10 Ways to Make a Line Your Own

So you’ve transcribed some lines and you’re learning them in all keys. You’ve even started to apply them to tunes you’re working on, but after several weeks, the line you transcribed which started out as sounding magical to you, now sounds boring. And on top of that, you’re playing that same line everywhere.

Don’t fret. If you’re familiar with this described situation, you’re on the right track. However, it’s at this point that most people stop.

Once you’re comfortable with the line in all keys and are using it in your playing, it’s time to take the line to the next level: transitioning the line from a simple and uncreative cut-and-paste-element, to something you truly own. Something that inspires your creativity within. It’s time to make it your own.

Making a line your own

“The creative act does not create something out of nothing. It uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, [and] skills.”Arthur Koestler

Copying a line from one of your heroes and reproducing it is just a starting point to learning the jazz language. The goal: to hear, understand, and build upon these lines, combining them with other lines and concepts to produce something your own.

Making lines begins just from playing them over and over. There are some lines I’ve learned that sound completely different when I play them than when I listen to the original source of where they came from. These differences are the result of my sound, articulation, time concept, and other subtleties that are unique to me.

I’ve even transcribed lines from two players that are identical in the notes, but sound entirely different. Similarly, this is the result of the differences between the player’s overall playing concepts.

The point is, if you play a line long enough and give it the time to grow in your mind, letting it become a part of you, then it will naturally start to take on your individual voice.

Now, beyond this natural development, there are specific harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic concepts you can apply to a line to change it into something else. The process allows you to quickly and directly make any line your own. The obvious application: these new lines can be studied, understood, and applied to tunes.

But the underlying purpose of practicing the modification of lines is to train your ear and fingers to learn to improvise creatively with language, rather than reproduce it verbatim all the time. To emphasize, it’s not just the new material that you’ll create, but the process that’s important. What follows are 10 easy ways to modify a line to quickly make it your own.

For all the examples in this article we’ll use a Dexter Gordon line from his solo on Confirmation:

Original Dexter Line

Adding notes to the beginning of a line

Start by adding one note on the ‘and of 4’ to the preceding measure, as illustrated in the following example:

add 1 note

Notice how just the addition of one note can already start to change the sound of the line? The position of the note in relation to where you’re going has a dramatic affect on how the line sounds as well.

Notice how this second line with its single-approach-note from above the first note of the line creates a different shape for the line as the previous example did, and consequently, sounds quite different.

another 1 note add

Chromatic approach tones give yet another quality to the line than both the previous examples.

yet another 1 note add

As you can see, there are many ways to use just one note before a line. Knowing this, imagine the possibilities. After using one note approaches, use two:

Adding 2 notes

Followed by 3:

Adding 3 notes

You can continue to add as many notes as you like in this manner. As always, use your ear and be creative.

Connecting an idea to the beginning of a line

Another simple concept having to do with adding notes before the line is adding another idea that you’ve transcribed before it. A progression you’ll see frequently goes from a II dominant chord to the ii V of the key. (E7 to E- A7 ). You can connect another line you’ve been working on to the new line you’re working on. For instance, in this example, I connect an E7 idea with the original ii V:

Idea before

Adding notes to the end of a line

Just as you can add notes to the beginning of a line, you can add them to the end as in this example:

Notes After

Experiment with varying the number of notes and rhythms.

Connecting an idea to the end of a line

And, just as we added a distinct idea to the beginning of a line, we can connect an idea to the end of a line. Here I take a D major idea and append it to the end of the ii V:

Idea After

Leaving notes out of a line

An effective way to vary the rhythmic content of a line is to simply leave notes out:

Leave notes out

Notice how leaving out different notes of the line changes the character of the resulting line:

Another Leave Notes Out

Experiment with leaving out various notes of a line, using your ear to judge what results in a clear melodic phrase.

Modifying the rhythm of a line

Leaving notes out is just one way to modify the rhythm of a line. You can freely change up a line’s rhythm however you see fit. In this example all I’ve done is leave one note out of the line and convert another note to a quarter note. Don’t feel obligated to keep the line fully intact. Change the line however you need to, to get it sounding correct to your ear. There’s no rules you have to follow.

Modify Rhythm

Using triplet rhythms in a line

Converting part of the line to a triplet rhythm can make it pop more, giving a sense of immediacy. Try adding triplets to various parts of the line, adjusting the line as needed, as I did here:

Use Triplets

Using altered tensions in a line

Altering the 5th (b5 and #5, same as #11 and b13) or the 9th (b9 and #9) are easy ways to make a line your own. In this example I’ve jumped up to the #9, then the b9, and then resolve to the 5th of the tonic. Do what you need to do to the line, to get the concept you’re applying to work.

Use Altered Tensions

Changing the resolution of a line

Just as in the last example, you can focus on changing where you resolve to. In the following example, I resolve to the #11 of D major, something that if done judiciously in the right context, can sound great:

Change Resolution

Delaying the resolution of a line

Another concept you can apply to the resolution is delaying it. Here I delay the resolution one beat:

Delay Resolution

Clifford Brown constantly does this. Listen to his solo on Confirmation and you’ll immediately hear it.

Learning to make lines Your Own

The concepts given here are not mutually exclusive. For instance, you could modify the rhythm of a line, add altered tensions to it, and add notes to the beginning of it, all at the same time, creating something dramatically different than the original.

But, as illustrated with the examples of adding a few notes to the beginning of a line, very little is needed to change the sound and character of a line. Don’t underestimate the power that each of these concepts can have on changing a line. Most importantly, use your ear to determine what sounds good.

Just by playing a line repeatedly over several weeks, a transcribed line naturally starts to become your own through your sound and your general playing concept. Then, when you learn to modify it by adding notes or ideas to the begging and end of the phrase, change up the rhythm, alter the harmony, and vary the resolutions, the line really becomes a part of you.

You become free with it and it truly becomes your own, naturally emerging in new creative ways within your improvised solos. Take lines through this process and they’ll transition from being static entities to springboards for your own creativity.

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