[Sheet Music]

Lesson 4: Improvisation

Different Types of Improvisation

  • Paraphrase improvisation - using and reworking the melody
  • Formulaic improvisation - playing on or around the changes
  • Motivic improvisation - using and developing one or a few motives
  • Modal improvisation - using chord-scale relationships

Different Modes of Improvisation

  • Improvisation based on the form of the tune
  • Improvisation over a vamp
  • More or less free playing - "C Open"
  • One soloist at a time, each soloing for a number of choruses
  • Using a "call and response" pattern
  • "Trading fours/ eights" - soloists take turns, soloing for four/ eight bars at a time

Formulaic Improvisation

Formulaic improvisation can be done in two radically different ways:

  • by outlining the changes
  • by playing around the changes
Check out my transcription of Sonny Rollins' Oleo solo, which is a great example of playing around the changes.

Motivic Improvisation

Check out the first chorus of Bob Russell's Bessie's Blues solo as a great example of motivic improvisation:

Check out my transcription of Sonny Rollins' St. Thomas solo. The first two choruses are a great example of motivic improvisation.

Using Scales

A scale is to be considered as a pool of notes to draw from, not as a sequence of notes. Try to use this material in different ways, you can for instance construct fourth chords starting on any note in the scale. When using a particular scale, try to think of the key ( the scale, the mode, the tonal center) instead of trying to negotiate every single chord in the tune.

Telling a Story

When playing a solo, try to tell a story:

  1. Start by drawing the listeners' attention to yourself
  2. Then tell your story - try to take the listeners and the song somewhere
  3. Start simple so you can build to a climax ( which should be about 3/4 of the way through)
  4. A really good solo ends like a good joke: with a punch line
  5. Stop in time leaving the listeners wanting more!

How to Get Started

Take a tune. Write a solo ( if you can't do that, how do you think you're going to be able to improvise, which is instant composition?). Now you have the time to make it good. Learn to play the solo by heart. Try to make it sound like you're making it up while you're playing it.

Written Example Solos

Check out lesson 20 for two written example solos and short analyses of them. There you can see how some of these concepts can be put to use in a solo.

Playing What You Hear

Try to rely on instinct more than on licks and patterns. Try to hear melodies and then play them - this requires a lot of practice and time but it's worth it. A really strong melodic idea doesn't even have to follow the chord changes rigorously. This is one of the greatest ways to play a little "out": to follow a strong melodic idea and not think too much about the changes.

Communication/ Interaction

Music is communication and interaction, both between musicians and between musicians and the audience. Miles Davis once told about a gig where a woman in the audience was having a running conversation with his trumpet. Listen to what is happening around you and try to react to it.

Goals/ Ideals

  • The ideal is to play a solo that is better than the melody of the tune
  • Another thing to strive for is to inspire the soloist after you to take the music to even greater heights
  • A solo should add something to the tune. Soloing just for the sake of it is something we can do without!

Less Is More

Don't try to fill up every space. Once again, remember that very often LESS IS MORE!

2004 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.