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How to Practice Licks in all 12 Keys

Welcome to episode 117 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about learning licks in all 12 keys and how to do it. Learning small pieces of jazz language is a great way to start developing vocabulary over chords and progressions. Taking them through all 12 keys adds even more value to that material and your musicianship. Listen in!

Listen to episode 117

If you’ve ever learned a new language (or attempted like me), you probably remember starting out by learning short sentences to express simple ideas.

When it comes to learning jazz language, learning short phrases is also a great way to go. We like to call these “licks;” these short musical sound bites that teach us vocabulary over chords or chord progressions.

But often times we learn musical information only in one or two keys, which leaves other keys weaker than others.

In this episode, I let you sit in on my practice session where I take a Sonny Rollins blues lick through all 12 keys. I walk you through my step-by-step process and show you how I do it.

Here are the things I cover in this episode:

1. Why learning licks by ear is so beneficial.

2. Why taking licks into all 12 keys takes things to the next level.

3. My step-by-step process.

4. How I use the Circle of 4ths to practice the different keys.

5. I take the Sonny Rollins lick through the keys, mistakes and all.

My challenge for you this week is to take a lick through all 12 keys. This is such a great practice and I know you’ll benefit from it!

Here are is the solo I took this lick from:

The lick starts at 3:32.

Here is the lick notated:

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Read the Transcript

Brent: Check, check, check it out. Hey, what’s up? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website,, which is a blog, a podcast, and videos all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. You know what? I’m here every single week delivering the goods, free jazz educational content for you. My goal every single week is to serve you the best I can to help you become a better musician, a better jazz player and just improve your skills, so I want to thank you for listening, especially if you’re a regular listener. I promise that I will continue to be here and I hope you get something out of today’s show. I know you will.

Today, I’m talking about a practice that is really important, I think, and that is taking musical material, musical language, little bits and pieces through all 12 keys. I’m going to let you sit in on my practice session today. I’m going to be taking a lick through all 12 keys, just shedding for myself here. Maybe you can get a little bit out of just seeing my step by step process, how I go through doing it. Learning licks through all 12 keys, I think is a great idea. Licks because they’re small little ideas, musical ideas, that we’re trying to learn, get little bits of language. If you want to learn how to speak any language, you start with learning a sentence, maybe, right? Then someone teaches it to you then you repeat it back and then you use it in different contexts, different situations.

That’s kind of the same thing that’s happening when we’re learning licks, preferably by ear, is that we’re learning these bits and pieces of musical information that usually fit over top of a chord or a chord progression, and the idea’s not that we’re able to quote that lick or piece of language verbatim, but that the essence of it sinks into our playing, and we are able to extract things from that, that we like or that we find important. The more we do that stuff, the more we start developing our own vocabulary of the way we want to speak and ultimately become a better improviser.

I’m going to be going through my process of that today. Without further ado, let’s just jump right into today’s show.

I talked a little bit about licks, why we should learn them, that idea of just learning small fragments and how that can be helpful. For example, if you wanted to learn how to play some language over a 2-5-1 chord progression, which show up in jazz harmony all the time. It’s a great idea to learn a little bit of a language over top of that to help you understand how you can navigate that and how other great musicians have navigated that.

I want to address, really quickly, before I start, the 12 keys aspect of everything. Why take licks through all 12 keys? And I also want to mention too, every once in a while, when I talk about learning things in all 12 keys, whether I get a comment through email or on YouTube or whatever, and someone thinks they’re really clever, and they’re like, “Brent, there’s way more than 12 keys. Think about it. You have major keys and minor keys and that right there is 24 keys.” That’s not what I’m talking about here, right?

If you’re learning any piece of musical information, let’s just say you’re taking … Let me think. You’re taking a jazz standard like All of Me through all 12 keys, or even multiple keys, right? Doesn’t matter, but let’s say all 12 keys. All of Me is typically in the key of concert C major, which means if we go through the chromatic scale, how many different notes in western harmony are there? There’s 12. What I’m talking about all 12 keys, we’re not going to take All of Me into a minor key, because it’s not in a minor key. If I learn a lick over a major 2-5-1 chord progression, when I’m talking about all 12 keys, I’m talking about going through the chromatic scale through all 12 of those notes, taking that into those different major keys. Does that make sense? That’s what I mean by all 12 keys.

Why is it helpful to do all 12 keys? First of all, whenever we’re trying to learn a piece of musical information, in order to really get it to sink in, we need lots of repetition. We need to do it over and over and over again. We need to hear it a lot. Well, doing it in all 12 keys automatically will cause you to do that, to play that lick over and over again. That’s just the most basic reason to do it. It’s going to be lots of repetition. The second, and probably most important reason is, a lot of musicians, especially the beginner and sometimes intermediate musicians, they feel comfortable in certain keys and a lot of times that’s because certain songs are played in certain keys.

