Deer In The Headlights?

by | Jun 30, 2017 | Articles | 16 comments

One of my readers wrote to me recently with the following woeful tale:

“When it comes to improvising, it’s a bit like being a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Have you ever felt like that?

You’re not alone:

I’m constantly astonished by how often people write to me with these kinds of sentiments.

There’s a simple reason why you might feel like this when you’re improvising.

If you feel like a deer caught in the headlights, or like improvisation is the equivalent of being a painter staring at a big blank canvas with no idea where to start…

You must be doing something wrong when it comes to practicing your jazz guitar.

You see, many people approach learning to improvise by using scales, modes, and arpeggios.

Whilst these are good to practice (don’t get me wrong), in and of themselves they won’t help you to sound like a jazz player.

A great sounding jazz solo requires something more…

Jazz vocabulary.



Bebop sounds.

If you haven’t learned these ‘words’ of jazz, you WON’T have any ‘raw material’ to start with.

In this situation, you DO, in fact, have a blank canvas with nowhere to go.

This is the thing a lot of jazz educators miss.

They shun the idea of learning licks and motives because they feel like it is not really ‘improvising’ per say.

Of course, when you’re at a very advanced level it’s good to “forget all that B.S. and just play” as Charlie Parker would say.

But for the beginner or intermediate player, you’ll be left confused and disappointed if you start out trying to solo with that mindset.


This is where I want you to turn your attention to in the woodshed:

Learn melodies.

Think melodically when you solo.

Jazz licks and motives are great for this approach.

All they are is short melodies, jam packed full of delicious jazzy goodness.

Soloing with melody in mind is the most rapid way to improve your soloing on the guitar and have it sound really musical and confident.

Now the exciting bit:

If you're keen to have a structured, step-by-step approach to learning jazz guitar, it might be worth checking out my online learning system, the FretDojo Jazz Guitar Academy.

Here's what you get when you join up:

  • Detailed step-by-step video lessons on new classic jazz tunes and essential jazz guitar skills added to the club website each month. Includes listening recommendations, demonstrations of the melody, analysis of the harmony, and detailed explanations on how to solo over the tune.
  • Key improvisation concepts and techniques for soloing, and classic licks and example solos that relate to each tune, so you can continue to expand your jazz vocabulary and have more options when it comes to soloing.
  • Detailed comping ideas to suit the style of each jazz standard covered
  • Lessons on how to make chord melody and solo jazz guitar versions of tunes featured - play a complete jazz standard completely on your own like Joe Pass!
  • Members only forum - A worldwide community of jazz guitarists from all around the globe.
  • Regular workshops, masterclasses, and Q & A Sessions - get direct answers from me on anything holding you back in the practice room. Replays of all sessions are available to access for all members even if you can’t make it live.
  • Massive searchable database of jazz licks and soloing concepts - the ultimate idea "grab bag" for your solos.
  • Optional monthly challenges where members participate to get feedback on their playing, reach new milestones and be eligible for cool prizes.

The best part:

You can access this all of this and more for just $1 by signing up to a 14 day trial. Go here for more info:

Over to you:

What do you think of my reasoning here – that licks & motives is a better way to tackle improv then the scales/arpeggios/modal approach? Or do you think I’ve missed the mark here?

Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below…




Greg O’Rourke,

Founder, Fret Dojo

World Leader in Online Jazz Guitar Education

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• Beginners Jazz Guitar Improvisation
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  1. Josh Gordis

    I think you need both vocabulary and scales/modes/arpeggios. The vocabulary is critical to getting the jazz sound (something that the course is really helping me with, and has gotten me excited about) and helps to build musical technique, and the more theoretical parts help put the vocabulary in context, and also help one to morph and extend the vocabulary.

  2. Lance B

    hi Greg.

    I love this! A light bulb went on when I read your advice, I’ve been having this trouble for years. I think it also applies to Rock?


    p.s.: I think it’s Motif

  3. John Jannotti

    I agree 100% Greg, Everyone from the greats on down learned to improvise in any given genre by copping licks from players that inspired them. Playing them over and over (slowly) until they could play them up to speed without thinking. learning the when, where and how on using them and over a long period of time your own voice emerges from your different influences unconsciously, or you have conscious haha moments that become unique to your playing style that you incorporate and hopefully, your style of playing/composing is pleasing to others ears :)

  4. bud gibbs

    Greg, you are correct but there is a world of difference between learning therary, scales, arpeggios, licks and modes and applying them @ 4/4 time 80 to 100+ bpms. Trying to solo before installing a sound understanding and application of the above is like “putting the cart before the horse”. The horse WILL get hurt. I believe that as you begin to understand each of the above, practice using backing tracks in each key untill you are completely comfortable. Then go on to the next item. Then the next, etc. There are no shortcuts! Don’t take on more then you can “chew” Don/t skip to #4 before being fully comfortable with #s 2 & 3. You will eventually get there.

  5. Andrew

    Firstly, thank you for putting the effort into your website. I have already gotten a lot of information from your tutorials.

    I went through the Watermelon Man video, learned the melody, the Fm pentatonic scale, the Fm blues scale, the arpeggios, and the enclosures. It makes sense but I cannot seem to make things sound good. There is no “hook” where it sounds right. Unless I use a lick that you recommend. My tutor has only really provided me a suggestion to start and end on the same note to make it sound complete.

    I just have a hard time understanding what makes a “lick” sound good. I hate to ask for rules to follow but for me, getting over the hump and having a basic understanding would help me build a foundation to improve on going forward.

