5 Exercises To Learn Jazz Guitar Licks

When learning how to play jazz guitar, we all know the importance of studying and learning from the great players that have come before us.

One of the best ways to bring a bit of your favorite player’s sound into your solos is to learn jazz guitar licks by these maters, and inject them into your playing.

But, while it is important to learn jazz guitar  licks is important, you don’t want to become a “lick player” by simply repeating famous licks in your solos one after another.

Because of this, it is a good idea to break down each lick that you learn, analyze it and derive further exercises from the concepts you discover behind any lick that you learn.

In this lesson we’ll look at 5 steps that I like to take when learning any lick to ensure that you memorize the line, but also understand and digest the concepts behind the lick, allowing you to create your own memorable lines that sound in the style of your favorite jazz guitarists.



Step 1 – Learn Jazz Guitar Licks


The first thing I do when I learn jazz guitar licks or phrases, is to get the lick in my ears and under my fingers on the fretboard.

To begin, here is the lick that we will study as an example in this article, a ii V I lick in the key of C major.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 1



Here is how I would learn jazz guitar licks when first tackling them in the practice room.


  • Practice it in 1 key at a variety of tempos
  • Sing the lick in 1 or more keys while comping the chords
  • Play it in 12 keys at one tempo
  • Play it in 12 keys at a variety of tempos
  • Repeat the above exercises in a different octave or with a different fingering for the lick on the fretboard
  • Repeat the above exercises and try adding slurs and slides to the lick where appropriate
  • Practice soloing over a ii V I progression in one key and use this lick as the basis for my lines, varying it along the way to make it my own
  • Practice soloing over a ii V I progression in 12 keys and use this lick as the basis for my lines
  • Practice soloing over a tune and use this lick as many times as possible, as written and with variations, during my solo


As you can see, if you just learn the lick off the page there isn’t much to do besides memorize it.

But, if you dig deep and look for different ways to learn, practice and apply the lick, you can derive hours of practice from just one simple line.




Step 2 – Analyze Jazz Guitar Licks


The next thing I would do is analyze the musical material being used within the context of the lick.

Things that I would be looking out for are arpeggios, scales, Bebop licks, familiar patterns such as enclosures and other common ideas.

Here is an analysis of the example lick you learned in the previous part of this lesson.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 2



Here are the things that I would draw attention to in the line.


  • The Fmaj7 arpeggio being used over Dm7 in bar one of the lick
  • That same Fmaj7 arpeggio is played 7-R-3-5 instead of starting on the root
  • The Bebop Lick in the second half of the first bar
  • The Bm7b5 arpeggio played over G7 in bar 2
  • The enclosures used at the end of bar 2 and beginning of bar 3
  • The Bebop lick used in bar 3
  • The D triad used over Cmaj7 in bar 4


Now that I have the lick under my fingers, in my ears and I’ve analyzed the lick as in the above list, then I am ready to dig into the theory and derive musical concepts that I can then extrapolate into my practice time.



Step 3 – Extrapolate Concepts From the Analysis


Now that I have identified the parts of the lick, such as which arpeggios, Bebop patterns and scales have been used, I would try and derive concepts from these sections of the lick that I could take to other chords, tunes, keys and musical situations so that I didn’t just learn this lick, but the building blocks of the idea as well.



3 to 9 Arpeggios


In the example lick, the first thing I would look at are the two arpeggios used over Dm7 and G7, Fmaj7 and Bm7b5 respectively.

When analyzing these two arpeggios, I noticed they both start on the 3rd of each chord, and feature the 3-5-7-9 of each underlying chord, Dm7 and G7.

So, there is my first concept. “When playing over any chord, I can use an arpeggio that outlines the 3-5-7-9 of that chord.

Here are those two arpeggio written out after extrapolating them from the lick.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 3



I also noticed that the Fmaj7 arpeggios is played from the 7-1-3-5 in the lick, and so I would also make a point to incorporate that into the exercises I do with the 3 to 9 arpeggio concept.



Bebop Licks


There are two common Bebop licks in this phrase, the D-C-A-A#-B line in the first bar, and the D-Db-C-E-G-B lick in the third and fourth bar.

When looking to find ways of organizing these licks in my playing, and allow me to quickly and accurately apply them to other musical situations, I would look at the fingerings being used for these licks so that I could apply them to the same fingerings in other scales, modes, keys and tempos.

For the first Bebop lick, in bar 1, that lick lands on a 1-3-4 fingering on the 4th string, around the notes A-B-C.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 4



Therefore, I would come up with the concept, “When I have a 1-3-4 fingering on a given string, I can apply this lick when musically appropriate.”

