Improv Licks–Hot and Wild

Get’cha Red Hot Improv Licks

Hot licks make my eyes cross!

Cultivating improv licks is not a beginner move. It’s intermediate or advanced. There are approaches for beginners, including scale patterns, pentatonic patterns, call and response exercises.  Consider anyone who gets serious about improv digs into music theory, chords, progressions, modulations. Along the way with this study comes hot licks and the sources thereof. But not at the very beginning.

Often this means hearing and playing.  You hear a good little pattern and you copy it. (Remember the rule from the Little Book of Talent: Steal from the Best.) As fiddlers we can access any amount of hot licks on Youtube. We can catch tracks on Pandora. We can even, shudder, buy a CD or download. I use to have to play along with records, and later cassette tape. (Can he really be that old?)

The most recent lick I stole came from Michael Cleveland.  It’s that ascending thirds lick in Road to Columbus, second time through, that comes straight out of the playbook of Vassar Clements. I heard that on YouTube. Saw it, too. After a little practice I was including it in my performance of the tune. I’m not at all embarrassed by this. The sincerest form of flattery is imitation.

Sometimes the hot lick will be a musical quote. Vassar’s Orange Blossom Special includes a couple of these, Flintstones and School Days, and maybe Dragnet. Jazz uses quotes, too. They’re playful and not a serious attempt to say something significant right then. 

Recording Your Licks in a Jam

In my early days of jamming I would sometimes record what I did on a cassette recorder. Going over it I surprised myself by a hot lick I didn’t even remember playing. Then, I had to dig in and learn it so I could do it at will. That’s a good use of informal recording. You never know how you will suddenly be inspired and step beyond your normal ability or routine.

Nowadays we also have music books that have hot licks. You can just read the music and play it from the book. If you like the lick, you can easily memorize it and start putting it into play. Hot Licks for Bluegrass Fiddle comes to mind here.

Other instruments can also supply licks. If you hear a guitar lick you like, just try it out. There is really no limit on source material. I’ve also picked up ideas from trumpet players, Bunny Berrigan, in particular.

Slow that Lick Down

One more thing may come in handy. A way to isolate the lick on a recording and slow it down. The Amazing Slow Downer is my choice of software for this. (And for listening to a slowed down version of fast tunes, too.) This use to be a Mac software, but now it is also available on Android devices. And there are other software vendors for slow downers. I notice the Amazon price is $14.95, much less that I paid for my original version.

Sometimes a hot lick becomes a riff. That means the pattern is repeated. How much and in what context is the musical question. The lick might become the hook for a part of a song or tune. Licks and riffs have a close relationship, but the lick is usually not overdone. You want to demonstrate a big bag of licks if you are an improviser.

Another hit on hot licks is the opportunity to take a new lick and double the time on it so it happens over a longer period in a song or tune. Jean Luc Ponty did this with a riff in Bowing-Bowing. He doubled the timing and made a completely different tune based on that change. (Regretfully, I don’t remember the name of the other tune.)

Your Hot Lick Out of the Box

And don’t forget to take your new hot lick and try it in different keys. In some cases it will be very easy to transfer the lick. Say you play a lick in the key of A on the A and E strings. You can use the same fingering on the D and A for the key of D. And on the G and D strings for the key of G. Taking the lick into Bb or F would be more challenging, and totally worthwhile.

One last suggestion is to take the lick and try playing it inverted, or upside down. I had fun taking tunes and making this changed to get a completely new tune. You don’t have to be exact with the interval relationships, just make it sound convincing as an inversion. The amazing thing is, no one will recognize the lick or the tune as coming from the original.

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