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Published on June 26th, 2013 | by Sam


How to Improvise Jazz – A Beginner’s Guide to Improvisation

Jazz improvisation has long been very intimidating to most musicians.  Many times the intimidation is just ignorance – whether it’s thinking improvisation takes hundreds of scales and deep theory background, to thinking only certain people ‘got it’, to it’s magic!  In this beginner’s guide to improvisation, we’ll look at how to improvise effectively and get you going!

Find a tune

You first need a song to improvise over/with.  It would suggest a blues.  In jazz, F and Bb are the most common keys.  You’ll want something with some harmonic ‘meat’, but not so heady that you can’t get through it.  Here are some good ones to try:

Tenor Madness – blues in Bb

Billie’s Bounce – blues in F

C Jam Blues – blues in… C!

Blue Bossa – Minor bossa tune in C minor

Watermelon Man – modified Blues in F

If you google backing tracks with any of the tunes listed you should be able to find a few.  There are many other play along recordings that work great for practicing these tunes.  If anything, just try playing with the original recording.  If you have the ear, learn the melody and changes by ear.  If not (and I definitely couldn’t do that at first!) find a lead sheet in a New Real Book or Real Book.   But really try to get off the Real Books asap!

Start Now!

OK, wait, go for it??? Yep, just get in there and try it out.  You’ll often learn things that work just by playing along.   You know the key, so if anything try playing the root in whole notes.  Just anything to get over the initial intimidation factor.

Many times learning jazz is related to learning a language.  One of the world’s greatest language hackers writes extensively on Speaking from Day One.  His point is that if you speak from day one, with mistakes, limited vocabulary, and all – you will become fluent much faster than if you wait until you know a bunch of words and verb conjugations.

So give that a shot in jazz.  Just try playing something.  If the note your playing sounds horrible, remember that that note doesn’t work for next time – you’ll have to use one of the other 11 notes!

It can be helpful to listen to jazz to get a good idea of the rhythms.  If you’re serious at all about learning jazz you will need to listen to a ton of the music.  It’s an aural art form that can only be learned by listening to as much good jazz as you can get your hands on.

Keep Things Simple

I’ve had lessons and have taught lessons where the first topic in jazz improvisation is which scale you should use (oops!).  Then go to the next chord and decide which scale to use over that chord.

Aside from being just boring as it could possibly be, this ISN’T the way the great improvisers approached the music.  Don’t confuse that statement with the greats don’t know what scales to use!  I’m sure they know their scales inside and out, but it’s more like knowing how to spell or grammar rules for a writer.  You wouldn’t start teaching someone English with spelling lessons.  If you’re working with a teacher and they start at scales, ask them if there is a different way to start.

If Not Scales, What?

If you’ve read my work very long, I’m sure you’ve read my take on vocabulary.  The basic idea is that music is made from a series of phrases, much like conversation is made from a series of words.  You learn to speak your native language by speaking it with other people, imitating, and studying the mechanics of phrases and grammar.  Approach jazz in the same way.

Start with simple vocabulary.  Check out the videos below:

YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

Start with some of the melodies from tunes.  “Tenor Madness” has a great melody that outlines the changes very clearly.  If you can’t get the ‘fast part’, don’t worry.  You’re mainly going for the riff here.  C Jam Blues and Bags Groove have simple, riff-based melodies too.  As you continue to work on jazz improvisation you will want to start learning phrases and melodies from other tunes and solos.  These easier riff-based tunes are a great place to start but you will need more input.

If you learn each tune’s main melody you already have three phrases to start with.   Try mixing these phrases up.  Which ones work and where do they work?  A-ha!  It’s important to see where the licks work.  As you’re doing this try to make a mental not of things that you’ve tried that work.

Working in this manner essentially becomes playing by ear.  The main difference is that you’re approaching a tune – or improvisation – by trying to speak the language from the get go, and on purpose.

Just remember that the most important thing in learning how to improvise as a beginner is to start!  When a child learns to talk they don’t usually wait to try it until they know all of the rules of English.  They just start!

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