A beginner's guide to jazz improvisation

July 7, 2020

The first time you're told to improvise can be both an exciting and daunting experience. Here are a few tips on how to approach improvising and come up with some fantastic solos.

 

MELODY EXTRACTION

 

Sometimes the easiest idea to produce is technically recycling the melody. By using extracts from the melody in your solo, you are showcasing the quality of the melodic ideas it contains, but be careful not to simply replay the whole melody - sometimes a little motif is best. Then, use that motif as a springboard for something unique you can come up with.

 

SCALES

 

Yes, we've all had our teachers and fellow musicians tell us how important learning your scales is. In this case, it's quite important. If you are able to figure out what key the music is in, and you can play that scale from memory, improvised solos can simply be a case of making musical phrases out of that scale.

 

THEORY AND MORE SCALES

 

It's not always so straight forward however, as you're more than likely to come across a song which has multiple key changes and chords in the solo section. One scale just won't cut it in these situations, so knowing your theory is very important. What key is it in? What chords does it modulate to in the solo section? Is it a II-V-I progression? Does it have a flattened 7th? These are all things to read up about if you're not sure what they mean.

 

As well as all that theory, blues scales and minor pentatonic scales are very useful. If you're able to play a blues scale starting on every note, you're also able to play a minor pentatonic scale as well since all you do is take out the 4th note. For example, the blues scale starting on C is:

 

C - Eb - F - Gb - G - Bb - C

 

So the minor pentatonic is:

 

C - Eb - F - G - Bb - C

 

By knowing these scales in every key, you'll find it easy to come up with a good solo. If this is a bit too difficult, try taking a look at each modulation of the solo section. Work out the scales of each and then spot the notes that stay the same in each scale. Use these as anchor notes to come back to if you get lost.

 

IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT THE NOTES

 

One of the best solos I ever heard was one note held for a very long time (it helped that the saxophonist could circular breathe, where you're able to keep breathing and recycle air while still playing). While I can't circular breathe, hearing this made me realise that there is much more to a solo than just playing loads of notes. Factors like rhythm, articulation, dynamics, techniques like growling and note bending, and even the silence between phrases can be just as important, if not more so, to creating a unique solo.

 

TRANSCRIPTION

 

Was there a recording you listened to recently where you thought the solo was amazing? Why not try learning it? Something I do is to listen to a good solo over and over again, picking out the parts I really like, playing them, figuring out the notes and then writing it down so I don't have to try memorising it straight away. I now have a manuscript book dedicated to little solo ideas I heard elsewhere which I really liked. When I'm gigging, I take it with me just in case. If you're struggling to work out a fast solo, use programs like Audacity or the ABRSM Speedshifter (both available for free on PC and Mac) to adjust the speed of the track so you can hear those notes. Even youtube has a basic slow-down option.

 

Perhaps you yourself have played something you liked the idea of but are now struggling to remember what it was. A way to counter that problem is to record your solos. That way, you can listen back to them and listen out for that bit you liked, making a note of it in your ideas book. You might even hear another bit you like which you hadn't noticed while you were playing. 

 

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

 

Yes, practice makes perfect and in this day and age, we're lucky enough to have streaming sites and apps like youtube, spotify, deezer, soundcloud, etc. Each of these is filled with plenty of backing tracks in various genres to search through. Want to play along to a bossa nova backing track in G major at 120 bpm with latin percussion and piano? Just search for it, it's there somewhere. With all this variety, why not use these to practice improvising to? Don't forget to record yourself too.

 

IS IT STILL IMPROVISATION?

If you've been following along and working through all of this, it's quite possible you now have a full solo written out, ready for your next gig. But does that mean it's still improvisation? Well, yes and no. Improvising is technically, the idea of coming up with something on the spot but even the best improvisers would practice and have their own ideas they could use and recycle. If you've ever listened to multiple Charlie Parker solos, you'll soon start to hear the same ideas crop up. Is this a bad thing? No, those ideas are what make Charlie Parker's sound unique, original and ultimately recognisable as his. Isn't creating your own unique sound what this is all about? Well, that and having fun!

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© 2020 Ed Brown