Jazz Improvisation Lesson 3: Targeting the train

01 May 2021
By John Geraghty
Musician and teacher John Geraghty presents part three of his six-part series on Jazz Improvisation

So far we’ve learned about the blues scale, motifs, how to swing the notes, tension and release, and the 12 bar blues. In this lesson, we’re going to learn how to use a tune to help you improvise and grab ideas.


Jazz tunes

Improvising is usually done after the tune (known as the ‘head’) has been played. Improvisation can relate directly to the tune and/or be something entirely different. Jazz musicians rarely stick to what’s written on the page.

Shown below is a tune called Trains’ Coming, played over a 12-bar blues. This is how tunes are often written inside Jazz ‘fake’ books. You can see that there’s no bass clef, bar numbers or fingerings; it only shows the tune, chord symbols and a rough tempo marking. 
Jazz musicians are expected to come up with LH chord voicings, bass lines and appropriate fingering while improvising along with the tune.

Take a listen to Trains’ Coming here.


Step 1: Learn the melody off by heart. Decide on a good fingering pattern to use over each phrase.

Step 2: Play the melody over the backing track, which you can listen to here.

Now that you’ve learned the tune, how can we use it to improvise?



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Learning Jazz ‘licks’

Step 3: Choose your favourite phrase from the melody, known as a ‘lick.’ Think of licks like catchphrases in sentences. ‘I'll be back’ (Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator) or ‘How YOU doin’?’ (Joey Tribbiani in Friends). 

Practise playing the lick you have chosen over the chords that feature above it in the above example. If you’re unsure of which notes make up the chords in Trains’ Coming, I’ve added them below in root position for you.



Ask yourself... 

  • Does the lick sound better over different chords than the ones written?
  • Over which chord does the lick create the most tension? 
  • Do you prefer it over the original chord? 

You can’t always come up with spontaneous melodies, so using licks will ‘fill in the gaps’ when your mind goes blank. Licks can also give you inspiration to come up with your own melodies.



Change the lick, change the melody

As mentioned before, Jazz musicians won't just play what’s written on the page, they’ll create a number of variations.


Note targeting

When we hold a conversation, certain words are accented because they are more important than  other words. In music, we think of these as the target note. They don’t always have to be played with an accent, but over a phrase you must think of these as the important notes. 

Look at the A7 lick shown below in Trains’ Coming. One way to target notes is by using a chromatic note, one semitone higher or lower than the target note. Below shows the C# (release) being the target note, with note C (tension) coming before it.

Another way is by targeting the notes using two semitones lower or higher than the target note. This lick starts on D (tension) then D# (tension) and then to E (release) which is the target note.

Take another look at Trains’ Coming. 

Can you see anywhere else where note targeting is happening? It happens four more times.



Next step

Practise targeting all the dotted minims in Trains’ Coming, using chromatic notes either one or two semitones higher or lower, or a mix of the two using higher and lower approach notes. Below shows you some examples of how to target note C. 

One-note targeting: Use either one semitone higher or lower.

Two-note targeting: Two semitones higher or lower (1st bracket). Use both higher and lower approach notes (2nd bracket).

Three-note targeting: Start with two semitones higher/lower followed by one higher/lower (1st bracket). Start with one semitone higher/lower followed by two higher/lower (2nd bracket).

By adding these different types of note targeting exercises to note C, you can make the piece sound a lot more jazzy. When using note targeting on a lick, you can start to alter the way the lick sounds, just by deciding which note to target.

To get a better feel for note targeting, it’s always best to ‘jam’ over backing tracks. When practising note targeting, remember to swing the notes (Lesson 2). You can also try:

  • Starting on the off-beat and accenting those notes
  • Starting on a different beat other than beat one

Here’s the backing track played over a C chord only for you to practise over.



Go back to the C Blues scale found in Lesson 1 and practise targeting notes from the scale over this backing track.


A final word...

  • Practise note targeting on all 12 notes on the piano, using one, two and three-note targeting.
  • Find jazz backing tracks on YouTube using one chord only. Learn the chord tones from that chord and practise note targeting on the chord tones.


Coming up in Part 4...

  • Left hand chord voicings
  • Left hand rhythm patterns
  • Improvising using chord tones


Missed out on the first two parts of this series? You can view them below.


About the author

John Geraghty is a songwriter, music producer, pianist, author, teacher and entrepreneur. Although John is a classically trained pianist, his passion lies in songwriting and music producing. He has studied most genres of music including pop, jazz, gospel, country, and blues piano.

He is the author of Playing By Ear – A Songwriter's Way. His teaching method is simple and direct: "Leave out everything that is not necessary and teach the student what they really want to know."