beginner's guide to improvisation

PART ONE - LIMITING YOUR PITCH CHOICES

First, a bit of heresy:

To begin learning how to improvise you do NOT need to know the infamous and highly overused "blues scale". In fact, to get started you don't need to know ANY scales or chords or songs. All you need is your instrument, a simple play-along track (or your personal on-call rhythm section) and a willingness to jump in. If you're ready to take the plunge, read on.

THE SINGLE NOTE GAME

Learning to improvise can seem overwhelming because there are so many choices - so many possible notes, rhythms, harmonies, articulations etc etc. It's like being given a brand new box of 64 Crayola crayons. How do you decide which one to pick? If you're anything like me, choosing one crayon to start drawing with could be a paralyzing decision. So we're going to make things easier by setting up some strict limits. You'll only get one crayon (note, I mean) to start with.

Crayons

Your first task is to begin to build some confidence in your playing. There's nothing more difficult to listen to than a player who is not sure what's going to come out of their horn*. From the very beginning of your experimenting with improvising you want to play with authority. It turns out that playing jazz is a lot like acting - you must be committed to the choices you make at every moment. Confidence is a pre-requisite for being able to play with a strong sense of rhythm; and rhythm is what playing this music is all about. So, by choosing which one (and only one) note you're going to play, you can immediately eliminate note choice (or what musicians simply call "pitch") from your list of things to worry about.

Which one note should you use? We need to know what the context is before we make that choice. Jazz is primarily a collaborative art, so it is the interaction between you as the soloist and the rhythm section (as your accompanists) that makes the music happen (or not).

I'm going to make the assumption that you don't have a house rhythm section at your beck and call. It's best if you CAN work with other live humans, but that's not always practical. That's why we use backing tracks. So let's pick a track that alternates between just two chords - D-7 and G7, the sequence we call two - five (ii / V) in the key of C. Don't worry about any of these terms for now. All you need to know is that the piano, bass and drums will be playing one bar (4 beats) of D-7 followed by one bar of G7, ad infinitum. Here's a list of notes that will sound nice and friendly in the context of both chords:

D E F G A

Nice Notes C

If you play a Bb instrument like trumpet, clarinet or tenor sax, then the list looks like this:

E F# G A B

Nice Notes Bb

If you play an Eb instrument, like alto or baritone sax, then the list becomes:

B C# D E F#

Nice Notes Eb

Here's the ii / V track in C that you can use for this experiment:

ii V in C
Procedure for playing THE SINGLE NOTE GAME:
  1. Try out each of the "safe" notes from the list for 30 seconds or so and find one that you prefer. You can just play long tones - whole notes and half notes - for this. Try each pitch in more than one octave if you can.

  2. Play the note you've chosen in the context of each of the chord changes; really absorb how that particular pitch "sits" in the harmony. Again, you may use long tones for this (so you don't have to make any rhythmic choices).

  3. Start to play your note with deliberate, specific rhythms (use some of the suggestions below if you like). Use some space! Make sure to breathe, even if you're not playing a wind or brass instrument, as breathing helps you to learn how to play in phrases (more on this later). Most importantly, only play when your inner ear tells you to do so. Don't ever play mechanically or just to "fill up the empty space". Your rhythm section will keep the groove going - so you don't have to make noise every second. Rhythm Samples
  4. Try to find a balance between repeating the same rhythm and moving from one to another. In general, music that is too predictable (ie has too much repetition) can get boring in a hurry. Conversely, music that keeps changing without establishing some kind(s) of patterns (and, hence, a feeling of expectation) can seem disordered or chaotic. When you're using just one pitch you can also work on balancing some of the other variables (in addition to rhythm), like dynamics (shades of loud and soft), articulation (note length, accents, slurring or separating) and density (playing vs stopping).

  5. Start paying attention to phrasing with the rhythm section. They're playing a repeating two-bar pattern, but you can also think of it in multiples, ie 4 or 8 bars. Experiment with beginning and ending your "statement" in these different phrase lengths. Do this by literally playing for 2, 4 or 8 measures then stopping for the same (or a different) number of measures. Then begin again.
Who knew you could make so much music with only one note!

*We'll use the term "horn" to stand for any instrument, since this method works for everyone.
Here's a little "one note inspiration" courtesy of Tom Jobim, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd:

WHEN YOU'RE READY, TAKE TWO

Take another look at our original set of notes: D E F G A
Play each note, alternating with the D (D-E, D-F, etc). Listen to the variety of intervals* and notice how each successive note is further away (pitch-wise) from the D.

