How to Get Started Learning Jazz Improvisation

If you’re just starting out in jazz improvisation, you may face the same dilemma that many beginning students of jazz have faced… and that is, “Just how can I go about getting started?”

This is a typical question, and one that I don’t think can be settled with any one, definitive answer. There are numerous ways to approach learning jazz improvisation. But for the beginner, I recommend keeping it as simple as possible when starting out.

But before we proceed further, I want to remove what has been a roadblock for a lot of beginning music students whose interest has gravitated toward jazz… that being the belief that “I just don’t think I have the innate talent to do this!”

The truth is that ANYONE can learn to improvise. There’s nothing “magical” about it. It’s not something that only a select few are capable of. It’s not just for those who’ve been given some special “gift” that the rest of us lack.

ALL western (that is, non-Asian) music… whether it’s Beethoven, Miles Davis, Brahms, Charlie Parker, Wagner, Louis Armstrong… rock, pop, country-western, bluegrass, or jazz… is built using the same elements: chords, arpeggios, scales, and rhythms.

Master those elements, and you’re well on your way to being able to improvise, which is in essence, a matter of “composing on-the-spot.”

So in this post I’m going to suggest two things to get you started as a beginner. Let’s begin with what might seem very simplistic, but yet is a very important step that must not be skipped

Listen to the Great Jazz Musicians

If you want to learn to improvise, an important first step is to “study” the work of those who have mastered the art. And you “study” their work by listening to their playing.

Thelonious Monk
William P. Gottlieb [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
And by “listen to” I mean to REALLY listen attentively! I can’t emphasize this too strongly. Don’t just put on a recording, and then focus your attention elsewhere.

Focus your FULL attention on the lines they’re playing. See if you can memorize those lines, and sing them back. That way you’re internalizing what you’ve heard.

And even though you can’t yet pick up your instrument and play those lines, you’ll nevertheless get a feel for their styles, and begin memorizing some of those jazz lines & licks that you may later want to incorporate into your own solo improvisations.

On a side note here: there’s nothing wrong with “stealing” the licks you’ve heard other musicians play. I don’t mean to copy everything they do exactly (that’s not what jazz is about), but rather to take bits and pieces of what you most like, and incorporate those into your own playing.

Let’s face it – none of us are likely to become anything more than a second-rate John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, J. J. Johnson, or whoever. But you can take what you most admire from any (or all) of the jazz greats, and incorporate that into your own playing style, to become a first rate YOU!

I believe that should be the goal of all of us!

Pick a Simple Tune

Next, let’s pick a very simple tune, preferably one that you like. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a recognized “jazz tune.” It can be anything, so long as it’s not very complex.

But for now let’s pick one in a major key. We’ll get into minor keys in a subsequent post.

Some examples might be “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” “Happy Birthday” “Red River Valley” “Auld Lang Syne” etc. It can even be one of the hymns you learned in church. “Amazing Grace” for example, is one of my favorite pieces of all time.

I’m sure you can think of numerous others. And when you do, would you please list them in the comment box below this post, for the benefit of our other readers.

But for now, the example we’re going to use is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.”

Pick Your Easiest Key

Next, pick an easy key, the key in which you’re most comfortable. When I first started playing the trombone in 5th grade, the first scale I learned was the Bb Major scale.

So your “easiest key” is likely to be the one based on the first scale your ever learned. This will probably be the following:

Concert “C” instruments – flute, piano, bass, xylophone etc. – C Major or Bb Major
Concert “C” brass instruments reading bass clef – trombone, tuba – Bb Major
Bb instruments – trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor sax, soprano sax, clarinet – C Major
Eb instruments – alto sax, bari sax – G Major

But I’ve only presented this list as an example. If your “easiest key” isn’t the one I’ve listed above, then just choose the one that is

Review the Related Major Scale

Whichever key you’ve chosen, make sure you’re very familiar with the related tonic scale. You probably are already, but it never hurts to review it.

You must be able to play this scale (and eventually all scales) from “muscle memory.” That is, without having to involve any conscious thought whatsoever.

This happens when your many hours of practice have brought you to the point that all you have to do is think “play an XYZ scale” and your fingers (or arm, if you’re a trombonist) know exactly what to do without you having to even think about it

Play Your Chosen Tune in Your Chosen Key

So now you’ve chosen an easy tune and your easiest key. Now take out a piece of manuscript paper and write it down in that key.

Below is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” in the key of C Major.

When the Saints Go Marchin' In

Now play through your tune a few times. Pay close attention to how each note fits into the related major scale. Try to “hear” the scale as you play each note.

For instance, in our example the first four notes are the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th notes of the C Major scale (C, E, F, and G). The entire piece in fact uses only the first 5 notes of the C Major scale.

Elaborate on the Melody Using Different Rhythms

Next, play through your piece again, but this time vary the rhythms. For instance, in our example you might play something like this:

Vary the Rhythms

Repeat this several times, playing different rhythms each time. No need to write these down, just play them

Elaborate on the Melody by Adding Some Notes

Next, play the tune through several more times, adding some notes. Be mindful of which notes of the scale you are adding. You can also add some chromatic notes as well.

Use “passing tones” (notes that pass between 2 melody notes) and also include some “neighboring tones” (chromatic and/or diatonic notes adjacent to notes in the melody).

