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.
Some fun with some jazz blues guitar improvisation.
This uses 3 structures – minor 7 arpeggio, 1235 and minor 1234 tetrachord in various inversions.
You can purchase this guitar solo below the video (PDF in Tab and notation). An uptempo jazz guitar solo of I’ll Remember April at 300 bpm.
You can purchase my Lady Bird guitar solo (PDF with tab and notation) below this video.
Here’s a video of me playing a jazz guitar solo over One Note Samba.
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.
This is a jazz guitar solo of Cherokee from Robert Conti’s The Smoking Lineman series.
An excellent solo by the young Rob Luft. Sign up on the right sidebar to get the 7 pages of transcriptions for this solo. Note that I watched the video to match where we was playing the solo exactly on the fretboard. Many passages were slowed down on YouTube to 50% and via Transcribe! down to 20% at times.
Note the solo starts with a quote of the melody and instead of just playing the Bb in measure 3, Rob starts with Bb and encircles the Ab with a chromatic approach. The he descends before ascending with a diminished arpeggio starting on the 3rd of Bb7 (D).
Then he descends over the Bbmaj7 with a descending Bb triad. The triad has 4 notes as the octave is repeated (Bb). I’ve seen this a lot especially with sax players. The triad is an approach to the C (9th of Bbmaj7). We can see how this same structure is used 2 more times over the following Ebmaj7 and Ab7.
The Rob plays a Db major arpeggio over the Ab7 then a Dm7 arpeggio over the Bbmaj7 (arpeggio from the 3rd of Bbmaj7).
Over the C7 Rob plays a Gm-maj7 arpeggio which is very commoon to get the #11 sound – you play a minor-major 7 arpeggio off the 5th of the chord (G).
As you can see the solo is very understandable when you dissect it.