Do you ever get the sneaking suspicion that you’re playing the same solo over and over again? As if you’re traveling down a familiar well-worn path in every single tune, regardless of the key, the tempo, or even the chord progression…
Minor chords get your favorite minor lines, major chords get major scales, ii-V’s get rehearsed patterns, and Rhythm Changes get your best “rhythm changes licks.”
If you’re honest, you’re not being as creative as you know you could be, falling back on the things that are safe and the lines that you can play with ease.
We can all relate to the frustration of falling into a creative rut in a solo, but what you might not realize is that this situation is not entirely your fault…
You see, the way you practice has an important role in shaping how you think about musical situations, and the reason many players get stuck goes back to a central part of any practice routine – repetition.
Repetition is essential for ingraining new skills and perfecting your craft…but when it comes to improvising, it can quickly put you into a creative rut. As an improviser, you need to make sure you are actively doing exercises to combat this natural tendency!
Over time we slowly learn and ingrain habits that help us play tunes and navigate harmony. Before you know it you’re going on autopilot, playing the exact lines you’ve worked on in the practice room…not exactly “improvisation.”
Yet, somehow the greatest players avoid this trap, finding creativity in every idea they play. So the question you need to ask yourself as you practice & perform is: What can I do to break out of my unconscious habits and actually improvise in my solos??
In this lesson we’ll get you on right track, exploring a few reasons why many players get stuck in a rut and the 4 areas of improvisation that hold the keys to unlocking your creative potential…
More understanding means more creativity
One ironic aspect about improvising is that creative freedom as a player isn’t necessarily about adding more information, more scales, or more complexity into the mix…
And it’s not as easy as simply “thinking” more creatively or trying to let go and play random ideas in the spur of the moment.
Musical freedom is about getting deeper into the fundamentals and mastering the basics that you already know!
The less you know about a topic, the more likely you’ll be confined to your limitations, repeating them over and over again. When it comes to the fundamentals of music, the more depth and mastery you have, the more creative you’ll be!
It’s a lot like trying to speak a new language. As a beginner you only know a few simple words and phrases, and this is what you use to get by in every single conversation.
Because you haven’t studied much or expanded your vocabulary, you’re stuck using the same few words and phrases every time you speak.
The same thing happens with the elements of jazz improvisation. If you only know a few licks, a few loosely memorized theory definitions, or some scales, this is what you’ll play over and over again – no matter the musical situation.
To remedy this, you need to deepen your understanding of the fundamentals, taking an honest look at what you play now and working toward incorporating creativity into your approach. There are 3 steps that will help you achieve this…
3 Steps to breaking the cycle of repetition
There are a number of areas in your playing that you can apply these concepts to. Today we’ll look at 4 important parts of your musicianship that hold the keys to breaking the cycle and unlocking your creativity…
I) Finding Rhythmic Creativity
Rhythm is one of the most important elements of any musical statement, and it’s one of the best ways to add variation & creativity into your existing musical approach.
However, it’s also one part of improvisation that many musicians unconsciously overlook in their playing, overshadowed by the constant lure of melody and harmony.
The result is a rhythmic vocabulary that remains largely unchanged for years…
If you don’t consciously think about rhythm or work on your time in the practice room, the same ingrained patterns will come out in every musical phrase you play.
The solution to this problem boils down to the idea of input vs. output. If you never stop and become aware of the rhythmic content of your solos or incorporate new ideas, you’ll unconsciously play the same rhythms over and over again.
…to put it another way, if nothing new comes in, nothing new will come out! However, with a little practice using the 3 steps we outlined above, you can create new possibilities with the most simple musical devices.
For the Practice Room:
The first step in breaking the cycle of playing the same rhythmic material is becoming aware of your “time” in general and more specifically, the rhythmic ideas that you’re playing right now.
