was a teenager when I was first blown away by jazz-guitar masters such as George Benson and Charlie Christian. Since I played mostly rock at the time, I had no idea what they were doing. Their styles sounded so complex, like alien musical languages that I assumed were made up on the spot.

When I started learning jazz at the Berklee College of Music in the early 1980s, though, I developed a more nuanced understanding. Jazz is actually comprised of lots of little bits of language that, when strung together in different ways, sound as if they’re spontaneously composed. This is jazz improvisation.

The great improvisers know how to make the best use of a single idea, placing it in as many different contexts as possible. In this lesson, I’ll show you how to begin doing the same with four simple licks, each in the key of G major, that can be applied to a variety of situations. Memorize all of them, and play them in all 12 keys. Remember, it’s not about how many licks you know, it’s about knowing how to use them.

Four Little Words
Ex. 1 shows four different melodic ideas, each of which can be used on any G-major type chord, whether a simple triad (G–B–D), dominant-seventh chord (G–B–D–F), or major seventh (G–B–D–F#.) Practice each one at a slow and easy tempo, preferably with a metronome, increasing the beat incrementally until you can comfortably tackle the music at around 120 beats per minute.

Lick 1, in the style of George Benson, simply ascends through the first five notes of the G major scale (G–A–B–C–D–E–F#.)

The next three licks are inspired by Charlie Christian. In the jazziest of the bunch, Lick 2, you’re playing down from the fifth note (D) of the scale to the third (B), which is anticipated by a half step, from the note A#. This is an approach note—a note that lends a hint of chromatic flavor (notes appearing outside of the key) that’s essential to jazz. Lick 3 is essentially an arpeggio of a G6 (G­­–B–D–E)—the same chord on which Lick 4 is based. Make sure you’ve got all four licks firmly planted in your fingers—and your ears—before moving on.

Making Sentences
Now I’ll show you various ways of combining the four jazz riffs into logical phrases based on a I–vi–ii–V progression (in the key of G, that’s Gmaj7–Em7–Am7–D7), which is one of the most common harmonic structures in jazz and popular music. These phrases all work on this progression because the chords are diatonic (within the same key) to G major.

In Ex. 2, you’ll find a combination of Licks 1 and 2. Notice how I replaced the last two beats of the first lick with the second lick, eliminating the half-note D on beat 3. Similarly, Ex. 3 includes both Licks 3 and 4. Ex. 4 merges Licks 2 and 3, for a kind of boogie-woogie effect: a repeated bass line originally played by blues pianists. In Ex. 5, another nod to Charlie Christian, you combine Licks 4 and 2.

Putting It All Together
Now you will put all four licks to work in a traditional 12-bar blues in G. Your homework is to identify each one in Ex. 6. Notice how I use rests throughout, to avoid having the solo be one long run-on sentence. Also check out how I transposed some of the licks as needed to fit the IV and V chords (C7 and D7). Once you’ve worked through this example, try using these licks in some of your own improvisations, and always listen for other cool licks that you can integrate into your vocabulary.

Ron Jackson is a New York City–based master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and many others. Find more of Jackson’s lessons at