How to play "outside" jazz saxophone licks

Updated July 20, 2017

If you want to sound like the great jazz saxophonists of the past, there are two major steps for achieving this goal. The first step is to create jazz licks and melodies that conform to the chords of a song. You accomplish this by using the notes from the chords in your melody. This step requires months and even years to achieve proficiency. The second step is to develop licks that are outside the chords. If you want to play “outside the changes,” you need to use notes other than the notes from the chords of a song.

Determine the extensions of each chord in the song. Most chords contain the first, third, fifth, and seventh notes from a scale. Jazz musicians continue this pattern beyond the seventh note of the scale and use the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth notes of a scale when creating jazz licks.

On the staff paper, write the tritone substitution chord. A tritone is three musical whole steps above the root of the chord. The root of the chord is the note upon which the rest of the chord is built. Once you deduce the tritone, construct a chord using the tritone as the root.

Develop an implied chord progression. Notes that are the fifth or seventh note of a chord will sometimes be the first or third note of a different chord. Playing jazz licks using these different chords will require utilising a note that is outside the original chord.

Write some jazz licks down on a piece of paper. Write one jazz lick that utilises chord extensions, one lick that uses tritone chord substitutions, and one lick using implied chords.

Play these jazz licks repeatedly until they feel comfortable for you. Transpose the jazz licks so that you can play them with other chord progressions. Transposing a jazz lick means changing the key centre of the lick while maintaining the same relationship between individual notes.

Practice playing the jazz licks with a metronome set to various speeds. This will allow you to play a lick regardless of any song’s tempo.


Learn a maximum of one or two jazz licks initially. Practice playing these two licks in all twelve keys at different speeds before learning new licks.


The time it takes to learn the licks is directly proportional to the time you spend practicing. The more you practice, the quicker you will learn the licks and play them in different contexts.

Things You'll Need

  • Saxophone
  • Staff paper
  • Pencil
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About the Author

Patrick Wilson earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Western Illinois University in 2000. He then taught public school instrumental music for seven years before entering the world of professional writing. In 2008, Wilson became a content writer for websites as well as a freelance blogger. Wilson has contributed to such websites as eHow, COD and Answerbag.