For the second Bebop lick, it occurs when there is a 1-2-4 fingering on the 3rd string, B-C-D in this case.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 5



Again, this would allow me to derive a guideline for applying this lick to other situations.

This concept would be, “When I have a 1-2-4 fingering on a given string, I can apply this lick when musically appropriate.

Since playing Bebop lines such as these can often sound forced, I like to use this approach, thinking of licks as applied to scale fingerings, as it allows me to get my ears involved and think as little as possible when practicing and using these ideas in a performance situation.





Next, I would look at the enclosures that occur over the G7 and Cmaj7 chords, where one note is played above a chord or scale tone, one note played below that same note, and then finally resolving to the target diatonic note over that chord.

From there I would develop a concept or guidelines on how to apply this technique to other musical situations in my playing.

Since this lick uses enclosures on both chord and scale tones over those two chords, I would derive a concept such as “When playing over chord changes, I can use chromatic above-chromatic below enclosures applied to both chord and scale tones when appropriate.”

Since this concept, enclosures, is extremely common in jazz, it’s one that I would delve into further and bring into both my practice routine and performing to allow this important melodic concept to come out more naturally in my playing during my solos.



Superimposed Triad


The last concept I would explore in this lick is the D triad being played over the Cmaj7 chord in the last bar of the phrase.

Here, the sound being produced by this concept is a Lydian sound, maj7#11, and so I would consider this when deriving a concept from this part of the lick.

The guideline I would work out from this part of the lick is, “When looking to bring a Lydian sound, maj7#11, into my lines, I can play a major triad from the 9th of the chord to accomplish this in my solos.”

Here is how I might work out a D triad fingering next to different Cmaj7 chord voicings that I already use in my playing.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 6


Again, since the Lydian sound is very common in the jazz idiom, I would make sure to build exercises and improvise with this concept in my practicing and performances to allow this concept to come out more naturally and less forced in my playing.



Step 4 – Create Exercises For Each Concept


After I have learned a lick, analyzed it and then broken it down into musical concepts that I can use to create my own lines in different musical situations, I would create technical and improvisational exercises in order to dig into these concepts in my jazz guitar practice routine.

Here are some examples of exercises that I would derive from the concepts mentioned above.


Arpeggio Scales


The first exercise I would derive from this lick is based on the 7-1-3-5 arpeggio used to open the line over Dm7.

One of the ways that I like to practice arpeggios is through Arpeggio Scales or Chord Scales, and so I would take the above arpeggio fingering, 7-1-3-5, and apply it to different string sets and in different keys.

Here is an example of how I would work on this arpeggio in the key of C major on the middle three strings.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 7



Practicing arpeggio scales is a great way to learn any arpeggio fingering you are working on, but it also makes you think of the notes and chords in the key, as you can’t use traditional “box-patterns” when running these arps up the neck.

Try the above example at various tempos in the key of C, then try taking it to other keys on the same string set, and then to other string sets as you explore this concept further in the woodshed.

After working on this idea from a technical perspective, I would then put on a ii V I backing track in the key of C major and practice soloing over that progression using only the triad shapes from the above example.

Then I would take the same exercise and solo over ii V I’s in all 12 keys, and then solo over Blues tunes and Standards using only this arpeggio fingering to take it further in my practice routine.



Bebop Licks Through Scales


When working on the Bebop licks from the analyses, I would find scale and fingering patterns that I could apply these licks to in my playing.

Here is an example of an exercise I would do over a G7 chord, using the G Mixolyian Scale as the basis for this exercise.

To start the pattern, I play an ascending two-octave G7 arpeggio, then I run down the scale from there.

As I’m running down the scale, whenever I find myself on a 134 fingering pattern on a given string, in this case the second and third strings, I apply the Bebop lick that we discovered earlier in this lesson.

Here is how that looks on paper.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 8




And here is an example of the 124 lick being applied to a D Dorian scale to create a technical exercise that I would then work through in the woodshed.

With this lick, I would ascend the arpeggio and then descend the scale.

As I descend the scale, I would apply the lick each time I found myself on a 124 fingering on any given string, on the second and third strings for example in this scale shape.

Here is how that practice pattern would look like on paper.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 9



After running this exercise over G7 at various tempos, I would then practice it in 12 keys and practice applying the Bebop lick to other scales and modes I was working on that week in the woodshed.

From there, I would put on a backing track, first over one chord such as G7 or Dm7 and then over a ii V I, and later Blues and Standard chord changes as I started to bring these Bebop scale patterns into my soloing in a real-time situation.