A simple way to do this starts with the metronome. Begin by choosing a medium tempo and simply feeling quarter notes in 4/4 time. Rather than simply counting, strive to ingrain and feel each beat. Do the same with 8th notes, up-beats, 16ths, triplets, 3/4 time, etc.
You can also do this exercise as you listen to your favorite recordings, focusing on the quarter note, the 8th notes, and other parts of the beat.
The goal is feeling and hearing time on a deeper level…within a measure, a phrase, a progression, or a tune. Remember, this basic awareness and rhythmic foundation is the starting point for the more complex ideas you’ll build in your solos.
Think about the rhythmic content that you are playing right now: Does every solo use the same few rhythms? Are you starting and ending phrases in the same place? Becoming aware of your tendencies is the first step to changing them!
The next step is making a conscious effort to play with clearly defined rhythms in every musical phrase, a transition from mindless rhythmic patterns to ideas stated with clarity and intent.
If you think about it, this is one of the big differences between great improvisers and beginners – the pros play with defined rhythmic statements!
Just as you should strive to hear chord tones or lines over a chord or progression, make sure you are hearing the rhythm of a musical idea before you play it.
The goal is to ensure that every idea you play has a defined rhythmic component, from the most simple statement to the most complex.
The great thing with rhythm is that one simple idea can be played hundreds of different ways. You could start with something as simple as the root of the chord, a triad, or and interval – the possibilities are endless.
After you’ve become aware of your time and are playing with defined rhythmic statements, it’s time to start incorporating new rhythms into your playing and getting creative with them.
How do you do this?
A great place to begin is listening to how the best players approach time & rhythm. Listen to the solos of your favorite players in terms of rhythmic content…beyond the note choices, what rhythms are they using?
For example, check out this Clark Terry solo on Fluegelin’ the Blues and listen to it from the vantage point of rhythm:
As you listen ask yourself:
- What is the rhythmic content of the solo? Quarters, 8ths, 16ths, triplets, etc.
- How is he approaching the time and these rhythms? Swinging, laying back, playing on top of the beat, using straight 8ths, etc.
- Where is he starting and ending his phrases?
- On which part of the beat is he beginning his ideas?
You might isolate and focus on one phrase and transcribe the rhythmic ideas…
Over time the goal is to create a collection of rhythms that you’ve gathered from your listening, expanding your rhythmic vocabulary and developing a rhythmic language that you can become creative with.
Practice these rhythmic ideas and develop your own variations. Think about why these particular rhythms grab your ear and what makes them unique or different from your normal approach to time.
As an example, you might listen to the opening of Miles Davis’ solo on So What and transcribe just the rhythm…
Using this rhythmic skeleton as your starting point, what small rhythmic variation can you come up with to add your own spin on these 8 bars?
II) Expand your harmonic options
Another source of repetition in many solos revolves around the harmonic elements of a tune…
Specifically, the tendency to adopt a strict formulaic chord/scale approach to the chord progressions in a typical jazz standard…Major scales for major chords, mixolydian for dominant chords, and so on and so forth.
The problem is that this mental/theory approach to improvisation puts you in a “one track mindset” before you even begin your solo. Harmonic progressions and even entire tunes can be reduced down to scales and licks that you simply plug in and play.
…what’s worse, you’re stuck thinking about what you’re going to play each step of the way. To fix this, you need to transition from a mental starting point to a larger aural approach to harmony…you need to be hearing sound!
An aural approach will open up creative possibility in your musicianship – you’ll hear the musical options you have, you’ll be more intuitive as you improvise, and you’ll connect with the sound of a tune on a deeper level.
For the Practice Room:
Think about a chord, a chord tone like the Maj. 7th, or even a chord progression…
Are these simply mental definitions or are they sounds that you can identify in an instant with your ear? Can you hear the chords and progressions to your favorite tunes without thinking about them?
If a chord only exists as a scale or a lick in your mind, you’re going to be stuck in a limited theory approach in every phrase you play. The first step in expanding your harmonic options and escaping this theory trap begins by opening up your ears.
