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.