I’m a big fan of imitation when it comes to learning how to improvise in the bebop style. This may seem counterintuitive but we learn to speak the same way, by imitating our parents. I’ve given a lot of thought to how we improvise and what would be most effective way to learn the skill.
After years of practicing a lot of ineffective things I finally started imitating jazz professionals such as Robert Conti and Greg Fishman (sax player). I learned a variety of solos and etudes as well as licks. I was having a blast and really sounding like a jazz musician!
One part that took some work was the next phase – being able to put together a decent solo without playing someone else’s solo note for note. When I would try to put two things together it often wouldn’t sound great and I wasn’t sure why.
Then a while ago I picked up Giant Steps for Guitar by Wolf Marshall. Wolf has studied the jazz masters extensively so the lines were melodic, but the genius of the approach was that solos were broken down into a series of 2 and 4 bar phrases. So he had a series of phrases over the first 4 bars (which also worked over the next 4 bars) then a series of ii V Is. People don’t often think about the fact that to play fast bebop lines you have to have them under your fingers and internalized without thinking. I used to think if I practiced triads and scales I would somehow be able to invent lines no one else has ever played on the fly.
So that got me thinking. Could I apply the same concept to other standards? Sure I could! I think phrases are the most natural way to conceive of solos, similar to sentences in speech. As you know there are a lot of licks and phrases over ii V I’s and individual chord types (major 7, minor 7, dominant 7, etc) but not a lot of phrases over actual chord progressions in standards. So when you don’t see a ii V I or standalone chord you get lost trying to figure out what to do. These are what I refer to as problem areas (unfamiliar chord changes, 2 chords per bar, key changes, etc).
The easiest and most melodic way to figure out what to play over an unfamiliar or trouble spot is to see what others have played that you enjoy.
So if we take a Bb blues progression we can divide it in various ways but let’s pick one way: At a high level we can think of it as 3 four bar phrases. Bars 1-4, 5-8 and 9-12. We can use one phrase for bars 1-4, then in the middle four we can use a 2 bar phrase over bars 5-6 (Eb7 to Edim7) with a pickup phrase in bar 8 as we approach the final bars 9-12.
Here’s an example in the video. The phrases come from Jazz Guitar Etudes, Fusion Guitar by Joe Diorio, Jazz Saxophone Etudes Vol. 3. You can purchase the PDF below the video or on the products page, so you can study how I put together the phrases from the source materia. An amazing and effective way to learn to solo.
I think a lot about improvisation each day ever since I started studying improvisation for jazz and experienced a lot of frustration. What works, what doesn’t work and so I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a few tips that I have struggled to figure out over time.
1. Most people (including teachers) are unable to explain how they are able to improvise. They usually practiced a variety of things and will pass on this information to you. This is because what they play is internalized to the point where they don’t have to think about it. So if a good player transcribed a lot of lines and learned them, he will then often turn around and teach YOU only scales and arpeggios. I’m mostly talking about fast bebop lines that would have to be practiced beforehand in order to pull them off at high speeds. Tip: Focus more on what they play than what they say, assuming you like their playing.
2. On stage or during any performance, you will play things you’ve practiced and internalized. Tip: Practice improvisation. Play a backing track or band in a box for a standard and play as if you were performing in public. What did you observe? Were you frozen? Were there trouble spots?
3. When you are practicing scales, arpeggios and other exercises remember that these aren’t ‘lines’. You wouldn’t play these in an improvisation. So you can either spend time inventing lines from these fundamentals, or you can practice lines directly. Tip: I prefer this second approach although I’ve spent a ton of time trying to invent lines with some success and some failure. Whether you invent lines or ‘steal’ them (with modifications of course) you have to make sure you internalize them. Tip: Ask yourself: Would I play this in a solo? Am I trying to invent a line right now? Be aware of what you are actually practicing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t invent lines but many beginners don’t have enough experience to create good lines.
4. Tip: You can internalize lines by repeating them, playing them in different areas of the neck, playing them in different keys, playing them over different tunes.
5. Create your own lines at the right stage in your development. Some teachers feel you can start inventing lines right from day one. After all it’s very creative right? We can all be creative. While that is true, as beginners we don’t know enough about the language and often don’t have the right technique to be able to invent good jazz lines. As children we learn to imitate our parents by saying a word, then 2 words, etc. Tip: We should follow the same process of learning as when we learned to speak. Imitate and assimilate. Innovation comes a little later.
