5 Essential Major Jazz Licks

Here are 5 of my favourite jazz licks to use when playing over major-type harmonies. If you're new to playing jazz, learning a few licks like these will give you some hip vocabulary you can draw upon when improvising. 

These phrases are all designed to work over a Bb major 7th chord (or any related major type of chord). There are quite a few options when improvising over these chords but a good starting point would be to use the notes from the chord itself (i.e. the major 7 arpeggio) or notes from the related major scale. For a bit more interest and sophistication you can then always add in extra chromatic or bluesy passing notes. I like to associate each chord shape I know with its related arpeggio and scale shape. (If you're a more advanced player you'll also want to go beyond finger patterns and shapes on the fretboard and try to be aware of the actual notes you're playing and the relationship they have to the underlying harmony. But that's a whole other lesson.) When I'm playing these licks I'm thinking in terms of the following chord/arpeggio/scale shapes (the Bb root notes are in red):

Don't be too worried if all the theory stuff doesn't make sense right away. There is a tendency to over-intellectualise jazz (I'm probably guilty of this too.) Just learn the licks anyway, make some music. You can always fill in the theory gaps later on when you're ready. I've written out the licks below. I've included picking suggestions, but go with whatever you find comfortable. 

Some brief notes: 

  •  1. A pretty straightforward descending lick using notes from the Bb major scale. 
  •  2. This lick starts by sliding into the A note on the top string, then descends the Bb major 7 arpeggio before finishing on the major 6th. Try an upward sweep of the pick on the triplet for maximium speed.
  • 3. A lot of jazz players will use the b3rd over a major chord for a bit of bluesy colour. Here we're adding the Db to an otherwise major scale based line.
  • 4. One cool device to use over major 7th chords is to play a minor 7th arpeggio starting on the 3rd of the chord. All the notes are already in the major scale, it just gives a slightly more interesting sound. In this lick I start by playing a D minor 7 arpeggio, then move into a Bb major 7 arpeggio. There's also another bluesy touch with a slide from the b7 to the natural 7 (Ab to A).
  • 5. More of that bluesy b3rd, here in two different octaves - first at the 9th fret on the 1st string, then at the 6th fret on the 3rd string.

Once you've learned the licks, try and implement them in your own playing. Put on a backing track or get a friend to accompany you, then practise getting in and out of the licks by combining them with your own improvised material. Try connecting the licks together to create longer lines or changing the rhythms. See if you can make them work in some real jazz tunes. Eventually you'll want to practise the licks in all 12 keys. For more advanced players looking for a challenge, why not try relocating the licks to different areas of the neck, different octaves or string sets.