01 March 2021
By John Geraghty
Musician and teacher John Geraghty guides us through a brand new six-part series on Jazz Improvisation...
Welcome to my Jazz Improvisation series. This course is designed for complete beginners that are interested in Jazz improvisation, and for those who have practised Jazz improvisation before but need a refresher course or want to learn more improvisation skills and techniques.
This series comes with downloadable audio and PDF content to help you with your Jazz improvisation.
Before we go into the finer details of Jazz improvisation, let’s start by improvising over the C Blues scale. This will get those creative juices flowing.
C Blues scale
Step 1: Learn the C blues scale off by heart. Practise ascending and descending, one octave first then two octaves. Use the fingering that best suits you.
Step 2: Listen to Audio 1. This will help you get a better ‘feel’ for the music before trying to improvise over it. Can you hear the music ‘swing’?
Step 3: Improvise over Audio 1 using a combination of the notes from the above C blues scale. Press record and play along with the audio.
Step 4: Listen to your recording and ask yourself these questions:
- Does your solo sound too busy?
- Do any of your notes clash with the bass and piano on the recording?
Let's have a conversation
When improvising, you want to think of your solo as a conversation between you and other players.
‘Hi, how are you?’
‘I’m good thanks, you?’
‘Not bad. Do you fancy going down to the pub?’
‘Sure, let me get my coat. I’ll just be a second.’
- What do you notice about this conversation?
The conversation is getting longer. There’s an introduction and a quick conversation about going to the pub.
Listen to Audio 2 and answer the following...
- Can you hear the conversation between the chords and the solo?
- Can you sing the solo?
When you’re improvising, start with an idea (motif); an intro that develops into a conversation. The motif can simply be a one-note rhythm or a series of notes, creating a phrase.
Below you will see in the first two bars a simple rhythmic idea based on note C, including a motif. The variations show different ways to play this idea. Ideas and variations don’t have to be two bars long. They can be any length you like. It just depends on what you want to say.
Listen to Audio 3 which plays what is written above. Listen to how the idea and four variations make sense rhythmically, as a whole conversation. Listen out for the clash at the end of variation 4, the first time through. More on this later in the series.
Have another go...
Step 5: Improvise again, this time using either the same idea as above or using one of the four variations as your starting point. Keep your original recording and record yourself again.
- Use the idea above or any part of the variations to start your intro or if you’re feeling confident try something new.
Step 6: Review your second recording and ask yourself the following questions.
- What was your idea?
- Did you use a motif and repeat the phrase?
- Can you remember your idea and sing it back?
- Does your second attempt at soloing make more sense than your first solo?
- Did you play in between the chords or on the same beat?
- Can you hear any clashes between your solo and the backing?
Don’t worry about clashing notes. If you play one note wrong it was by accident. If you played the same wrong note twice or more it’s Jazz!
Step 7: Record yourself improvising again using your favourite musical ideas from what you have learnt.
Step 8: Listen to your first and third recording. Does it sound even better than the second recording?
A final word...
When improvising, you do not need to play lots of notes. Less is more. Come up with an idea, with or without a motif and expand on the idea.
- Miles Davies ‘So What’ from ‘A Kind of Blue.’
- Listen to how the bass (intro) and piano (motif) have a conversation. The piano motif is the same as motif 1.
Coming up in Part 2...
- How to make your solos ‘swing’
- Tension and release: How to make your ‘wrong’ notes sound ‘right’
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."