to Taste. To accomplish this, take a
lick and adjust it to fit the flavor, or sound, of
the given chord it will be played against. Let’s
explore a new lick, Fig. 5, and start by identifying
all the notes. When we analyze them in
the key of F, we have the 7, root, 9, 3, and 5.
Why is this important? Well, if we want
to change the flavor of the lick, we need
an inventory of the notes that make up the
lick, and we must know how those notes fit
with the chord. We also need to know the
harmonic formula of the new chord we’re
going to make our lick fit over.
For example, to adjust Fig. 5 so it will fit
over Fm11, we must know the formula for
Fm11—1, b3, 5, b7, 11. Then we adjust the
notes of the original lick to fit the formula of
the new chord. Take a look at Fig. 6 to see the
changes necessary to make the Fmaj9 lick fit
over Fm11. By adjusting only the 3 and 7—
lowering them a half-step—we’ve changed the
flavor of our original lick from major to minor.
Let’s apply this to a longer musical setting.
Fig. 7 is a common progression found in
jazz standards like “All of Me”—specifically
the last eight measures of the tune. By using
chord formulas, we can make the necessary
adjustments to the original lick so it will
work over every chord in the progression.
Take a look at the melody line in Fig. 7 for
the results of this procedure. Note: Over
the Db9(#11), I treated the 5 as a #11 and
also ended the lick on the 9 to create a
smoother resolution to the D of the C6/9.
So, the next time you’re feeling less than
inspired by your playing, don’t ditch your
go-to licks for something new. Instead,
explore the suggestions I’ve presented in
this lesson. By doing so, you not only
increase the ROI of your existing licks, but
I believe you’ll further develop your individual
voice, your solos will sound more
cohesive and compositional, and it may just
put the spark back in your playing. Good
luck and have fun!
is an award-winning performer and educator. A stylistically versatile multi-instrumentalist, Cramer has shared the stage with or opened for B.B. King, Tommy Castro, Chris Duarte, Gordon Goodwin, John Hartford, and Steve Kaufman. Cramer co-founded All 12 Notes, LLC where he has a private lesson studio, teaching guitar, mandolin, and electric bass. His most recent CD release, Open Spaces, is a collection of original and traditional acoustic pieces. For more information, visit all12notes.com