How to Take the Guesswork Out of Jazz Improvisation…and Unlock Your Creativity

If you’re like me, you can picture it in your mind. Walking on stage in front of an audience and jumping right into a solo. Knowing exactly what you want to play and confident that any note you hear will simply flow out with ease. Sounds pretty good, right? The only problem is getting these notes to come out of your instrument in real life.

No matter how hard you practice or study solos, improvising can often feel like an exercise where you’re taking your best guess at the right notes.

Staring at a set of chord progressions and choosing from a handful of scales or returning to the same old licks you play in every other solo…

And this can leave you feeling uncreative, like you’re not really improvising at all.

But before you get too frustrated, take a step back. The problem isn’t your musical or artistic abilities, the culprit is the way you’re approaching the creative process…

You’re more creative than you think

You might not realize it now, but you have more creative potential than you realize…

In fact, your brain is a problem solving machine that’s constantly processing information and looking for new options and avenues of expression.

The only catch is that you have to give it a chance to be creative.

You can’t overload the machinery. You can’t cram in every piece of music theory information out there and say “ok, improvise!

And this is where many players go wrong…

To see what I mean, let’s take a V7 chord:

F7 chord

If you saw this chord in a solo, what would you play?

Most players in this situation turn to theory, and a quick look at the standard jazz improvisation resources out there will give you options like these:

  • Mixolydian scale
  • Bebop scale
  • Altered scale
  • b9, #9, #11
  • Tritone subs
  • Diminished patterns
  • Triad pairs

Suddenly that simple dominant chord is turned into a complicated maze with dozens of options. Before you even play a note you can find yourself stuck, guessing where to begin.

Sure, you want to have freedom when you improvise, but complete freedom and unlimited options can sometimes be a barrier to your creativity.

So let’s slow down and take one thing at a time…

Set the stage for creativity

Just like a writer starring at a blank page or an artist contemplating a blank canvas…

An improviser has to make a musical statement in the blank space of a tune. And taking this first step can be the hardest part.

Where do you begin?

Well you’ve got to be creative! But contrary to what many people think, creativity doesn’t start the moment you begin your solo – it starts all the way back in the practice room.

Creativity isn’t guessing or doing the same thing over and over again, it’s a process that takes practice and time.

Arthur Koestler

And to start the process you need to be intimately familiar with the material at hand, whether it’s a chord, a progression, or a tune.

Any complexity or confusion in the process can hamper your creativity and overwhelm your mind. The key is starting with an idea that you know inside and out, one that you can hear, one that’s almost too easy.

It all starts with a simple idea…

Start with the building blocks of sound

Let’s go back to that F7 chord. The simplest you can get on any chord are the basic chord tones – the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th. 

And this is exactly where you should begin…

Start with chord tones

Every chord that you’ll improvise over, from major to half-diminished, is composed of these chord tones. And these notes will give you a starting point for your musical ideas.

By dealing with a fixed set of notes you are giving yourself a chance to be creative. Go slowly and give yourself time to think – this is where your creativity will start to peek through.

Make sure you’re able to visualize these chord tones and chords in your mind and spend time ingraining the unique sounds of each chord tone in your ear. You’ll be most creative with the sounds that you have memorized and can hear.

Here’s on exercise you can do with this concept:

Take a chorus of Blues in Eb:

Blues in Eb

Start by picking one chord tone and playing it over each chord, incorporating different rhythms:

  • Play the root of each chord
  • Play a musical idea with the 3rd
  • …with the 5th
  • …with the 7th
  • Or combine two chord tones:

Chord tones on the blues

With this exercise you’re making creative musical statements instead of inserting scales or licks. Sure, it’s seems very simple, but as you’ll quickly see, the more basic the melodic or harmonic material the more you’ll feel yourself coming up with creative variations.

But does anybody really solo like this?

The answer is surprisingly yes…many well known solos are built around the strong chord tones of any chord. For example, check out the opening to Miles Davis’ solo on Blues by Five and notice how he emphasizes the root and 5th of each chord:

Miles Davis Blues by Five

Steal ideas from your favorite players

After you’ve become familiar with the chord tones, it’s time to start imitating the musical ideas of your favorite improvisers.

This is the simple idea behind transcribing solos.

Taking one small idea from a record and working it out in the practice room. Slowly applying it to a single chord, a progression or the changes to a tune.

If you find yourself overwhelmed and uninspired try starting out with one piece of language that you’ve transcribed. It could be a melodic fragment, an interval, a sequence, anything…

For example, here’s is a musical idea from Freddie Hubbard over a V7 chord:

Freddie Hubbard Blues

Take this musical statement and make it the starting point for your practice. You can use the harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic material as the basis for your improvisation. Try applying it to that blues progression in Eb:

The more you listen, transcribe and practice, the more musical ideas you’ll have in your ear. And over time, the more creative you’ll become.

Instead of taking your best guess from a list of scales or relying on a few memorized licks, you’ll have a process that encourages your very own musical ideas – and this is what improvisation is all about!