6. Don’t be afraid to learn lines and licks. They have a negative connotation in some circles. Teachers are afraid you’ll turn into a clone. Believe me, this won’t happen. As I started learning jazz lines, I was able to easily tweak the lines to make them my own. Tip: Making phrases your own is a natural process once you’ve internalized the lines.
7. I’m not advocating cutting and pasting licks into a solo, although that will take you very far in your efforts to improvise. I believe improvisation is largely a recall activity. We are recalling things we’ve played before. I don’t mean the whole solo but lines and phrases we learned. When you learn the lines you build technique as well. Tip: Internalize the lines so you can play them without thinking and you will naturally tweak the lines to make them your own.
8. There’s nothing wrong with knowing theory. I know music theory. Tip: Spend the majority of your practice time learning lines. Get the lines from the players you like, the masters such as Robert Conti’s learning products, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Frank Gambale, etc. Next would be learning tunes and playing improvisations over these standards as if you were performing.
9. A lot of people recommend transcribing solos. It’s a great way to imitate others and build technique. But many people transcribe and never actually learn the lines downpat. Tip: Since you won’t want to play an exact solo note for note, try focusing more on individual phrases.
10. People ask a lot, ‘What scale or mode should I play over this chord progression?’. This is generally the wrong question. But it is so engrained in our culture these days thanks in part to academic institutions. The question you are really asking is ‘What do I play over this progression?’. Tip: Go listen to other examples and see what they’ve done. Learn those lines and tweak them for your own purposes.
11. Learning long lines that span the fretboard and that fit ‘over a series of ones’ gives you amazing flexibility not constraints. I am able to start these lines at any point in the neck once I have them internalized. Tip: So many things can be achieved from one line, again, once they are internalized and under your fingers.
12. Tip: Have an overarching concept in your playing that greatly simplifies everything. In my case I follow Robert Conti’s ‘series of ones’ approach that he explains in his Jazz Lines DVDs. Pat Martino has an ‘area of activity’ concept that you can also check out in his Creative Force DVDs.. The majority of my playing fits into this one concept. Many great players have one main approach that they use over and over in various forms. It’s not about memorizing a million licks. The phrases fits into this one simplifying framework.
13. Many people will disagree with some of my points. They think you should learn scales and modes and then go create your own improvisations from scratch. I can speak from personal experience that this doesn’t work. I’ve seen many other students fumbling around scales trying to make music. Some other others advocate a more balanced approach. Tip: Think about what is working in your practice and do more of that (probably the things I’ve suggested in other tips).
When learning jazz guitar we can often get distracted by all sorts of information out there, so it can be helpful to remember to go directly to the master’s and learn from them. I recently listened to a version of Mr. PC by McCoy Tyner and John Scofield and within just a few seconds had all sorts of ideas to work on.
When transcribing solos for the purpose of your own creativity and innovation the idea should be to take the general concept not necessarily memorize a solo note for note (although that can be good for technique and really getting inside a player’s head). With this in mind I noticed a couple things right off the bat with John Scofield’s solo.
It starts out at 0:31 in the video with a descending Bb triad in 2nd inversion and on to a G. You could consider this a Gm7 as well. A Bb triad or Gm7 arpeggio is a great way to play over Cm7. These are chord tones with the added D and F (9th and 11th of Cm7). So the rule that you can take from this is to play a triad on the m7th (Bb) of the chord, of m7 arpeggio on the 5th (G) of the m7 chord. These are often called upper structures. Notice the use of rhythm and how the Gm7 is mixed up.
As the Cm7 moves to the iv chord (Fm7) many versions of the tune call for a C7 which is the dominant 7 of the Fm7 (a fifth above F). For C7 we can consider it a C7b9 which is 4 dim 7 arpeggios at once depending on which note you start on (Db, E, G, Bb). Scofield plays a diminished 7 arpeggio starting on the 3rd (E) so that ie E, G Bb and Db to approach the C over Fm7.
He then repeats the same Bb triad again anticipating the Cm7 a bit early, but the notes work over Fm7 as well.
So how can we use the 2 ideas that occur within the first few seconds of his solo?
Work on superimposing the Bb triad or Gm7 arpeggio over the Cm7 chord in different inversions, mix up the notes. Then use the same idea over the Fm7 – so you’d be using the Eb triad or Cm7 arpeggio. Or you can use the G minor pentatonic over Cm7 (pentatonic starting on 5th of m7 chord) and C minor pentatonic over the Fm7.