This means incorporating some ear training exercises into your daily practice routine. If you’re serious about improving your ears, check out our 4-volume guided course here, the Ear Training Method.
The objective is to turn these common theory definitions and concepts into sounds that you can easily identify and improvise over. Specifically you want to ingrain:
- Chord quality – Major, minor, dominant, half-diminished
- Chord tones – 3rd, 7th, 9th, etc.
- Intervals & melodic sequences
- Common progressions – V7 to I, ii-V’s, turnarounds, etc.
The trick is to start simple and gradually get more complex: from single chord tones, to entire chords, to progressions, to tunes. A little ear training every day can go a long way in opening up your musical possibilities!
For our purposes, harmonic intent simply means that you hear what you are going to play before you play it.
Remember, the notes you improvise with shouldn’t be random or selected from a scale by chance. The notes you play in your solos should be the ones you are hearing and feeling, they should be played with purpose.
There are 3 sequential steps that will lead you playing the musical ideas in your mind: Hear it – Sing it – Play it.
A great exercise to develop this skill is to start with a drone tone or sustained pitch and practice hearing specific chord tones, singing them, and eventually playing them.
Give it a try it with this sustained concert F:
Imagine this drone is an F Major chord. As you listen to the pitch, try hear different chord tones over this sustained root note. Then try the following exercises:
- Start with the basics – hear and sing the root, the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th
- Upper structures – try the 9th, #11th, and 13th.
- Different chord qualities – imagine the root as a minor chord, a dominant chord, or sus chord and hear/sing/play the corresponding chord tones
- Intervals – start with 2 note intervals that you are hearing over the root, then try 3 notes or arpeggios
- Simple melodies – try hearing and singing a simple melodic line or a phrase that you’ve transcribed, then play it on your instrument
Continue until you are effortlessly hearing, singing, and playing ideas without having to think about the chord name or theory first.
Finally, you need to expand your harmonic options on any chord beyond the strict confines of a twelve note scale.
Remember, a chord is not just a scale or an arpeggio, it’s a sound with an entire palette of musical colors!
After you’ve ingrained diatonic harmony, it’s time to explore dissonance. There are a wide range of harmonic colors on every chord in varying degrees of dissonance.
Beyond diatonic options, what other sounds can you hear or access? Experiment with non-diatonic notes and playing outside of the written harmony.
Finally, practice implying harmonic movement (like V7 to I) over a single chord. This is a great way to create harmonic motion and resolution in your lines over a static sound.
III) Incorporating Language
The second part of transitioning away from a monotonous theory approach to chords and progressions is by focusing on language…
When you are improvising you should be striving to make musical statements and convey ideas rather than piecing together scales.
Instead of starting a solo with a blank slate or an individual scale, the goal is to approach your solos from the vantage point of a musical phrase with clearly defined time that’s connected to the underlying harmony.
Just like rhythm and harmony, learning/mastering and varying language can transform your approach to soloing and add endless creative possibilities.
Great improvisers have a ton of musical language that they’ve learned and can draw from & vary in their solos. And the same should be true of you…
If you’re playing the same licks and lines in every solo it’s time to discover some new material and ideas from the best players and get out of your routine.
For the Practice Room:
The first question you have to ask yourself is very straightforward: Do you have any language?
Are your musical ideas derived from theory or based on musical phrases that you can hear? Remember, the jazz language is built on a common vocabulary, one that you need to be able to speak and eventually become fluent in.
The fastest and most effective way to do this is finding and transcribing language from your musical heroes.
You might think that “copying” the solos of your favorite players can make you unoriginal, but the counter intuitive thing about transcribing is that it will actually open up unlimited musical possibilities in your playing…
You’ll discover concepts and techniques that you would never think of on your own and you’ll learn stylistic elements and sounds that you can’t learn in a book.
The best part is, you can choose the language you learn from and absorb and interpret these ideas in your own way.
