When you listen to a really good jazz piece like Duke Ellington’s “A Train,” or “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, you may wonder just how Ellington knows how to solo on the piano or how alto saxophonist Paul Desmond composes a new lick in real time.
At its core, jazz is spontaneous, lively, and full of heart. It lends itself to experimentation and improvisation where each performer can use phrases and licks tailored to a personal style.
If you want to learn how to improvise a jazz piece, here are 6 great jazz improv tips to master that will help you get started. Rick Prokop, jazz pianist and professor at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, New York, teaches an introduction to jazz improvisation class and has some tips for learning to solo on your instrument.
1. Listen and Learn
A great way to get a feel for jazz improvisation is by listening to artists you admire. “Listening to others allows you to pick up subtleties of expression that are otherwise impossible to notate,” says Prokop. “I prefer to listen to one or two personalities over a long period of time while slowly absorbing their personal idiosyncrasies.” Prokop recommends Louis Armstrong, Wynton Kelly who plays on “Freddie the Freeloader” on Mile Davis’ album, Kind of Blue, and Jimi Hendrix’s eight-bar solo in “Hey Joe.”
2. Get the Blues
Learning the blues scale is fundamental to jazz or rock, and it’s important to master it in order to learn to improvise. In the key of C, the scale would is C, Eb, F, Gb, G, Bb and then C. This Blues Scale pattern repeats in all keys: G, D, A, E, B, F#, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, and F. It is best, however, to begin improvising in a simple key like C to get a feel for it. Combine the same notes for different chord combinations as well.
3. Memorize Melodies
Prokop suggests memorizing melodies of a song along with its chord changes to provide a foundation for future improvisation. “When you think about it, the melody is the original foundation for any improvisation over the tune’s chord changes,” Prokop says. Take a look below, at how a simple melody can be embellished by changing the time and adding notes from the original.
4. Take It Slow
After you memorize a melody you want to use, the next step is to learn and experiment with scales that blend with each of the chords in the tune. Say you’re in the key of G and the chord progression is G major, C major, and D major, all the notes in the G major scale will work over a chord progression. When you are doing this, take your time. Prokop suggests going through a whole chorus (one time through a song) without stopping—kind of like riding a bike over a bumpy terrain without falling.
5. Find the Beat
Jazz is similar to rock n’ roll in that both of them share origins in the blues tradition. Jazz, like rock, emphasizes the second and fourth beats in a measure. This is different from classical music, which emphasizes the first and third. It’s important to be aware of the timing to distinguish your song as a jazz piece.
6. Swing It
Another special characteristic of jazz timing is “swinging” eighth notes that have a triplified feel. Prokop says the second note in an eighth note pairing (usually considered the weaker one in European, classical music) often takes prominence over the first in terms of its volume and placement within the beat. So, the second eighth note relates more to the eight-note behind it, opposed to the one that precedes it. See below:
Follow these basic steps to start your jazz improv journey—you may be the next Louis Armstrong.
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