Enclosures Through Arpeggios


The last example we’ll look at applies enclosures to a technical and then improvisational  practice exercise.

To start, I would take an arpeggio such as the Cmaj7 arp you see below, and then play an enclosure on every note of that arpeggio.

I would do this ascending and descending with the arpeggio, but for space purposes just wrote it out descending in the example.


How to learn jazz guitar licks 10



Once I had worked the enclosures over Cmaj7, I would take them to maj7 arpeggios in other keys, and then to other arpeggios such as 7th, m7 and m7b5 arps to allow myself to use enclosures over any chord in any chord progression.

From there, I would put on one chord vamps, ii V I and other standard progression backing tracks and improvise over those changes using as many enclosures as I could in order to begin making this important concept sound more natural and less forced in my solos.


As you can see, you can derive countless hours of exercises, both technical and improvisational, in the practice room from just this one four-bar phrase.

When learning licks, at least to me, this is the most important part of the learning process, breaking down ideas and then creating exercises that allow you to understand the building blocks of each lick, allowing you to create you own licks in this style on the spot in a jam or gigging situation.



Step 5 – Write Lines and Solos Based on These Concepts


The last thing that I like to do when digging into a new lick is to write my own licks, phrases and solos over common progressions using the concepts in the lick I’ve studied as the basis for these new ideas.

Creating a great solo on stage is a lot like composing a piece of music in real time.

So, in order to train my hands, ears and brain to hear, write and perform a memorable solo, I like to practice composing good-sounding solos, memorizing them and then building upon them in the practice room.

Here is a step-by-step guide to how I would approach writing out lines and solos in the practice room so that I learn the ideas, but also go beyond just memorizing them in my practicing routine.


  • Write out a one-chorus solo over a blues or other standard tune you are working on, using the material from a lick you are studying as the basis for your lines.
  • Memorize the solo at a variety of tempos, from ballad to burning if possible.
  • Start to play the solo along with a backing track exactly as written. Then, after a few choruses start to vary the solo more and more until you are fully improvising over the tune after about 2-3 minutes or so.
  • Then, begin to bring the solo back into your playing until you are playing the solo off the page once more.



A lot of times when learning lines we simply memorize a lick and then throw it into our solos when we got to a jam or performance situation.

But, if you dig deep into each lick you learn, you will not only add that bit of vocabulary to your soloing ideas, but you will provide yourself with weeks or months of material in the practice room as you analyze and digest each concept presented in that particular lick.


How do you learn jazz guitar licks? Share your thoughts in the Master Jazz Guitar Licks thread at the MWG Forum.


  1. Tom Strahle, October 30, 2012:

    Great insights Matt as usual.

  2. Matthew Warnock, October 30, 2012:


  3. John, October 31, 2012:

    Forgive my inexperience, but I am unclear as to what you mean by a 134 fingering and a 124 fingering. Thanks!

  4. Matthew Warnock, October 31, 2012:

    Hey John, no worries. By that I mean when you use your 124 or 134 fingers on a string in any given scale position, that’s all. Hope that helps!

  5. John, October 31, 2012:

    Great! I get it now, and thanks for the very quick response. I have found so many great ideas on your website–I really respect your devotion to jazz guitar and your willingness to share.

  6. Matthew Warnock, October 31, 2012:

    No problem John, thanks for checking out the site!

  7. Rob, November 1, 2012:

    Thanks for these lessons,just downloaded your 101 Jazz licks App well worth the money.

  8. Matthew Warnock, November 1, 2012:

    Thanks Rob, glad you like the lessons and thanks for buying the app!

  9. James Malone, March 16, 2013:

    Great article as usual Matt, I get so much out of your site.

    Is it actually worth using any transcribed licks in your own improvisation?

    For example, one could extract different concepts from a lick, create exercises out of each concept and eventually improvise their own lines in the moment, combining some of these now ingrained concepts.

    Keeping this in mind, is it worth having any “licks” at all?

  10. Matthew Warnock, March 16, 2013:

    Thanks James. I would say it’s best to learn a lick as is first, but then like you said break it down and get the concepts behind it as well. Also, I look for fragments of language to apply, so little 3-4 note patterns that crop up time and again that I learn and then use to build my own lines. So it’s a mixture of both I guess over time.

  11. Brian, August 27, 2013:

    Amazing lesson! I’m a jazz newbie, and I found this lesson both exciting and enlightening. Keep up the great work!!!

  12. Matt Warnock, August 27, 2013:

    Thanks Brian, glad you dug the lesson. Have fun with this material!

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