lick mining

When you start getting into playing over changes, whether in jazz or blues, it can seem like a daunting task to have all those scales in all keys on demand. In order to play over changes effectively by changing scales as the chord changes, your scale knowledge needs to be second nature i.e. you must be able to seamlessly blend one scale into another without really thinking about it. If you have to think, or find root notes, or work out what scale to play, then you’re in no man’s land and will probably feel a few heated stares and raised eyebrows from fellow bandmates into the bargain. The following technique comes from the analogy of music as a language. In language learning vocabulary and phrases must be absorbed and then practiced; a musical vocabulary can also be built up this way as we shall see in the following exercise, which I call ‘lick mining’.

What is lick mining?
Lick mining involves analyzing a guitar solo or improvisation and extracting licks that correspond to certain chords. In language learning this is known as sentence mining and would be the extraction of sentences and phrases in order to learn chunks of vocabulary. For the musical version you’ll need a transcription of a guitar solo or improvised section of a tune; if you read music then a solo for any instrument that uses the treble clef will suffice, saxophone solos being particularly useful.

To get you on the right track we’ll do an example with the John Scofield tune Endless Summer from the fantastic Uberjam Deux album, second only to the even more fantastic original Uberjam album, which I’d highly recommend having in your collection. For the purposes of this lesson you can find Endless Summer right here:

Give it a few listens and then check out this handy transcription (with TAB) I found of the solo [starts at 2:20].

Let the mining commence!

The tune contains the following chords:

Am7, D7, Bm7, E7alt, C#m7b5, Cm7, Cm6, C#7b5, F#7, A7sus4, D7sus4, Em7

Think of the transcription as a mini lick library, for example, you may need some licks to play over a Bm7 chord. There are various instances of Bm7 in the solo, each with its respective improvised line. You can learn Scofield’s lines as they’re written if you like, or better still, juggle the notes he uses around to come up with variations, as you know they all work. Rinse and repeat with any chord in the tune. By doing this you’re building up your jazz vocabulary by (going back to the language analogy) learning words and phrases (licks) instead of conjugations (scales), which are much more usable and easier to remember; the reason for this being that you’re learning them in context rather than from some dry scales or arpeggios activity—kind of like learning a language in the country where it’s actually spoken.

You can also analyze how Scofield plays the changes and swipe the licks that go from Bm7 to E7alt for example. There’s plenty of great information in this one solo for you to be able to fill your boots with ready-made licks that work over the above chords without having to woodshed a ton of scales and modes.

I’d recommend doing this at least once a day, if not more often, as you’ll soon start to see results in your playing, plus the insight you get into how the great players ply their trade is second to none.

I’d also recommend 25 Great Jazz Guitar Solos: Transcriptions (Amazon), which is a great tool for this kind of exercise.