Tag Archives: target notes in jazz improvisation

How To Solo Over Chords – Think Like A Pro!

The “Random Phrases” Solo

A big part of why a solo sounds great is the flow. (example 1) But it can be difficult to get that right and very often you feel like you are trying the best you can but there is no flow at all and nothing fits together

The real problem is how you think about your soloing. To fix it, you need to go pretty far back, but once you do, you will not only become much better at making solos sound more natural over the chords, but you will also start to hear the chords better and hear how your favorite Jazz artists also think and hear phrases in the same way, I’ll show you!

A Better Way Of Thinking

I certainly remember finding myself in this situation: Whenever I was practicing at home, trying to play a solo I was so busy keeping up with each chord and figuring out what to play that I could not get anything to make sense. Especially when it came to songs with many chords, which is most Jazz songs.

That was also the question I took to my teacher in Copenhagen: “I know what notes fit, the arpeggios, and the scales but I can’t get it to make sense when I am improvising”, and luckily he had a way to fix that.

Improvising over changes is a bit like walking. – You never think about what you are doing when you walk. You think about where you want to go, not about moving your legs and lifting your feet, or how difficult it is to walk on stairs. – But keep in mind that walking is complicated and we are still trying to create machines that can walk and the best ones are so impressive that they go viral and get millions of views!

That is also how you want to approach your solo: think about where you want to go and get used to playing melodies that go there in a logical way.

Making Soloing Easier

Let’s start by making it a bit more practical, if you have watched my videos before you know that I often say that “in Music context is everything” and here, that is also what I was missing just thinking of each chord.

If you are soloing over chords then you want to play something that first that chord, so you are trying to find interesting melodies with whatever licks, scales, and arpeggios you know. That part all makes sense, and in a way, it only takes one note to fix this! The problem is that you are throwing away the context. It is not just an isolated Dm7, it is a Dm7 that continues to a G7, and when you solo over it then you need to play towards that G7.

I remember being in a Kurt Rosenwinkel masterclass when I was studying, and he talked about how he wanted to play better lines on m7b5 chords so he practiced improvising over a m7(b5) chord for 10 hours only to realize at the jam session the next day that the m7(b5) chord only came by for 1.5 second.

So if you don’t think about where you are going and just try to play something then it sounds like this:

But you want it to flow and sound more like this:

All it takes is that you decide on a note on the G7 that your Dm7 line should end on. You give your Dm7 line a direction by deciding where it needs to go.

This is what is called a target note, and it is an amazing way to create naturally flowing lines, how do you think Bach’s music works. Let’s boil it down to a simple exercise to start hearing it.

Making it REALLY Simple (one note)

To get started with this you want to reduce it to something very simple. Don’t start with a whole song, or 3 or 4 chords with all the chord tones, that way you are too busy trying to choose which note to target on each chord, it’s way too much!

Instead, take one chord change, let’s do Dm7 to G7 and one specific target note in a position that you already know. Let’s say this B (DIAGRAM) I(‘ll talk about choosing target notes in a bit)

So you have this scale which is C major: Diagram, and the two chords are Dm7 (arpeggio) and G7(arpeggio) but for now you only need to think of the G7 as this note.

and then start to practice composing lines on Dm7 that end on that B. Start simple, basic arpeggio or scale:

or something like

and gradually you start to hear how that flow works and you can go a lot further:

Later in the video, Ill break down longer examples like this. Already with these examples, you can hear how this has a natural sound and how it adds that sense of flow to your solos. Hearing the chord change and feeling the time is a huge part of what you want to get into your system, and to get that right then let’s talk a bit about how to choose target notes and I’ll show you some examples of famous soloists playing towards target notes.

What Are The GOOD notes?

