Jazz Improvisation Lesson 4: 'I Got Rhythm'

03 June 2021
By John Geraghty
Musician and teacher John Geraghty presents part four of his six-part series on Jazz Improvisation

So far we’ve learned how to come up with new melodic ideas using scales, motifs, jazz tunes and note targeting. In this lesson, we will learn how to improvise using chords and chord tones.

Shown below is a new 12-bar blues/jazz chord progression based on the basic 12-bar blues which you learned in Lesson 2.



Learn your chords 

Now that you know the sequence (you can learn it off by heart later), let’s work out the chords in root position.

Step 1: Play each chord as written, ignoring previous accidentals.

Step 2: Play the chords over the 12-bar blues chord progression above.


Step 3: Use chord inversions to connect each chord over the chord progression. This will create smoother connections between chords. 

Below you will find the 12-bar blues chord progression complete with chord inversions. There are two things to take notice of: 

  • The connection works best when the top note of two neighbouring chords are very close together.
  • Some chords share the same notes, so it’s not necessary to move all four notes. For example: In bars 7-8, you’ll see that notes E and G are in both the C7 and A7 chord.




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‘Comping’ the chords

When improvising Jazz, not only can you improvise using single notes, but you can also improvise different rhythms using just chords. When playing in a band, there’s always one dominant musician playing the ‘head’ (Lesson 3) while the other musicians accompany – or ‘comp’ – while the ‘head’ and/or solo is being played. 


Step 4: ‘Comp’ over the chord changes using different rhythms.

Below shows a number of different ways in which to ‘swing’ the C7 chord. Practise these rhythms using this backing track. Practise these rhythms first with the right hand, then the left hand and then hands together. On the recording each two-bar rhythm is played twice, allowing you to repeat the rhythm before the next rhythm plays.  

Notice that the second bar over each two-bar rhythm uses the same motif (see Lesson 1). Once you can play along to the track without stopping, try creating your own rhythmic motifs and patterns.


Listen to this backing track played over the 12-bar blues/jazz chord progression for more ideas on ‘comping.’



Left-hand chord voicings


Step 5: Learn left-hand chord voicings 

When soloing over single notes, your left hand will be playing chords. Below shows easy to moderate left-hand chord voicings. Practise these chord voicings over this backing track using a variety of rhythm patterns. 

You’ll notice that…

  • The chords don’t contain the root note. These are known as ‘rootless’ chords. The root note doesn’t need to be played because the bass will be playing this.
  • The chords are played around middle C. Playing chords lower down the octave will sound too  ‘bassy.’


Easy (two-note chord voicings)

These are known as ‘shell’ voicings and only use the 3rd and 7th notes of the chord.



Moderate (three-note chord voicings)

By adding an extra note you can create more interesting harmonies. These voicings create 9/b9’s, #5 and 13th-type chords.



Playing over the changes

‘Playing over the changes’ refers to playing a solo over the chord progression. In between licks and scales, Jazz musicians often just use the chord tones from each chord over a solo, leading to new melodic and rhythmic ideas. 


Step 6: Improvise over chord tones. Shown below are three ways in which to play over chords.


Arpeggiating a chord, ascending or descending, is one of the easiest ways to play over a chord.



Use random notes.



Use a sequence of notes, ascending or descending. Groups of three notes usually work best.



Finding links

Step 7: Linking between chords

When moving from one chord to another, find the closest possible link between both chords, preferably a semitone or tone apart. Below you will see the link from Bb to A, indicated by the bracket between C7 and F7.


If the closest possible note is the same, tie the two notes together.




If you find that your last note before changing chord is a tone higher or lower than the target note (Lesson 3), add in a chromatic note. This will make it sound even more jazzy!



A final word...

Include the following over the 12-bar jazz/blues chord progression:


Suggested listening: John Coltrane Mr P.C. Listen to the rhythms played by piano player Tommy Flanagan.

Coming up in Part 5

  • Left-hand bass lines with right-hand chord voicings


Missed out on the first three 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."