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From the Studio

Jazz Improvisation for Beginners

By David Wilken • April 01, 2002 Send Feedback

So you want to learn how to improvise jazz. "Where do I begin?" you might ask. You have worked hard to learn to read music, now how do you make it up on the spot?

It's easier than you think. The trick is to start simple. Most people, when they first improvise, become overwhelmed by all the choices. What note should you play? Should you play it loud or soft? How long should you hold the note?

Instead of worrying about all those choices, let's make some of those choices for you (temporarily) so you only think about one choice. With a little practice, you will be able to think about more than one thing, and will be on your way to becoming a jazz trombonist.

Lesson One

Before you start improvising, you need to learn the Bb major scale. If you already know your Bb major scale by heart, you can skip to the next lesson, if you like. If you don't know your Bb scale, this is a good time to learn! The scale is just below.

Play the scale slowly, at your own pace. Remember to take a deep breath, relax, and play with a good sound. Once you feel comfortable with this scale we can move on to the next step - playing with a rhythm section!

Download both of these:

Start by playing through the Bb Scale Patterns sheet. It begins simply, but gets more difficult by the end, so if you can't play it all take some time to practice it before going on. The rhythm section will wait for you.

When you are ready, start playing the MIDI file. You will hear a series of clicks counting you into the beginning. If you want, just let it play for a while and listen to what the "rhythm section" is doing. Then try playing some of the scale patterns long with the MIDI file. If you get lost, don't worry, just start on any measure, as long as you are on a downbeat. As you play, listen carefully to how you sound. Are you playing with a good tone? Do the notes sound in tune to you? How does that Bb major scale sound against the rhythm section?

Is the Bb major scale too easy for you? If so, you can download the following files and practice the scale exercise in other keys below.

These scales were not written out on purpose. Practice transposing the scales yourself. If you need to, go ahead and write them out, but you should memorize the scales as soon as you can. Remember, the point of improvising is playing without reading music.

Once you can play the Bb major scale and have played some of the other scales as well, comfortably and by memory, move on to the next lesson, where you'll jump in and start improvising your own solo!

Lesson Two

Now you've either practiced your Bb major scale or you already know the scale well enough that you're ready to start improvising. Let's go.

Remember in last lesson where it mentioned choices while you improvise? Every decision you make when you improvise music comes down to three basic areas: "What note should I play? When should I play that note? and How should I play that note?"

Let's make on decision at a time. Let's begin by looking at the notes that are available to you in the Bb scale (below). The first thing to notice is the chord symbol. See above the staff where it says Bb maj7? That symbol tells us what notes to the rhythm section will be playing. In this case, it tells us that chord includes the notes Bb, D, F, and A.

Let's take a look at this Bb scale. Each note of the scale is numbered.

A major seventh chord (like Bb maj7) includes the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes of the Bb major scale. Notice that those notes of the scale are darkened in. Try playing this chord arpeggio here. If you have a piano or keyboard instrument, try playing that chord on the piano and listen to how it sounds.

Now let's jump in and start improvising. Download this MIDI file and play back a bit of it to listen for a couple things. First of all, notice the eighth notes. Do you notice how they are not even, like in rock, latin, and classical music? That's called 'swing' and it is a very important part of jazz. When you improvise you should try to play that same feel, which is almost (but not exactly) like playing this rhythm.

Listen for what each part of the rhythm section is doing. The bass is playing mostly quarter notes and playing a lot of chord tones (Bb, D, F, and A in this case). The pianist is playing the chords rhythmically and the drummer is playing a swing pattern. You will want to fit in with what you hear, rhythmically (good time feel), melodically (nice melodies), and harmonically (good note choices).

To start with, let's just use the first three notes of the Bb scale: Bb, C, and D. Start the sound file again and improvise for a while just using those three notes, in any register. While you are playing listen carefully to the sound of those notes over the Bb major chord - each one has its own "feel" against the chord. You should not feel like you have to play every measure, feel free to rest and think about what you want to play next. And as always, make sure you are breathing properly and playing with a good sound.

Was that exercise too easy for you? Now try these exercises using the same sound files.

