Autumn Leaves – Soloing with arpeggios

Autumn Leaves is a great chord progression to start improvising following the harmony. It’s a well known tune and it still covers a lot of important cadences in a key. In this lesson I will go over a set of Jazz Guiat arpeggios in one position, some exercises, target notes and strategies for making solos where you can hear the harmony in the improvisation.

About Autumn Leaves

In this lesson I have chosen to work on Autumn Leaves in the key of G minor. You will find a few versions in the key of E minor since it is printed in that key in the old Realbook, but the most common key is G minor.

The two main cadences in the song are II V I cadences, one to the major tonic (Bb) and one to the minor tonic (Gm). In this way you cover two of the most important harmonic movements in this key.

Learning the song

Besides knowing the arpeggios and the chords by heart you need to know the melody of the song you want to improvise on. In the end the melody is more important because the harmony may vary from version to version but the melody will stay the same. In this lesson (and for copyright reasons) I can’t go over the melody, but if you want some hints on how to do this you could check out this Q&A video where I talk about that: Q&A #3

The form of Autumn leaves is a bit uncommon for jazz since it is AAB where the B is 16 bars and the 8 bars. A good place to start is to just play the chords of the song. In example 1 I have written out chord voicings for the song. In the example I am using the material that I went over in the How to Play Jazz Chords lesson.


Since a lot of the examples I am using are over the whole form I am playing them a bit fast in the video. You can always go back and check or even play them at a slower speed if you have a place that is hard to follow. I ended up doing it like this because the video otherwise would be much too long.

The Arppegios

I have written out the arpeggios in the 6th position of the neck. If you think in Bb major this is a very common Bb major scale position so you probably know it already.

Example 2 has the arppegios of the different chords written out. If you count the chords you’ll see that we have 10 different chords. Since the goal of this lesson is to improvise fluently with well connected melodies using the arpeggios, I have written out all the arpeggios around the 6th position. Shifting up and down the neck is going to make it much more difficult to play logical melodies and almost impossible to do some of the exercises.


Practising the arpeggios

First you should probably try to become familiar with the arpeggios in example 2 and then as fast as possible try to start using them on the song. Students often forget how important it is to practice using what you’ve learnt.

Besides just practising each arpeggio it is a very good idea to work on playing the arpeggios in different patterns. Playing them in groups of 3 or 4 notes, skipping notes etc are good ways to get more flexible with the arpeggio. You need the flexibility when you start improvising, and keep in mind that it is about flexibility and overview not about speed when working on this, so there’s no real need to play it fast.

The first exercise is to just play through the song with the arpeggios from example 2 in a one octave version. This will not only help practising the arpeggios but also build your sense of the form of the song and help you hear the chords moving and when they change. I tried to take the highest octave available of each arpeggios because that is probably the register you’ll need the most when you solo so you might as well start by working on a good overview of that.


Connecting the arpeggios

The next exercise is a very good way to gain a strong overview of the arpeggios and chords. It is also helping you to develop your ability to think ahead. The idea is to start playing the arpeggios over the progression and then when ever the chord changes to continue the movement with the note that is the closest in the next arpeggio. It’s quite tricky to get started with but very rewarding when you start getting the freedom while improvising.

When you start this then you probably don’t need to work on the whole form in the beginning. In example 4 I have written out the example I play in the video in rubato. In the video you can hear me pointing out whenever I change.


In the video I also demonstrate this on the first 8 bars and start in a different octave. As I talk about in the video it is about the proces not about the notes in this case so you should vary where you start in the arppegio to keep challenging yourself and your knowledge of the arpeggios in this position.


Putting it all together in improvising

As I demonstrate in the video the thinking behind making harmony clear in a solo line is to target certain notes of the strong beats (in this case the 1). The idea is that a strong and logical sounding line will be a line that has the direction towards a clear target note. I also discuss this way of making melodies in another lesson that you can check: Target Notes You will notice in the solo I improvise in the video that I am not too concerned with target notes unless the chord is changing.

The first target notes I’d suggest you use is in the song is the 3rd of each chord. There are two advantages to this. It very clearly targets the color of the chord and it also connects what you play with the melody since a lot of the sustained notes in the melody are in fact the 3rd of the chord.

In example 6 I have written out the 3rds of each chord played over the root of the chord.


Making lines with the arpeggios

Now that we have arpeggios and target notes for each of the chords we can start to work on coming up with lines over the song.

The way you start working on this is probably to practice rubato to make a line from one chord to the next. In example 7 I have shown a simple Cm7 melody that leads from Cm7 to F7.


In the video I also take the next step from working in rubato and demonstrate 8 bars in time as written out in example 8.


I hope you can use the arpeggios and techniques I went over here to get started playing strong clear lines over Autumn Leaves.

If you want to learn to play a Chord Melody of Autumn Leaves then have a look at this lesson

Autumn Leaves In-depth Solo lesson

If you want to take this a step further then you can check out the WebStore lesson with a 50 minute video lesson I made on a 4 chorus solo. It goes over some basic ideas as shown hear and continues to more complicated concepts like reharmonization and different scale choices.

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