Learning from Licks

by Martin Norgaard

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Mel Bay Publications has a wonderful selection of transcriptions in all conceivable styles. Many of the books include recordings that give you a unique opportunity to learn the music both by ear and from notation. You learn about style, phrasing, harmonic language, bowings and much more, by playing other peoples performances. But how do you transfer this into your own playing without simply copying licks and tunes? This article gives you a method for doing so that can be applied to any style or concept. The prerequisite for being able to use this method is a basic knowledge of the style. I recommend becoming familiar with the basic concepts in my book "Jazz Fiddle Wizard" (MB98379BCD) if you are interested in jazz or western swing. [For Bluegrass check out "The Complete Country Fiddler" by Stacy Phillips.] Our first step is to find a cool lick. For this article I choose one of fiddle great Buddy Spicher's signature double stop licks. It is taken from the book The Greatest Stars of Bluegrass Music (MB97050). In measure 67 and 68 of the tune "Down In Union County" (page 17) Buddy plays:

First realize that he simply repeats the lick in a higher octave in the second measure so we focus on the first measure only. Notice that the chord is C7 even though it doesn't look like Buddy plays on a C7 at all. As a matter of fact if you take away the chromatic approach you see the lick consists of a G minor and an A minor triad in second inversion.

So why did I choose the lick in the first place? Because the lick sounds cool. But what makes it sound cool? To understand that we need to figure out what the two minor triads are doing on a C7 chord. I recommend looking at lessons 12 and 13 in" Jazz Fiddle Wizard" that teaches you how to use upper extensions and arpeggio shapes. It turns out that Buddy actually alternates between a C9 and a C6. The 9th is an upper extension often implied even when only a C7 chord is written. In other words Buddy plays on triads that appear somewhere in the upper part of the chord. We call those upper extension triads. Because that is what makes the lick sound cool I call that the lick device. Play the two triads on a piano while hitting a low C in the left hand to really get a sense of the effect:

To really be able to use this try to transpose the lick to other keys. You should then insert the lick into tunes you know. You could use the lick to create cool variations on Beaumont Rag or on all the 7th chords in Sweet Georgia Brown. Here are the first eight measures to a chord progression that resembles the beginning of Sweet Georgia Brown. Buddy's lick is mixed with the dominant bebop scale (see Jazz Fiddle Wizard for info on the bebop scale and fingerings for chromatisism):

Here is an entire Blues tune build on Buddy's lick in the original double stop form but with a different rhythm and without the approach notes:

We learned from Buddy just like every fiddler learned from the players before him or her; just like Louis Armstrong learned from King Oliver and John Coltrane from Lester Young. Not by copying exactly but by applying cool sounds your own way. Next time you learn a fiddle tune or a jazz lick off a recording or transcription don't just learn it exactly, make it your own!
Good luck!
Martin Norgaard

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