Here’s an example:Add Passing Tones and Neighboring Tones

You get the idea. Repeat this exercise a number of time, playing something different each time, always trying to “hear” the Major scale and where each note fits into that scale (or relates to notes of the scale, in the case of chromatic tones)

Take it a Few Steps Further

Now let’s take it a step further.

Play through your tune again, but this time, rather than just playing passing tones and neighboring tones, add in some notes that depart from the melody altogether (but still remain within the key).

You can still use chromatic passing and neighboring tones, but make sure the notes played on the beat are within the key.

Here’s an examples

Deviate From the Melody

You can also alter the melody by leaving notes out, as in this example

Leave Out Some Notes

Keep playing through your piece, trying different things. Each time try to depart further and further from the original melody, while still keeping within the key. And always be mindful of which notes of the scale you are using, and how your improvisation fits into the scale.

Take a moment now to listen to this Youtube video of Louie Armstrong playing “Saints.”

You’ll notice that in the first chorus he pretty much sticks to the melody, except in the last couple of bars or so where he adds in some “blue notes.” (I’m not going to talk about blue notes just yet. The topic of blue notes and the blues scale deserves a post of its own).

Now notice in the second chorus how Louie mostly departs from the melody entirely. This is a good example of what we’ve been doing here.

In subsequent posts we’ll talk about chord structure. That is, the harmonies that underlie every tune. Eventually, you’ll rely not only on the scale of the key that you’re in, but on the underlying chords as well, in forming your melodic lines.

Congratulations – You’ve Been Improvising!

The above exercise is just a starting point. You’ll learn many more techniques and become more comfortable with improvisation as you go along.

Jens Kluver
Hreinn Gudlaugsson [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
For now, keep finding different ways to “elaborate” on the tune you’ve chosen. To that end, I recommend that you next visit this post about easy jazz chord progressions.

Then do the same with some different tunes. For now, keep it simple – simple melodies and easy chord progressions, in “easy” keys.

 

As you become more adept, you’ll want to branch out into some other keys, and eventually get to the point that you can improvise in EVERY key, major and minor.

Please leave your comments below. Let us know how you fared during this first attempt at improvisation.

And if you take only one thing away from this, it should be the knowledge that learning jazz improvisation is something that’s entirely within your grasp. And know that over time, your jazz solos will get better and better!

Happy practicing!

Author: Jim Eastman

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Comments 10

  • Hello Jim, I’m a big fan of Jazz music’s and I love the way the beat picks a unique rhythm. Though I do not play the instruments but my cousin does and I am not sure he is well acquainted with deep knowledge as these concerning improvisation in jazz. He should be able to resonate well with the information made available on this platform concerning improvisation in jazz. I will definitelyshare this to him so he can hone his jazz skills

    • Thanks. I hope he will find the information useful. And please remind him that anyone and everyone is welcome to contribute to this discussion. Always happy to hear the opinions of other musicians.

  • Wow, this is really cool in my opinion. I’m not so much into music but my sister is looking to learn about jazz music for a while now but she has been finishing it hard. I didn’t even think that there was anything like jazz improvisation. This shouldn’t be something hard seeing that is more lighter steps to knowing the music genre. I believe that getting the right tune is very important. My sister will most definitely see this post. Awesome!

  • Thanks. Great article. I like listening to Jazz and some of the songs people have turned into jazz include video game music like the theme song from the Pokemon games or the Mario games. I think it’s fun to listen to. Recently I have done physical therapy on my shoulders and I might be able to pick up the guitar again. You are right when I first started learning music the big question was like just how do I get started. Where do I start.

    So yeah I think your article is very helpful Enjoy your music and don’t worry too much about comparing yourself to other musicians just have fun and be the best musician that you can today.

    • Hope you get back to playing your guitar soon. There’s a couple of jazz guitarists I jam with, and I can tell you that jazz is well suited to the guitar. 

  • Become a first rate YOU, that is indeed a beautiful goal. Do not settle for becoming a second version of someone else, however great he was, but be the best version of you. And by all means, use “licks” from other musicians, but always be you. I agree. I have heard a few songs that were re-done by other musicians than the original one, and sometimes those covers turned out even better (that doesn’t always happen, but it does sometimes, one very good example is Stairway to Heaven, cover by An Wilson). Although your post is not about covers, this one has just stuck with me 🙂 

    I love jazz music! I do not play any instruments, but I really love music. I would love to learn how to play the drums, and also the violin. Hopefull one day, I will. 

    • Thank you Christine. And by the way, if you want to learn drums, violin, or any other instrument, don’t wait for the “perfect time” …. just start! We were all beginners at one time. The important thing is to enjoy and love what you do. All the best.

  • H there,

    This is a great start for someone wanting to learn this beautiful music.

    I can’t play but enjoy the music. Recently at my daughter’s graduation, there was a live band playing Zazz. I was sitting nearby and enjoyed the mesmerizing music for ~2 h. It was so relaxing on a hot summer day. 

    Now here on this website, you will be teaching the music. I am never a music person but loves to hear. I love your introduction deliberating the problem of learning Jazz.

    I enjoyed the video. It is appropriate.

    I am sure there will be multiple creations and improvision of Zazz using your site as the learning ground and I wait to hear from the newcomers.

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