Choose two notes from the list. You can keep the one you've gotten used to working with and add another that sounds good to you in relation to your first pick. Or choose two fresh notes. It's your choice.

Go through the list of directions #2-5 above, now using both notes to create your musical phrases. Don't skip #2; you must really be able to HEAR each pitch in relation to each of the chord changes. Since all of the notes in our list are "safe" (ie, sound consonant in the context of the present harmonies), experiment with ordering your two notes. Which note does your ear tell you should come first? Does that change depending on which chord the rhythm section is playing at the time? LISTEN. Only play what your ear commands you to play. Get comfortable with some silence.

*An interval is the distance between two notes. Carpenters use inches, musicians use intervals.

TAKE TWO, PART TWO

Now it's time for something daring. Let's keep the two notes you've been playing for awhile. But now we're going to have you pick a couple of new notes that are a half step away (above or below) each of your two safe notes. (I'll give the list in a moment). The new pitches will be "unsafe" - if you play them by themselves they will sound sour (ie dissonant) in relation to the chords underneath. That's why we're going to use them WITH the "safe" notes they're right next to. We're going to use the dissonant notes to embellish, to create some tension, to add a little chili powder into the musical stew.

Here's the list of unfriendly notes that relate to our original nice set of notes:
  1. C# or Eb with D
  2. D# with E (the F is still a "nice" note)
  3. Gb with F (the E is still "safe")
  4. F# or Ab with G
  5. G# or Bb with A

upperlower

Decide which dissonant ("unsafe") note you want to mess with for each of your friendly notes. Play each choice against each chord change - yes, they will sound wrong, each in their own delightful way. When you've made your choices start to work on combining the new notes with their partners. The idea here is to create some tension and release. Use the sour notes judiciously; think of them as a way to approach or decorate the consonant notes.

Should you play the main note first or second? Does it sound best to play the dissonant note on a strong or weak beat of the measure? Should you play the embellishing tone long or short? Maybe slur it into the consonant note? Get a feel for using a variety of techniques that sound right to you.

Jazz Band

DA CAPO (BACK TO THE TOP)

Now that you've gone through these experiments with your first choices of notes I want you to go through it (just as carefully) with the other possible notes. As you do this, you will find that each time you go through the regimen it will be increasingly easy for you to HEAR BEFORE YOU PLAY. That is the ultimate goal here. Always insist on your ear guiding you. Music happens in the aural sphere, not on paper or in the intellect (although we use our eyes and brain in the learning process).

This should keep you busy for awhile. Weeks? Months? It's up to you. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot: You'll want to do this in the other 11 keys. Recall that we've only been playing with this ii/V chord progression in the key of C. Out there in the real world, this sequence of chords occurs in any and all of the other keys.

The concepts are all the same, but each key will have it's own unique feel on your instrument. I guarantee you that each key will get successively easier because you are training your ear as you do this. The skills and good habits that you ingrain with these simple one and two note exercises will be the powerful basis for developing your jazz vocabulary as you move forward.

You can purchase backing tracks for the ii/V chord progression in All 12 Keys HERE.
If you prefer playing with straight 8th and 16th note grooves, pick up Contempo Trax HERE.

Most importantly, have fun with this! There's a reason why it's called PLAYING music!

GO to PART 2 → → →

← ← ← GO BACK to the INTRO

GO HERE to find out about taking private improv lessons.
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28 Responses to Beginner’s Guide To Improv – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Class #8 Monday | Crashing Cymbals

  2. Dell Krauchi says:

    Hello,

    You refer to the “safe notes” and then end with saying “Who knew you could make so much music with only one note!”

    I am a bit confused?

  3. admin says:

    What I mean is “one note at a time” since one of the main points I’m trying to make is that improvising requires one to be able to hear how each note sounds in its harmonic context. Each of the “safe” notes has a different but quite consonant function in this particular harmonic context.

  4. Bill Nash says:

    I am trying to get a handle on why you pick E/F#/G/A/B for the ‘safe’ notes (for Bb inst.). As I am looking at it, the C# and C would not fit because E-7 has a C in it and Dmaj7 and A7 both have a C# in them. That would leave C out as a note that could be used in the ii/V progression. However, all three chord – ii/V-I all have a D in them – isn’t that right? So why couldn’t you use the D in any of the chord progressions. Does it have something to do with chord tones?

    I think your site takes a really good approach to starting improve and I am looking forward to getting a lot out of it.

