Bad-Ass Licks

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BAD-ASS (ADJ., BĂD'-ĂSS): THE QUALITY OF KEYBOARD LICKS THAT (A) COVER more than the usual pentatonic and blues scales, simple repeatable patterns, and arpeggios; (B) are spontaneously performed, not prefab patterns cut-and-pasted into your improvisations that make your solos sound stiff and uninteresting; (C) involve all four categories of available notes discussed in my previous columns— chord tones, passing tones, approach tones, and tensions—thereby including up to all 12 notes of a key; and (D) involve smokin’ speed, precise time and rhythmic subdivisions, and complex fingering.

Whew! That was the definition. So, how do we enter this dangerous but exciting universe? Very slowly and deliberately, as it’s not natural, so it takes getting used to.

Besides (of course) listening extensively to your favorite artists who have mastered this ability— Chick Corea, Allan Holdsworth, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Mahavishnu Orchestra are some of mine—to get the fl ow into your blood, I recommend that you first get used to “blowing” at fast speeds while paying minimal attention to the notes or quality of the lines! Just blow, mistakes and all!

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Then we need to learn a few “bad-ass licks” in many styles and keys, starting very slowly, working out the fingering and then speeding up the tempo until they become effortless. Ex. 1 is “Étude 73” from my book Stylistic Études, and focuses on chromaticism; play it with a fast jazz/swing feel. Ex. 2 is built around the pentatonic scale. 

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Practice Makes Perfect

“It won’t happen overnight, but if you faithfully absorb this style of playing, practice other bad-ass licks, and write some of your own, you will make progress,” advises John Novello. His book and method, The Contemporary Keyboardist, is considered the gold standard of modern keyboard instruction. Find out more at