Improvise using only the following notes:

  1. Bb, C, D, and F (1, 2, 3, and 5)
  2. Bb, C, D, F, and A (1, 2, 3, 5, and 7)
  3. Bb, D, F, and A (1, 2, 3, and 5; the Bb major 7 chord)
  4. Bb, C, D, F, and G (1, 2, 3, 5, and 6; the Bb major pentatonic scale)
  5. Use the entire Bb major scale
  6. Make up your own combinations
  7. Play whatever your ear, mind, and heart tell you (as you would perform)

If you need some melodic ideas to inspire your improvisation, take another look at the Bb major scale patterns PDF file for some licks to get you started.

Before you finish practicing today, make sure you practice #7. The various combinations of notes are meant to give you control over some of the possible choices available. When you perform, you might play a few ideas that make use of the above combinations, but you would probably not want to perform an entire solo like that. Since you can't expect to be able to do anything in performance that you haven't practiced, always spend some time practicing improvising as if you were performing. Try to tell a story with your improvisation - portray an emotion to the people who are listening. You might also have a picture in your mind that you are trying to communicate.

Once you get familiar with these exercises on the Bb major scale and major 7 chord, transpose those combinations to fit these sound files:

The next lesson will cover the chord progression called 'the blues' and some of the possible choices you have playing over this chord progression.

Lesson Three

In this lesson we're going to talk about the Blues form. You are probably already familiar with the blues form, even if you don't know it. Jazz, rock, country and rhythm and blues all use some variations of the Blues form.

Before you read more about the blues, download this MIDI file of the C blues. Does it sound familiar? If not, that's OK, you will soon know it well.

There are many variations of the Blues, but the form used most often in jazz is a 12 bar form. Let's look at a 12 bar blues in the key of C.

Notice first that, instead of only major 7 chords, we have two different chord types. The "7" after the note name means that the chord contains the 1st, 3rd, 5th and lowered 7th, degrees of the major scale. For example, our C7 chord contains a C, E, G, and B flat. This chord is called a dominant chord.

The other new chord is the minor 7 chord. This chord contains the 1st, lowered 3rd, 5th, and lowered 7th of the major scale. A better way to think of it is the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th, of a natural minor scale, if you know your minor scales.

Lastly, notice the roman numerals underneath the measures. Those numerals are used to show the key and how each chord relates to the tonic chord. In our case the key is C, so the C7 chord is labelled I7. Since F is the 4th note of the C major scale the F7 chord is labelled as IV7. The G7 chord is labeled V7 because G is the 5th note of the C major scale. All of those chords use capital roman numerals because they have major thirds. The Gmin7 chord is labeled ii7 (lower case for II7) because that chord has a minor third.

It's time to learn a new scale. This one is called the blues scale. Below, the Blues scale is given in the key of F.

Notice that the scale contains the 1st, lowered 3rd, 4th, raised 4th, 5th, and lowered 7th notes of the F major scale. Play it slowly up and down, listening carefully to the sound of the scale. Sound familiar? Chances are that you've heard this scale before.

This scale is very useful for the blues because it will sound good anywhere in the blues form, provided you're in the right key.

Download and print this PDF file. It has the F blues scale written out in 8th notes over the whole form, and then the chord symbols for the blues in F. Start the MIDI file and play the blues scale for two choruses (two times through the form) and then improvise using only the notes in the blues scale. I've provided the chord symbols for you so you can get used to seeing them, but don't worry about them yet. Just pick notes in the blues scale and you will sound fine.

Still having trouble? Try simplifying your note choices by practicing these combinations:

  1. Just the 1st and 2nd notes of the blues scale
  2. Just the 1st, 2nd, and 6th notes of the blues scale
  3. Just the 1st, 2nd and 3rd notes of the blues scale
  4. Just the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th notes of the blues scale
  5. Just the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th notes of the blues scale (minor pentatonic scale)
  6. Make up your own combinations

Remember while you're practicing improvisation to play with a good sound and to play right in tempo with the MIDI file. If you find yourself playing out of time or with poor breath support, stop playing for a few measures and give yourself a chance to rest and think about what you want to play next. It's OK to use space in your soloing, don't feel like you have to play EVERY measure.

Once you get comfortable with blues in F, transpose the scale to different keys and practice with these MIDI files:

This is the last improvisation lesson for this article. Keep your eyes out for the next lesson and until then, practice hard, listen to as much music as you can find, and remember to have fun!