For example, the blues is often played in concert B flat. Sometimes it’s played in concert C or F or G, and you get so locked into those keys that you don’t feel actually comfortable playing in other keys. Especially in jazz, harmony goes all over the place. We really need to have that proficiency in all those different keys so that we feel comfortable.

That’s the second reason why you should do it in all 12 keys. The third reason is that you want to be able to transpose things in general. You want to be able to have that ability. If you are … The most classic example I can think of is if you’re playing with a singer on a gig or a jam session, a lot of times singers do not play songs in the original key. They just don’t, so you have to be able to transpose, on the fly, that musical information. Taking anything through all 12 keys can be helpful with that, but in general when you do all 12 keys, you’re gaining this flexibility so that you don’t have these weak keys and these strong keys. As musicians that want to improve, and I’m assuming you’re like me and you do want to improve, we want to be able to overcome that. Hence, the all 12 keys aspect. Learning little fragments or ideas over chords or chord progressions and then taking them through all 12 keys to make sure that we got that solidified.

Let me talk to you a little about my process here. I’ve picked out a lick. It’s over the first four bars of a blues. I stole this from … Stole in a good way, of course, from Sonny Rollins off of Tenor Madness. I’m going, in the show notes today,, I’ll like to a YouTube video of that song, Tenor Madness, and I’ll let you know where that lick comes in as well. This is a blues lick, and it starts with the first four bars, so it’s B flat. It’s originally in concert B flat, so it’s B flat seven for one bar, E flat seven for one bar, and then B flat seven for two bars. It’s like this. Just the first four bars of any blues, so the one seven chord, the four seven chord, back to the one seven chord.

The lick that I extrapolated from Sonny Rollins, from one of the … He was going on to another chorus of his solo, it starts with a two beat pick up. I’ll actually have this notated also in the show notes if you want to check that out. Again,

It starts with this. It sounds like this. Really nice lick, and the reason I like this lick a lot is because it incorporates a lot of important elements in bebop language. For example, there’s a lot of enclosure in this lick. All of that is enclosing these target notes. Target note, target note. It’s all these approaching from below and above stuff. All this chromatic movement.

It has just a lot of elements that I really like about this solo, so I want to incorporate this into my playing. What I’ve done to learn this lick is, I first found it on the record. I found it and it caught my ear, then I’m just on my phone or my computer or whatever and I’m looping that over and over again. I’m listening to that, making sure that I got it into my ears and then I start singing it. If I can sing it, that means I have the essence of it. [La dee da da doh dee doh doh]. The essence of it. I’m not a good enough singer to actually nail all those pitches, but I’ve gone through the effort of singing it before I even started learning it on my instrument, just to make sure that I had the essence of those sounds in my ear, despite perhaps my technical inefficiencies with using my voice.

Anyways, that’s that first step that I did, then I went ahead and started trying to actually figure out exactly what the notes were. If you’ve ever transcribed or, not even transcribed like writing it down, but just learn anything by ear, it really is bit by bit. You listen to those first four notes. I heard and then I had to stop the record. That’s all my ears could latch onto. You get better at it the more you do it, but you do it piece by piece until you have the whole bit together. You can also use slow downer software too, if that helps you. There’s the amazing Slow Downer is an app, or also a piece of software. You also have Transcribe, is another one. You can slow it down to make it easier.

I might learn that next part the next time. Then I learn that part. I learn that part, right, and then I go and I’m listening back again. I learned that last part. You just build on it until you get the whole thing in the original key. We’re still just trying to get it. And then I’d spend some time just practicing that to get it under my fingers, until I feel pretty comfortable doing it by myself.

Then I go and I try to play it along with the record, with Sonny Rollins in this particular case. I turn on the record and I play it along with him. I’m not going to do that for you right now because I’ve learned that playing clips of copyrighted recording, even though it’s for educational purposes, creates all kinds of issues when we upload onto YouTube and all this stuff. Just a headache. I prefer to avoid it. I play along with the recording and that solidifies, “Okay, great, I’ve matched up what Sonny Rollins is doing. I can play it along with the record.” I think that part is important.

Here comes in the all 12 keys bit. How do you go through all 12 keys? You could go through the chromatic scale. It really doesn’t matter how you do it, actually. I think going through the chromatic scale, for example, if you start on concert C and then you go to C sharp, and then you go to D and then D sharp. If you want to go up that way, you can do that. I prefer to switch things up. There’s two ways I would suggest you to do it. One is you can just make flash cards. Get a bunch of Post-it notes and write down the all 12 keys. Go through all 12 of them and just write them down, shuffle them up and lay them down. Pull them out one after another. You could just do that. That way they’re more randomized and that helps you learn that. It helps you go through it without there being some kind of really clear process.