Use the diminished 7 arpeggio but start on different notes to approach different target tones. For example for a bit of an outside sound use B, D, F Ab (B dim 7) over Fm7 to approach the note G on beat 1 of Cm7. I like to think of diminished 7 arpeggios as 7b9 chords. So we are approaching Cm7 with a G7b9. Practice targeting different notes using this approach.
It’s amazing what we can learn and how we can get inspired from the masters. If you need help understanding solos and making them your own please don’t hesitate to hire me for private webcam guitar lessons.
You’ll see a lot of arpeggio exercises out there, heck I even have some myself! But my goal is always to get you making music, not just playing arpeggios and scales.
But knowing where chord tones are is very useful, and we can also use the arpeggios in solos but not as you see them in most exercises.
So I decided to make some examples that you can check out. All the examples are over Am7 to D7 (first 2 chords of Autumn Leaves) and many ii-V-I and ii-V progressions. The same concept can be used between any two chords.
The examples below show how you can start to making music from arpeggios. We’re mostly focusing on the Am7 chord and related arpeggio to land on chord tones of D7, but sometimes I expand a bit further into the D7 measure.
I talk about the examples after the sheet music below.
Make sure you swing the notes and I often slide into notes that are a half step below the next note, rather than pick every note.
You can play the arpeggios but add some rhythmic variety. Don’t just play quarter notes. Start on different beats. If you start on beat 3 the arpeggios I show would become eighth notes to fit them into 2 beats as example 1.
Approach each arpeggio note from a half step below. I did this in example 2 and others plus I compressed the notes so that I played a triplet.
Approach the next chord with an arpeggio from the previous chord in a smooth manner as I do in example 5 (3rd line). For example for Am7 to D7 play A, C, E, G then land on F# over the D7. Notice how the F# is encircled by the E and G. Check out my lesson using approach arpeggios.
Sometimes I use chromatic approaches from one chord tone over Am7 to D7 (Eg. E to F to F#).
Arpeggios are chord tones, ie notes from the chord so you can target any chord tone in your solo, without playing the arpeggio. So when each chord goes by you know which notes will sound good as you’ve learned where the chord tones are.
Study the examples and understand which are chromatic approach notes, which are chord tones (part of arpeggio), when I started in the measure, the rhythms I used and how I connect the chords (closest chord tone, encircling, etc).
Here are arpeggios for the chord progression to Autumn Leaves. I’ve kept them on the highest strings as much as possible which are where you are more likely to improvise. Also each arpeggio is kept to one octave except for chords that last 2 bars.
This is because each 4 note arpeggio forms a little shape that is easier to remember than a 2 or 3 octave arpeggio. Even for larger arpeggios you can think of them in small chunks and connect them together.
So how can we use these arpeggios in our improvising? There are different ways to approach it. Check out my lesson on making music from arpeggios.
In that lesson I show a variety of approaches.
Once you get the arpeggios down, learn what notes are in each arpeggio. Notice the shape each arpeggio makes on the fretboard. There are unique shapes for minor 7, major 7, dominant 7, minor 7b5 arpeggios.
You can play the arpeggios but add some rhythmic variety. Don’t just play quarter notes. Start on different beats. If you start on beat 3 the arpeggios I show would become eighth notes to fit them into 2 beats.
Approach each arpeggio note from a half step below.
Approach the next chord with an arpeggio from the previous chord in a smooth manner. For example for Am7 to D7 play A, C, E, G then land on F# over the D7. Notice how the F# is encircled by the E and G. Check out my lesson using approach arpeggios.
Arpeggios are chord tones, ie notes from the chord so you can target any chord tone in your solo, without playing the arpeggio. So when each chord from the Autumn Leaves chord progression goes by you know which notes will sound good as you’ve learned where the chord tones are.
Minor 7 arpeggios are built from the root, minor 3rd, fifth and minor 7th intervals. Minor 7 chords are used extensively in jazz standards including Blue Bossa for one.
Minor 7 arpeggios can be played on different string sets and starting on different fingers but they follow a few similar shapes on the guitar. So there are shapes you play that start with your index, ring and pinky fingers. You could also use your middle finger to make other shapes but I only show the ones that don’t require as much of a stretch and that fit in the CAGED scale patterns.