  6. DD

    Dear Greg,
    I agree that learning licks and motives is very important. Example: I am learning to improv over “Summertime”. I know the melody by heart. Rather than trying to fit in a Dorian scale over a minor chord, ,Mixylodian over a dom 7, etc I have found a better approach is to use some of the techniques you showed in your 2015 article “Improvisation with the Minor Pentatonic Scale”. This short article changed my approach. It provides a road map to help you develop your own licks. When you create your own licks to a tune, it’s like writing a book rather than reading one. You know each word (note) because it is yours . I urge you to develop similar short articles on improv over major pentatonic and dominant scales . In that way, students build their improv skills over ii-V-I chord changes that occur in many jazz compositions.

  7. Bryon Thompson

    Hi Greg, Yeah I see headlights all the time! I know what you mean when you say “think Melody”, I can usually sing a scat solo over most jazz tunes I hear, but packing it with all “that delicious Jazzy goodness” is another thing. I tend to over think the stuff and get lost. I hope to correct this major flaw through participation in your course. I need the headlights to light the way to playing melodies with ‘jazzy goodness” rather than freezing me solid on the pavement. Here’s hoping, …. or is that Hopping! :)

  8. Lynn R Parker

    I agree. How can one improvise if it’s not around the actual melody. Sure you can put notes together, be in the right key, but if the melody is not in there somewhere it doesn’t work. Thanks for all your words of wisdom…. look forward to more of those.

  9. Paul Harty

    Hey Greg,
    Good topic.
    I agree with you. Absolutely learn melodies first, so that you have some basis to improvise from. I would add, learn the lyrics, too (if applicable) That helps you realize the composer’s intentation. Just last night I joined a new (non jazz) jam session. While many of the dozen folks were pretty good players, no one (other than me :) ) was keeping good time. On the songs that I knew, I was able to improvise well. On the songs that were new to me, I stumbled badly when asked to solo, partly because the rhythm and chords were not be stated definitively. My two cents.

  10. Colin Kirkpatrick

    I find EVERYTHING about jazz guitar like a black art! I know jazz chords but cannot relate them to scales or improvising.
    I’m sure like many budding jazz guitarists I hit a wall when attempting to play even a short run of a few notes

  11. Chris McRae

    Yo Greg,

    I enjoy your website and emails quite a bit, even though I am nowhere near being a jazz guitarist myself (trying to learn some basics). This email you just sent out re the value of melodies in jazz (and I’ll add, in most music!) really touched a sore point with me. Why? Because in trying to learn some jazz from sites like yours and others, the concept and importance of the melody is rarely discussed, focussing instead on those other aspects you mentioned, e.g., scales, arpeggios, modes, bebop. I will guarantee you that most people who find jazz enjoyable and/or pleasant to listen to are attracted by the melody. They (we) may find that running up and down the scales and modes shows expertise, but a little bit goes a long way–I’ll guarantee you that as well! So thanks a bundle for discussing it here and please continue with your excellent work. Sorry to go long, but I feel strongly about this.

  12. john newman

    My thinking is that you need both the theory and the licks. Just learning licks without understanding how or why they work is pointless. And learning only theory, i.e. scales, modes arpeggios etc., is equally useless, because you end up playing solos that sound like scales and arpeggios…exercises in other words.
    Music is a language, that analogy is always made because it’s true. The notes are the letters; scales and arpeggios are the grammar; and licks are the words. When you’ve mastered all three then, and only then, can begin to ‘write’ your own musical tales.

  13. Jackson Ordean

    For intermediates, like me, although I may be guilty of overestimating myself {;^), THE SOUND IS WHERE THE JOY IS FOUND! Especially be bop phrasing with which anyone can make some pretty common licks and scales and arpeggios actually SOUND like Jazz, if not BE jazz. At this level, a tab or even a slog through notation leaves me with nothing like jazz UNTIL I HEAR IT PLAYED. Now, for all you ‘experts’, who might be ungenerously thinking to yourself, ‘What a dork’. Hey, enjoy your coolness….I’ll be there when I get the sound in my head and fingers. At that point interesting scales, modes, substitutions, chord melody theory, will all be important in order for me to advance. At this point, I count most of that tons of study useless compared to listening and imitating the FEEL of say, Dirk Laukens recent post on Summertime. THAT’S what I want to sound like, and will….one of these days….because THAT’S what I’m working on…and forget the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ for now….Cheers, and may all your triplets make your heart skip a beat! {;^)

  14. nicholas

    I agree, all valid points indeed.

    To add some more tools/techniques to your arsenal.

    I reckon it would help also if you learned some modern music composition ( and arrangement) theory and learnt some other genres as well for overall musicianship.

    If we listen at the masters of the classical world and borrow some ideas from there. You have a major theme then several variations on a theme — isn’t this improvisation ? — the solos seem well crafted – the elements ; motifs etc add to the whole musical texture of the composition and with dynamics used, it does not sound like a machine is playing the music – you know … electric /amplified gymnastic solos that are flat & monotonous in tone and lack expressiveness – which torture to the ears!

  15. Frank Saunders

    I think Greg is spot on in his approach.the lick and motives and ways to change them should come first,then expanding outward through scales and arpeggios.I wasn’t taught this way and struggled for years as a result.for jazz emphasis on chord tones from the beginning and soloing with them is also important I think. Creative improvisation by Fred lipsuis is excellent.

  16. Nikolay

    I agree: learning phrases, licks and motifs is absolutely necessary as soon as one gets some basic idea about notes and scales. Licks give us good examples of what to do with those notes and scales. It is like practicing phrases and dialogues when learning a language. One can learn every word from a 5000 dictionary, but still would not speak the language, because he never practiced using the words in a proper manner.


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