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).