When I started listening to Jazz and trying to play it then a huge part of what I found exciting about it was that the lines were mysterious and complicated, and at the same time made sense and did not seem completely random.
This was what made me try to pick up phrases from Charlie Parker and John Scofield. I wanted to figure out how the music worked and how I could learn to play like that.
That turned out to be pretty difficult, but there are some basic things that you want to understand about Jazz licks or Jazz solos that will help you learn to play a lot faster. Things that I spent years figuring out, but that are an important part of what makes your solos sound like Jazz, and knowing that is going to speed up your learning process A LOT.
Dig Into The Chords
One of the things that make Jazz music challenging to play in the beginning is that the chords change quite fast. It doesn’t help that the harmony is fairly complicated, but this is also a description of how, especially Bebop-inspired Jazz, works: The lines you play in a solo will connect with the changes and often are so clear that you can pretty much tell what the chords are from just listening to the solo line.
This next example has a lot of chord tones in the melody, especially on beat 1 of the bar, so that when the new chord starts then there is a clear connection between the new chord and the note in the solo.
As you can hear, using chord tones and really hitting the clear chord tones when the chord changes give your solo that sound, that connection to the progression. (highlights)
The Most Important Chord Progression in Jazz
Here, the chord progression is a basic II V I in the key of C major (example chords) and this progression is, as you probably already know, one of the most common progressions in Jazz, and you will find that all over a lot of Jazz songs.
When you start improvising over the chords then you want to know the chord tones each chord, what you also call the arpeggio of the chord. One way you can practice this could be a simple exercise like this:
It is useful to also keep things in one position so that you can easily make a melody that moves smoothly from chord to chord without having to jump all over the neck, you can start doing that later(zoom?)
With this material, you can start making licks that really nail the changes, let’s check out how to make the licks stronger melodies.
The Solo Needs Energy And Direction
It still has to make sense as a melody, and especially the transition from one chord to the next is important. This is often described as Forward motion, and when you play a solo then you play lines that aim for the target note on the next chord. Something like this:
With this lick, you can see how the descending melody on the Dm7 is going in an almost straight line to the B on G7. It is a bit more complicated on the G7 where you almost have two voices moving to the E on Cmaj7(highlight)
It is a good idea to practice composing lines and then work on choosing a specific target note on the next chord that you want to hit, doing a lot of that will help you start to hear melodies like that and that will become a natural part of your playing.
In these examples, I was mostly going for the 3rd of the chord. That is simply because that is one of the strongest and clearest notes. So in the beginning, this makes it easier for you to hear the chord change in your own solo line.
With all of this in mind then you can now start to learn some more building blocks for your Jazz solos.
Shortcut To Better Melodies
I already showed you how it pays off to use the chord tones in the melodies, but you can actually take that a bit further because the arpeggio is a great melody or building block that you can use in your lines in a few different ways, and there is more than one arpeggio per chord!
Here you have the Dm7 arpeggio on Dm7, but there are some other options for arpeggios on a chord. The arpeggio on the G7 chord is a Bø which is the arpeggio from the 3rd of the chord, and it is played as a triplet which is a nice way to change up the rhythm as well.
Just to quickly explain “The Science” behind the arpeggio from the 3rd:
If you look at a G7 arpeggio and a Bø together then you can see that they mostly contain the same notes and the difference is that you add a 9th to the sound when using the Bø instead of G7.
The same technique is used on the Cmaj7 where the arpeggio from the 3rd is Em7.
Until now everything was about the right notes, but let’s start to make it a bit more spicy with some wrong notes
Try Some Funny Notes
One of the things that often springs out when you both listen to a line or just look at a transcription is that there are a lot of chromatic notes in there.
Chromatic phrases are used in different ways and there are a few different types in this example:
Let’s first check out the complicated phrases and then get to the easy chromatic phrases.
The first chromatic phrase on the Dm7 arpeggio is actually used as a way to create some tension that helps you move to the G7. A phrase like this is called an enclosure, which is really just a short melody that moves to a target note. In this case, the B on the G7, and in that way, it is helping them transition from Dm7 to G7.
A shorter enclosure is used on the G7 in the exact same way to take us from G7 to Cmaj7. This type of enclosure is sometimes referred to as a diatonic above chromatic below enclosure, something that you can use in many ways in your playing and that you want to explore on different chords.
The final use of chromaticism is on the Cmaj7 chord where the F# is used as a chromatic passing note. Because you don’t need complete phrases, you can also experiment with adding chromatic notes here and there that resolve to a note in the scale, or what is often stronger: a note in the chord. In this case, the F# is resolving to the 5th of Cmaj7, G.
But you can improvise with more than notes, you can also start to change the sound of the chords, and that is an amazing effect to work with!
You Can Change The Chords To Create New Sounds
Besides improvising licks on the chord progression then you can also start improvising with the chords in the progression. If your progression is going from Dm7 to Cmaj7 then you have a lot of freedom with what chords you are using to get there.
A simple version of this, and probably the first one you want to explore is to use a b9 on the dominant, so making it a G7(b9).
Doing this will help you get a bit more dissonance and more flow towards the Cmaj7.
So what I am using here is first the arpeggio from the 3rd on Dm7, and a Dm triad.
On the G7(b9) I am using a B diminished arpeggio, and you can see how that is the arpeggio from the 3rd of the chord: G7 B D F Ab.
This is a concept you can take a lot further with altered dominants, harmonic minor, and a lot more, but just getting started using the b9 and the diminished arpeggios is a great way to ease into it.
Important Skills To Develop For Jazz
What also really makes a huge difference for how well your jazz solos sound will be phrasing and rhythm, that are really the two next ingredients or skills that you want to develop, and one of the ways that you can really get that into your ears and into your playing is to start learning some solos by ear. That might sound incredibly difficult, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Just check out this video where I recommend some solos that are very useful and both easy and short to get you started learning Jazz by ear.
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