Beginner Jazz Improvisation
The idea of improvising in a jazz context can initially seem quite daunting to many beginner jazz guitarists, especially after they have heard a player such as Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. While both of these players are great improvisers, it is not impossible for the average musician to learn to begin to improvise in that style.
This lesson aims to aid the studying jazz guitarist in their journey by demonstrating how scales can be used to improvise in a jazz style.
Each of these beginner jazz improvisation exercises must be practiced with either a slow major ii V I backing track to begin with and or with using a metronome.
All the examples are in the key of G major, but they should ultimately be practiced in all 12 keys and in different positions across the guitar fingerboard.
There are many ways to improvise over the major ii-V-I, but this lesson is specifically aimed at the beginning jazz improviser.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Major ii V I Scales
The diagram below indicates three two octave scales which will be used to improvise over the major ii-V-I chord progression. Practice these scales ascending and descending slowly in eighth notes, with a light right hand touch and firm left hand control.
This beginner jazz improvisation exercise should be done until the point where you can smoothly switch between each scale without making a mistake ten times in a row. This will ensure that the correct amount of technical fluency is needed to move to the next step.
The harmonic formula is shown below and will need to be thoroughly learnt to complete the exercises in this lesson.
A Dorian: R, 2nd, b3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th,
D Mixolydian: R, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, b7th,
G Major Scale: R, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th,
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Rhythm 1
Now that each scale can be played through smoothly, it istime to look at how to use them in a stylistic and coherent way. In any kind of music, the most important element is rhythm, not harmony.
Therefore, common jazz rhythms will need to be ingrained to the harmony before the improvisation “sounds like jazz”. The first example shows a common jazz rhythmic syncopation pattern in which the scale starts on the and of four, instead of beat one.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Rhythm 2
The second jazz rhythm pattern is demonstrated in the lower of the two octave A Dorian scales shown at the beginning of the lesson. Note that it starts on the 6th of the chord as opposed to the root, like in the first example.
This example is certainly more challenging than the first, but this is a classic piece of jazz language which needs to be ingrained. This will ensure that the entire range of the guitar is used and will also develop finger strength by playing on the lower strings.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Rhythm 3
The final jazz rhythm is a shorter melodic idea that starts on the 5th of the chord. Note that the first two notes should be played staccato.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Combining Rhythms
To conclude the study of using jazz rhythms on a static chord vamp, here is a short example which combines all three lines together. Play along with the demo track.
Practice playing the same rhythms, starting on the same scale degrees for the remaining two scales; D Mixolydian and G Major before moving on to the next step.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – 1 Rhythm Over Each Chord
Once the rhythms can be statically played over each chord, they need to be played over the ii-V-I chord progression. The example below demonstrates how rhythm 1 can be played over each chord. Do this with the remaining two rhythms.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Lines
The final step of this lesson teaches how to combine the different rhythms and scales together to form jazz lines. The first example switches between all 3 rhythms in a numerical order. Straight out of the box, this produces a melodic and coherent jazz line.
The second line starts with the second rhythm, then goes to rhythm 1 and goes back to the rhythm 2 again. There are no set rules when combining these rhythms. Try to combine them in a way in which you can connect each scale without making any big intervallic jumps.
The rhythmic and harmonic examples in this lesson are for study purposes, but once they can be played and understood, students should experiment with the harmony and rhythm to create their own ideas.
For example, each of the exercises starts on a specific scale degree. Try to play the same rhythms starting on different scale degrees. This would be harmonic variation.
An example of rhythmic variation could be starting rhythm #1 on one and for example. The broader and more long term concept of this lesson is that is teaches how to hear different harmonic and rhythmic possibilities so that these devices are available to you when improvising.
Beginner Jazz Improvisation – Tips
- Listen to and transcribe from classic jazz recordings to gain inspiration for original ideas
- Focusing on strong chord tones such as arpeggios
- No player improvises 100% of the time and often relies on a set of lines to draw upon.