Improvisation Graphic

A beginner's guide to musical improvisation

by Hector Leitch, 2013

Here's an easy guide to get you started with improvising in jazz and funk music with a single line instrument such as a sax or trumpet. (The skills for instruments like piano and guitar are different because they can play more than one note at a time.) It takes you from complete beginner to someone who can improvise something that sounds like music.

In this guide we will be playing along with the same simple backing track. It's a 12 bar blues:

Step 1: Choose from the right set of notes

Some notes, when played at the same time, don't sound good. When improvising a solo, stick to notes that go with the ones in the backing track and either avoid others, or just play them very quickly as ‘passing notes’ on your way to a pitch that sounds right. Most of the time that's easy to do because you will be given some notes to choose from, or the name of a scale whose notes you can safely play, or you will be given a chord whose notes can safely be played.

Most improvised solos use the blues scale as a set of notes. The blues scale used for this piece is the blues scale on D (D, F, G, G#, A, C, D). If your instrument is transposed, you will play using notes from a different scale.

The first demo goes round the 12 bar blues sequence twice, the first time using notes outside the correct scale and the second time (starting at 30 seconds) using just notes in the correct blues scale.

Admittedly, it still doesn't sound much like music. However, it is a step in the right direction.

Try it yourself using the backing track above, a few times. You need to stick to notes in the right blues scale for your instrument.

Step 2: Add a sense of rhythm

The demonstration above still didn't sound much like music, even though it was using just the notes that sound good with the backing track. What it lacked was a sense of rhythm. The rhythm section of the band is grooving along nicely, but the soloist is just playing long, sustained notes.

The next basic idea of a solo is rhythm. This should always be based on the style of the music and is key to sounding good. To demonstrate this the next demo shows the sequence of long (and boring) notes in the first 12 bars and in the second has a rhythm that is based on the semiquaver feel, meaning the notes can be nice and short and feel very offbeat (notes can be hit on any of the four semiquavers in a single beat). There are also rests, so you don't have to be playing notes all the time. As an extra challenge to demonstrate the effectiveness, just the notes C and D are used in the second sequence.

Here's the difference it makes. Again, listen for the difference between the first and second 12 bars. This time it's a radical improvement.

Try it yourself several times with the backing track above.

Step 3: Add some patterns

To make your notes sound more like music you need to use patterns. There are lots of patterns that make notes sound like music. Here are just a few really important ideas to get you started.

Contrasting climax

In the previous demo the 10th bar is the climax of the 12 bar blues, using a chord that is higher than all the others. A nice pattern that goes with this is to do something different in that 10th bar. In the demonstration I shifted from lots of short notes to a few longer notes, then went back to short notes for the rest. It makes the climax feel special to do something different. If I had been using lots of long notes I could have made the climax special using short notes. The point is to do something different.

Move with the chord

Although you need to select notes from the correct scale, the easiest refinement of this is to stick to a small group of notes and gradually move up and down in pitch along with the backing. The 12 bar blues sequence has 2 important points where it changes to the 4th chord (at bar 5) and the 5th chord (at bar 9). This is where it is a good idea to move to upper registers of notes. The combined move of solo notes and chord will give the solo great structure and style. In the demo the first sequence shows the funky rhythm again and then the next sequence starts to move up and down according to the chord pattern and the changes to bars 5 and 9.

Sound effects

The basics have been covered for a good solo. The faster you can play the scale and your instrument in general, the more elaborate and impressive you can sound. However, I have chosen to play an organ sound on my keyboard (which I don't play very well) to demonstrate that this is not necessary.

As well as playing faster and higher, you can add any effects or turns that you can get out of your instrument. The next demo uses pitch bends, which are all that the keyboard can do. However wind instruments and guitars have a whole range of techniques and sounds you can throw in, especially in bars 5 and 9 of the 12. Extra tones and extreme speed are not required for a great solo. Just a few notes played in the right style will sound good no matter how basic. The pitch bends come into play in the second 12 bars.

Putting it all together

Here's a different piece I made with help from Ben Tompsett ( that shows many of these techniques in action. My saxophone solo starts at 1 minutes 23 seconds.