An Overlooked Skill That Will Give Your Jazz Solos A Massive Boost

It is funny how sometimes a single solo that you hear can really change the way you think about music and what you are trying to learn.

In this case, it was a pretty obscure video and a single solo, that I kept coming back to and that has influenced what I practiced for years, and I never even transcribed it, I just realized that I needed to figure out how to get that one thing a lot stronger in my playing.

The solo I am talking about is this incredibly low-resolution Jon Damian solo, where he is playing Sweet Georgia Brown in a duo with Jake Langley, both, of course, amazing guitarists.

A part of what made it stand out is probably the contrast between Jon and Jake’s solos, where Jake is playing a lot more traditional Bop-oriented 8th-note lines and Jon is relying almost purely on sparse melodies and A LOT of creative and swinging rhythms.

When I first listened to this then I did not immediately get what it was that I liked so much about the solo, but that is why I kept coming back to it and I tried to figure out why I thought it was great. Gradually I started to realize that it was about playing more interesting rhythms and not focus as much on 8th note lines which is what I had done until then. I needed to learn to hear phrases with that type of rhythm.

What Is The Difference?

Let’s first look at what I am talking about. A great but dense 8th note Bebop line could be something like this:

But Jazz is also about syncopation and rhythm and what you also want to be able to do is improvise lines like this:

And here you have fewer notes, but there is a lot of energy and tension in the rhythm that really comes to life, Who said early Jim Hall?

Get More Creative With Rhythm

So How Do You Practice This? Ironically the best way to get more options is to limit yourself and use that to develop your skills.

Let’s start with a simple rhythm, something you compose or take something from a solo that you like. Actually, there are some great themes and solos to check out for inspiration, but I will come back to that later.

In this rhythm, I am just using a few notes to keep it flexible. Here, I am using 2, but 3 would work as well. Just make sure that you don’t make a long complicated phrase like this:

And that is because you want something you can work with, and make variations of and eventually even take through an entire song.

Displaced Rhythms

Displacing rhythms is actually a very important part of jazz phrasing and jazz melodies if you listen to songs like Bernie’s Tune or Broadway.

You can practice is to take the basic phrase and then move it around, that can be in like this where I am shifting the phrase around one 8th note at the time:

Example 5

Of course, this is a pretty intense exercise and you can also just work with this as a way of composing lines and in that way expand the rhythms you use. This could give you a II V I line like this:

Another thing that can be fun is working with this on a one-chord backing track is a great way to learn to hear more rhythms and in that way expand what you can do, and gradually start to move it over to more complicated progressions.

Developing Rhythm and Melody

There is another way that you can develop more rhythmical playing, which will also lead me to give advice that I usually never give..

What you can do is explore simple ways to make variations of the rhythm.

Since there is a fair amount of space in the main rhythm that you are using then you can easily explore how to make variations by adding more notes here and there.

When you have very active rhythms like this then it is often easier to use very basic melodies. Usually, I suggest working with arpeggios, but you should probably start by using scale melodies here because that is less likely to sound like abstract skipping around.

You can of course also explore removing notes or shortening the phrase instead of adding to it and in that way take it further

Who To Check Out?

Anything you want to learn, you also want to learn at least partially by ear. You need to know what it sounds like.

I have already mentioned that you should check out themes similar to Bernie’s Tune or Broadway. Actually working on Bebop themes in general, is very useful, because even if Charlie Parker often plays more dense lines then these rhythms are certainly there and most of his compositions are not great examples to learn from. This is also one of the main reasons why Donna Lee may not be written by Parker since it is a lot more dense and on the bear than the rest of his compositions.


As you can probably tell by now, I am using the same tools for the rhythm that I use when I am working on melodic skills in solos. Another great way to work with melodies is to use Call-response.

The concept here is that you listen to what you play and then come up with a response to that.

In this case, the main statement is relying mostly on off beats, which creates tension, and then a logical response will be more resolved and have more downbeat. That is also what you can see in both of the examples of responses.

Of course, these are just examples of what I hear as a response, and you might hear something completely different, which is actually great.

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