I show a variety of fretboard diagrams below. Note that these fall into the 5 CAGED major scale shapes that I often show students when I do Skype guitar lessons. If you know the notes on the fretboard it makes it easier to remember these arpeggios. Also be sure to play them up and down and eventually expand them to the full extent of the current position you are in, not just starting on the root all the time.
Notice where each interval is as well (root, minor 3, fifth, minor 7) and then play these arpeggios for other chords as well. Using the root as your guide shift these arpeggios to Fm7 and then all the other minor 7 chords in all 12 keys.
Blue Bossa was written by Kenny Dorham and is the one of the first standards you should learn. The reason for this is that it has only 2 keys, Eb major and Db major. We can get more complex over time but this is the easiest way to get started.
The diagram below shows the chord progression and below the staff, I show the extent of each key. If you play using a tonal center (key) approach make sure you switch keys at the right time.
You might have noticed that the B in G7 is not in the Eb major scale. And you’d be right! But the Eb major scale has a Bb and that is considered to be the #9 of the G7 chord. And the Bb is even played in the melody itself over the G7! Dominant chords are usually the place where many liberties are taken by playing altered tones.
If you are not familiar with these scales you might want to practice playing each scale in various positions on the neck. Then practice transitioning back and forth between the Eb and Db major scale, while staying in the same area of the fretboard. You can use the 5 CAGED scale patterns or any other scale patterns that you know. I provided an example below.
Using the CAGED system there are 5 major scale positions. I’ve only shown 2 of the possible 5 patterns above). There are many scale patterns out there on the Internet so I wouldn’t get to hung up on any one method.
Next we have arpeggios. The ways and fingerings to play arpeggios can vary quite a bit but one way is to use the arpeggios that fit with the 5 CAGED shapes I mentioned earlier. Arpeggios and scales tend to fit into a few patterns so we can pick a few we like and stick to those at first, and then add more variations over time. If you try to practice every permutation of scales and arpeggios you’d never get to actually playing a song!
Arpeggios can help us identify what the actual chord tones are – ie the notes that make up the current chord. These are usually the best notes to target in a solo since they are part of the chord.
Here’s another post on minor 7 arpeggios across the entire fretboard.
Relating everything to a tonal center and major key is a good way to get started and is a slight over simplication of what’s happening. The areas that I identified containing the notes of Eb major are more correctly part of the relative minor key of C minor. But rest assured that these are the same notes (Eb major = C minor). And the Dm7b5-G-Cm7 is known as a minor ii-V-i, since ii-V-i’s are very prevalent in jazz.
I also like to play individual chord tones for the whole progression. So during the first chorus I just play roots, 2nd chorus I play 3rds and so on. Here’s a chart – if you don’t know your notes on the fretboard you will want to learn those as well. Think of these the same as the Eb and Db major scales but ordered in ascending 3rds (a chordal approach).
Here’s a list of intervals to play from root to 13. The first 4 notes are the notes of the chord (r,3,5,7 of some type) then the upper extensions 9,11,13 (of some type according to the key). Play the first note over the progression (roots), then the second (thirds), etc
Cm7- C, Eb, G, Bb, D, F, Ab
Fm7 – F, Ab, C, Eb, G, Bb, D
Dm7b5 – D, F, Ab, C, Eb, G, Bb
G7 – G, B, D, F, Ab, C, Eb
Ebm7 – Eb, Gb, Bb, Db, F, Ab, C
Ab7 – Ab, C, Eb, Gb, Bb, Db, F
Dbmaj7 – Db, F, Ab, C, Eb, Gb, Bb
Since we’re holding notes we want to be careful about dissonances (notes that don’t great sound if held and not resolved. Some of the dissonances are 11ths on major 7 and dominant 7 chords, b9 on minor 7 chords, and to a lesser extent b9 or natural 9 on m7b5 and b13 on minor 7 chords.
In other words treat b9, b13 and 11ths with a little care. If it sounds weird to you at your current level of ear training, try adjusting the notes. So we have a few rules that we will follow. For major 7 and dominant 7 chords we can try the #11 so for G7 try using C#, D over Ab7 and for Dbmajor7 use G.
Other ideas to make it even simpler – use the relative minor of Eb and Db major but since we are using the natural minor scale, we can simplify it with the pentatonic scale. So use C minor pentatonic where I show Eb major, and use Bb minor pentatonic over the area where I show Db major. It’s especially good if you know your pentatonic scales already (eg from rock playing).