Once you’ve transcribed some language and can play it in every key, the next step is implementing this language into your musical phrases.
With this approach you are improvising with a musical idea rather than trying to create a phrase from scratch with chords and scales.
Start with one line and learn it in all keys. To successfully use it in a musical way in multiple scenarios you must isolate and identify the specific musical concepts at work in the line.
We explain this process in more detail in this lesson, taking this Freddie Hubbard line:
…identifying the musical concepts at work, and showing you how to vary it and apply it to different harmonic situations.
This is an effective way to begin applying the language you’ve transcribed to your own solos in a musical way.
Finally, the last step is making this piece of language your own…
A few technique you might try are:
- Vary the rhytm
- Invert the intervals
- Change the harmonic application
- Alter specific notes to add dissonance
- Combine it with other pieces of language
Starting with a piece of language from your favorite player, how can you use these concepts to alter or tweak the line to create your own musical phrases?
If you want to get to the next level with language and unlock your inner improviser be sure to check out our Jazz Language Course – Melodic Power
The more language you transcribe, the more musical options you’ll create, a quasi-language library that you can draw ideas from at any time, adapting them to the musical situation at hand.
III) Adopt a creative mindset
Sometimes the trap of playing the same ideas in a solo isn’t about your technique or your knowledge…it’s about your mindset as you begin to improvise!
Things like an unconscious routine, a mindless approach, or a reliance on scales and licks can put you in a rut before you even play your first note.
The final key to breaking free of your repetitive musical habits is becoming aware of these mindsets and striving to change them in a few simple ways.
For the Practice Room:
What are you thinking about as you begin to improvise?
Are you immediately focusing on scales and chords? Are you heading down the path of your old licks? Are you listening and zoned into the sound, or are you frantically thinking of what you are going to play?
Simply take a moment to note where your mind is as you improvise in different musical situations – in the practice room, playing with friends, and in performance.
Are you more creative in certain situations than others? Do you notice a pattern that you’re falling into each time you improvise?
After taking note of your headspace as you prepare to improvise, the next step is consciously taking control of your solo, leading it where you want it to go.
Clear your mind. Focus on one idea or a feeling that you want to convey in your playing. Maybe it’s a particular rhythm, a chord tone you’re hearing, an interval, a tonal color, dissonance…
Remember that you don’t have to confine yourself to a particular scale, a sequence of chords, or a popular approach to a tune.
A major chord doesn’t mean that you have to play “major,” a fast tune doesn’t mean that you have to play fast notes, a ii-V-I doesn’t mean that you have to play ii-V lines…
What are you actually hearing and what do you want to play?
The great thing about improvising is that a solo can go in any direction you want it to…soft, loud, long notes or short ones, dissonance, excitement, space, fast, slow, reflective, playful, etc.
It all depends on what you are hearing in that moment and what you want to say in your music.
See how a different mindset or mental approach to a progression/tune/solo can change what you play or the sound you’re going for. Here are just a few approaches you can take:
- Play long notes over the chord progression
- Start with a specific rhythm
- Emulate the sound of your favorite player
- Play the second idea you think of
- Emphasize dissonant notes
- Don’t play any licks or patterns you’ve practiced
- Start all your phrases on the ‘and’ of beat 2
Get accustomed to the idea that you have the freedom to decide where you want to take your solo. You’re still using your ears and playing over the progression or tune, just exploring the creative options available to you when you give up routine.
Creativity takes time!
Becoming more creative and truly improvising in your solos is something that won’t happen overnight…
It takes time, dedicated work in the practice room, and a consistent approach each time you solo.
Strive to gain a deeper understanding of the fundamentals and become aware of what you’re actually improvising. Play with intent rather than falling back into habit, and strive to continually add variation into your playing.
By focusing on the 3 steps we outlined above you’ll see noticeable progress and an immediate shift in your musical approach. Remember, you have more creative potential inside than you think!