The way I often learn things through all 12 keys, through default, is by going through the circle of fourths. No, not the circle of fifths, the circle of fourths. The reason I do the circle of fourths, because if you think about it, a lot of jazz harmony moves in fourths anyways. For example, 2-5-1 chord progression in the key of concert B flat is C minor seven, F seven, B flat major seven. Well, the roots move C to F is a fourth. F to B flat is a fourth, and the four chord, E flat major seven is a fourth. You get the point. A lot of things move in fourths.

I like to go through the keys like that. I go concert C, concert F, B flat, E flat, A flat, D flat, G flat or F sharp, B, E, A, D, G, and then we’re back to C again, right? I like to go through the keys that way. It adds this … It’s not completely random because there’s a method to the madness going in fourths, but it does shuffle it up a little bit so that you’re not just playing something so familiarly close to what you’re doing. And again, it depends on the instrument.

For example, I’m a guitar player. The guitar is a very patternistic instrument. I like to change things up because it makes it so if I just play one shape on my instrument and then move it up a half step, it doesn’t really feel like I’m really getting it in that other key. I’m just moving it up and moving it up and moving it up. I understand if you’re a saxophone player or horn player or piano player, it’s a totally different thing. However, it works best for your instrument, but for today’s sake, I’m going to be doing it through the circle of fourths.

Okay, let me just demonstrate this for you. I’m going to do this lick, this Sonny Rollins blues lick, through all 12 keys. Now, I talked about an episode. What was it? Episode 113, about play-alongs and using backing track software and all that stuff, and the time you should use it and the time you shouldn’t use it. Go back to that episode. I do think that it’s good to use a metronome, because it helps you solidify your own time field, but there is a time and a place for it too.

I’m actually going to be using a program for demonstration today called Band-in-a-Box. If you want to check that out, it’s I’m going to use this program because it has a lot of cool capabilities. What I’ve done is inserted chords into the software, basically taking this progression, this 1-7-4-7-1-7 progression through all 12 keys, going through the circle of fourths.

I input all those chords into the software. I lined up some, what they call real tracks, which are samples of real musicians in the studio that the algorithm now has magically made them into a band for me. You’ll hear what I’m talking about. I’m going to take this through all 12 keys. I’m going to do this at … Let’s see, I’m going to change the tempo to 140 BPM, just to make it a comfortable tempo at first. I’m going to go ahead and play through this, so let’s do it.

Starting with C, now to F, B flat, E flat, A flat, D flat, F sharp, B, now to E, now A, then D, okay G. All right. Pause it. Cool. That was all twelve keys. I think I might have fudged … Was it F sharp or B? It doesn’t matter. So, but that was it. I went through the circle of fourths playing through that lick. One question you might have is, “How did you know which notes to start on?” The answer to that is kind of simple. You want to, of course, establish, what is the first note of the lick? That probably is your reference point. You already have this down by ear. You’re already able to play it in the original key with the recording. Having that first note reference point is important.

In this particular lick, let’s go back to B flat. Actually, let’s do C. C is the first key. The first note in the lick is the sharp 11. That’s the first note, so the sharp 11 in C is going to be F sharp. I automatically just know every single time I start the next key, I’m starting on the sharp 11 of that key. So, the sharp 11 of F is what? B. The sharp 11 of B flat is what? It’s E. You just make sure that you understand what is that starting note and that way you can keep going through all 12 keys.

Let me do that one more time. I’m actually going to go onto Band-in-a-Box here right now and I’m going to mute the drum set. I’m going to mute the drum set. The bass is still going to be keeping time for me, but it’s going to … It’s a cool way to practice. It’s one of the cool things about Band-in-a-Box that I like, is that you can change … I can make it so just the piano player is playing with me if I want to, which is cool. It’s just a cool little practice tool to take advantage of, just to mess around with.

Let me try this again. See if I can’t even improve upon my score here. All right, let’s do this thing. Daw, biffed it. All right. It’s okay. Moving onto E. All right, cool. Oh man, this time I definitely messed up B. It looks like B, B is the key I need to work on, right? I need to work on that one. For some reason, that one’s a little tougher for me. There’s something that disconnects for me there. All right. It’s good to learn. The other thing I learned, by the way, doing that without the drums, was that I … I already knew this about myself, but it’s good to see it in play. I tend to rush just a little bit. Maybe you noticed that. Sometimes I was tempted to rush on some of that stuff. Without those drums there, and that’s why it’s important to practice with just a metronome, or it’s important to do something like this and strip it down.