    Thanks, Bill

    • admin says:

      Bill,
      I’m a little confused by your question but I’ll try to answer as best I can. First, the track is just ii/V, there is no I chord. The (transposed) chords are E-7/A7, right? Both chords are from the D major scale and, since I’m not suggesting either C or C# I don’t know where that part of your question comes from. The notes I’m calling “safe” work equally well on both chords because we are eliminating the 2 notes that resolve when going from ii to V (see part II of this course for more on that), namely D and C#. And yes, it has everything to do with chord tones. I hope this helps 🙂

  5. Dell Kraudhi says:

    Bill,
    Your comment, “…the 2 notes that resolve when going from ii to V…” with resolve referring to C going to D and B going to C.
    Is this correct?

  6. Dell Krauchi says:

    Bill,
    So, you have the chords D-7 and G7…and you state, “The notes I’m calling ‘safe’ work equally well on both chords because we are eliminating the 2 notes that resolve when going from ii to V”. These two notes are B and C. I see the C as being the 7th of D – but I am not really seeing how the B fits in – as it is the 3rd of G.

    Is it that the “resolve” is that which exists between G7 and C at the very end of the song – where the B wants to go to – or resolve, to C? If so, do you have any suggestions on how we can train ourselves to actually hear this resolve?

    Thank you.

    • admin says:

      Dell,
      You are 90% correct. When the chord moves from ii to V, the 7th of ii moves down 1/2 step to become the 3rd of V. So, in the key of C, the “C” resolves downward to the “B”. This exercise is about learning to hear how each of the 5 notes sounds in the context of these two chord changes. If you were to sustain a “C” through both measures, it would sound pretty dissonant on the V chord, because it “rubs” up right against the “B”. The reverse is true, perhaps not quite as harshly. However, all the other notes of the C major scale sound just fine in relation to BOTH chords. This is covered in some detail in Part 2 of this mini-curriculum.

  7. airline says:

    I’ll immediately snatch your rss feed as I can not find your e-mail subscription hyperlink
    or e-newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Kindly permit me know in order that I may subscribe.
    Thanks.

  8. sats says:

    Hi, great series of articles. can you please help with 2 things?
    1. put up the BPM for this track?
    2. put up a video sample of someone playing a sax to this track? Possibly using the rhythmic idea example you provided. well, audio is fine:)
    thanks in advance
    sats

    • admin says:

      The track is 88 BPM. Good idea to put up a video, but I’m afraid it’s cost prohibitive. Ask your teacher or some other more experienced player to help you out. 🙂

      • sats says:

        🙂 I’m playing a tenor Sax for 3 years…my only real teacher was a drunk alto player who billed me for 5 sessions and attended 3, then there was a shop attendant who spent 5 minutes complaining about my tone, but he refused to demonstrate a good tone, lol:) the rest I learnt from sites like yours and jamming with people who have never seen a saxophone 1sthand….a saxophone is quite a rare instrument in my community:( thanks for the BPM:)

  9. carole says:

    good grief…..first of hundreds of starter jazz improv sites that
    is coherent,despite the fact i know theory and am a prof.musician ,not jazz though…..latin,flamenco,classical,salsa…all well meaning i am sure….but so many seem to get lost ,in trivial,comments,go astray and wander away from main points…yep….this is a goer…….excellent…..really ex….

  10. Tim Egan says:

    What a sensational way to look at things, thank you. Trying to get my pianist 12 year old to get together with her clarinetist friend.

  11. Rodger says:

    Sorry, I don’t understand that first backing track. I was expecting to hear just the two chords repeating themselves but there seems to be other stuff included. Being a complete beginner at jazz piano it would be helpful to have a metronome pulse in there. Any advice appreciated.

    • admin says:

      Rodger, I can understand how it might seem confusing, but the track really is just 2 chords, being played over and over again. Each chord gets 4 beats – you might try focusing on the walking bass line. As a pianist it might be a bit difficult to play with both hands (because the piano part on the track might obscure what you’re playing). Try leaving the left hand out and just following the suggestions given for improvising a melody. We have tracks that might be easier to work with that are just bass and drums here: http://www.playjazznow.com/pianist/slowstarter/

  12. Sauze says:

    Hi

    I just got your jazzplayer and got also few apptracks and I would like to know if you put on line on regular basis new tune ?

    Thanks a lot and congratulations for your work

    Gérard

  13. Elias David Baena says:

    Muy interesante su página web. Los elementos o visión acerca de la improvisaciónso buenos creo que así debe ser.

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