Or try just using basic triads. Over Cm7 use the Cm triad. Over Fm7 use the Fm triad. And so on.
Don’t try to solo over the whole song at first. Try breaking up the song into smaller parts that cause you trouble. It might be the key change section so try working on transitioning from Cm7 to Ebm7 where the key change occurs. Work on each chord individually but also work on connecting 2 chords together before you move on to longer sections.
Other suggested scales:
Cm7 – natural minor, Aeolian (relative of Eb major) or C melodic minor
Fm7 – F dorian, F melodic minor
Dm7b5 – D locrian
G7 – G phrygian dominant, G augmented, G altered
Ebm7 – Eb dorian
Ab7 – Ab mixolydian, Ab altered (often just use b9/#9)
Dbmaj7 – Db major (Ionian)
There might be certain times in a chord melody when you want to just play the melody as single notes without chordal accompaniment. You can also use the technique I’m about to describe in comping or improvisational contexts. You can use this technique even if you just started to learn jazz guitar to make your playing sound more professional.
If you have a melody line, for example in Autumn Leaves where you might want to just play the melody, you can spice it up by making the notes ring together. In Autumn Leaves there is a scale sequence that is repeated starting a different scale tones. First there is E F# G, then D E F#, then C D E then B C# D#. Instead of playing each note separately we can arrange the notes so that all 3 notes can ring at the same time, by putting them on different strings.
I show this in the graphic below. I only show parts of the melody we’re focusing on from Autumn Leaves.
In this standard we have the convenience of open strings. But you can use this in other keys and standards as well with a bit of stretching, or transpose the song into a key that allows you to use this with open strings.
Another example can be seen at the beginning of Beautiful Love
Here’s a video explaining all this:
What do you think of using open strings in scale or melodic passages? Post your comments below.
Once you can play jazz arpeggios over a jazz standard, ascending and descending, starting on different chord tones, the next step would be to use them in a more melodic way. Many students stop at the point where they can arpeggiate a standard but they aren’t shown how to apply the ideas in a solo, so it always sounds like an exercise.
A very common way that arpeggios are used in jazz improvisation is as approach notes to a target tone. So ideally you hear a certain note that you want to target for an upcoming chord and you approach that using an arpeggio from the previous chord, often in the previous bar.
Also since many of us struggle with connecting chords this can be a great way to play across bar lines and connect chords from different keys. This technique is great because you are isolating all the possible things you could practice which can be overwhelming. Even though we are focusing on using arpeggios to approach target notes we are also working on playing across the bar line, connecting chords, starting lines later in the measure, repeating similar rhythms and so on.
In the first measure we have Ebm7 going to Bb7b9. So the first phrase shows a descending Ebm7 starting on the 5th (Bb) that targets the 3rd (D) over the Bb7. Notice how the Eb and Db encircle the D giving a very strong pull towards the D.
In the second measure I play a descending Ebm7 starting on the m7 (Db) and ending on C targeting the 3rd of Ab7 (C). This time the entire line continues in a downward direction.
In the 4th measure I play an ascending Edim7 arpeggio starting on the b5 (B) and targeting the Gb on the Ebm7 in measure 5. Notice the E and G encircle the Gb.
In the 6th measure I play an ascending Cm7b5 arpeggio starting on the root (C) targeting the A over F7 by encircling it again.
Over the Ab7#5 I play a descending Ab7#5 arpeggio. The interesting thing here is if the arpeggio has the same note as the target note (common tone) you can land on it and anticipate the upcoming chord (rather than encircling the target note). So I land on the Ab and hold it as the Dbmaj7 chord approaches.
In measure 8 I play a Bb7b9 arpeggio (Bdim7 arpeggio) to approach the 5th of the Ebm7 chord. Notice the encircling again.
In measure 9 I play a descending Bb7b9#5 arpeggio targeting the 5th (Bb) over the Ebm7 chord in measure 10.
If you look at the overall phrasing you will see that there is more than just approach arpeggios here. For example the first one measure phrase is repeated in the second measure. You might not do this much of one concept in one chorus but it’s good practice to overdo it as first.
There are other possibilities as well if you mix up the arpeggio, instead of always ascending or descending. Give them a try!
Try to finish off the solo using the same technique.
What do you think of approach arpeggios? Post your comments in the comments section below.