If you ever have a chance, and let’s say you’re not a bass player, if you ever have a chance to get together with just a bass player, and just play with them, that’s really helpful to do. Any way you can switch up any kind of musical situation can be really helpful.

All right. I’m going to go for one more swing at this. This time I’m going to speed it up. I’m going to add the drums back and what should I do? Let’s go to 180. I’m speeding it up to 180. All right. Let’s try this.

All right. Awesome. Okay. Pretty good. I could probably practice that a little slower to get it a little cleaner, but hey, at least I got B this time. I actually did it right. So, that was me taking it through all 12 keys. I hope that was a little bit helpful for you to see how I do it, and what I would suggest when you practice through all 12 keys, is try to take it a little slower and maybe break it up a little more. In this case, I’m trying to show this for you in a podcast episode so I’m doing it all at once, but what is probably a good idea and the way I teach it in my 30 Days to Better Jazz Playing, soon to be 30 Steps to Better Jazz Playing by the way, course is we go through … We’re doing a lot of other things in that course too.

We’re just taking two keys per practice session through these keys. If you’re doing six practice sessions, you’re doing two keys per practice session. Then usually on the seventh practice session, you’re reviewing all of them at once. You break it up because you don’t need to practice all of them at once like I just did. It would probably be more beneficial for me, for example, if I just spent one practice session working on just F sharp or G flat, and B. Those seem to be the ones for me that I kept, sort of, messing up a little bit. I would maybe want to hone in on those a little bit more.

Hopefully, that was helpful. Here’s my challenge for you. I think you knew this was coming, and if you didn’t, here it is. I want you to take a lick through all 12 keys this week. That’s my challenge for you. Go ahead and pick one out, find one from a recording. Go through the steps that I went through, and I want you to take that lick through all 12 keys. It’s a good day’s work. Or even if you break it up into multiple keys per practice session. It’s just such great work that you’re doing. And you will be improving from doing this. That’s your challenge. Learn a lick in all 12 keys.

All right. Hey, thanks. That is all for today’s show. Appreciate you listening and tuning in today. I hope that you found that helpful, just to see that process play out. Also, if you find that Band-in-a-Box software could be a helpful practicing tool for you, go ahead and check it out at Just all one word there. Forward slash BandinaBox. There’s a lot of cool things that program can do, and we are an official dealer of that, just to let you know, just to be completely transparent on that. But also, you can get our entire library of jazz standards. You can get the Band-in-a-Box files for over 226 jazz standards, so you can just load up those chord progressions right away into the program, so that’s something special that only we offer with Band-in-a-Box. if you want to check that out.

As I always ask, if you got some value out of today’s podcast episode, and you just haven’t quite gotten around to do this yet. You’ve thought about it. You’ve pondered it. You’ve meditated on it, but you just never executed on it. If you want to help out the show, go to iTunes, your favorite podcast listening service, and leave us a rating and review. A positive rating and review helps other people see this is a show worth listening to. And of course, if you never subscribed on iTunes or wherever you like to listen to podcasts, you just haven’t quite done that yet, hit subscribe and join the community there.

All right, we’re going to be coming out with a brand new episode, episode 118 next week. It’s kind of a fun, special episode I have planned for next week. I don’t want to give it away. You’ll have to tune in for next week when the show comes out. Looking forward to it and I’ll see you back then.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Great! What about forgetting the lick later? We practice but we shouldn’t force it in improvisation solos otherwise it is not an impro…right?

  2. Brent, I realize your site is geared toward all instruments, so forgive me for asking a guitar-specific question. I certainly appreciate the importance of learning anything in all 12 keys, but let's say you have a lick that requires 3 adjacent strings to play. Technically, you could play this lick on 4 different string sets (1-2-3, 2-3-4, etc) so that's 4×12 = 48 places on the guitar to play this idea. Recommended, or overkill?

    • Hi David, seeing I missed your comment, so sorry for the late reply! As a guitar player, being able to play in multiple different positions is always a good idea. That way it's more of an ear thing than a position or muscle memory thing. You can go all out like you've suggested, or at least pick two different fingerings to work with.

  3. hi brent, Thanks for this incredible episode, you really give a lot of tools and tips for being a better jazz musician, if you don't mind help me a little bit, Im a guitarist too, and im having a little trouble with the fingering of this lick, hope you have some advice or tip that could help me, thank you, keep this website awesome !!

  4. Hi Brent, thanks for this great episode. I have a question for you: when you move through different keys, are you keeping the same fingering? i.e you just move left and right on the fretboard? Thanks, Kelvin

    • Hey Kelvin, seeing I missed your comment, so sorry for the very very late reply. I think as a guitar player it's worth having a few different fingerings so that it is more of an ear thing than a position or muscle memory thing.


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