The examples you heard until now were made to make it really simple and easy to hear, but in the end any note you can hear as a melody on the chord could be a target note. When it comes to choosing target notes then the recipe for a clear target note could be described as:

  1. A note that was not a chord tone in the previous chord, so in this example on G7 F is not the clearest target note because it is the 3rd of Dm7
  2. A note that is a defining part of the color of the chord. This is a bit vague, but for example, targeting a b9 or a b13 on a dominant will often be very clear in the context


You can return to this later. Let’s start with the easiest, most common, and clearest target notes: the 3rd of the chord.

For the II V I that would give you this:

And you can play a line like this hitting the target note on beat one of each bar:

As you can tell then they are clear and easy to hear.

Start To Hear It!

As I already mentioned, a great exercise, which is great for many other things in your playing, is composing lines. I’ll show you some places where you can get some inspiration, but make sure to spend some time composing simple lines that move to the next chord, in the beginning, make it short 4-note melodies taking you from Dm7 to G7 or something similar that is very common.

You can quickly start to use other target notes as well but start with the 3rds. It will help you start to hear those melodies and help you think ahead towards the next chord, both are incredibly important!

But to give you an example of another target note and one that is less clear, here’s an example going to the 5th of G7 which is, of course, the root of Dm7.

And notice how you don’t have to fill up the bars completely all the time as well:

I will get to how you can open up this approach in a bit, but first a few places where you hear this in action.

Pass & Parker’s On Target Too!

The person who is most famous for teaching this is probably Hal Galper, but it is all over Bebop, and if you have the Joe Pass guitar-style book that I also made a video on. That is a great place to hear this in action.

I am going to play this in a way that makes that clear but then it is not really in time:

I think you can hear what I mean even if I am messing up the time by playing it like this! Another place to check out is this part of Charlie Parkers solo on Au Privave where you can also hear the line go from target note to target note:

Don’t Be Square!

This method gives you strong and clear lines but since you always connect with the changes on beats 1 and 3 then it might get a bit boring, but there are ways to open that up as well, and here are a few examples, to make it easy I am sticking with the 3rd as a target note:

So here I am delaying the target note on the Dm7 and the Cmaj7 with chromatic enclosures.`

and I am anticipating the G7 by playing that target note on the 4& It is not set in stone that you have to hit the target note on beat 1 or beat 3, that is just the easiest place to start.

You can start working with these strategies to open up target notes and make it rhythmically more varied and there are more options than these. Making a specific place in the bar a rhythmical target note can be a great approach, so maybe practice hitting target notes on the 4&.

But the best place to start is closer to Bebop, and learning to use chromatic phrases for this. Passing notes and enclosures now also have a much more interesting function where they surprise the listener, and the one you need to check out for this is definitely Barry Harris, I talk about that in this video and his system is so much better than Bebop scales, which I find pretty useless, check it out! I talk about it in the video.

Why Barry Harris’ Approach Is So Much Better Than Bebop Scales!

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The Truth About Avoid Notes and Target Notes

There seems to be some confusion about what avoid notes and what target notes are when it comes to improvisation even mixing them up, so I thought it would be a good idea to show you which one is incredibly useful and which one really isn’t, because in a way, they are the opposite of each other.

When I was starting to learn Jazz, I was taught both along the way, and for me, one helped me build an essential skill for Jazz while the other one was something that I knew but it never really made any sense to me.

Avoid Avoid Notes

Usually, avoid notes are defined as the notes that create tension against the underlying chord. So the most common example would be playing an F over a Cmaj7

Here the F and the E and also the F and B clashes quite a bit.

But really any note that creates tension would be an avoid note.

It is probably clear that I don’t think in avoid-notes and thinking about avoid-notes is very useful. The reasons for this are quite simple when it comes to improving your playing. There are some essential things missing:

#1 It doesn’t tell you anything about what to play.

If you take the common example F as an avoid note over a Cmaj7 chord, then the only thing that tells you is to NOT play an F, which is not really useful information when you want to solo. You are much better off thinking about what you SHOULD play. You also don’t drive a car thinking about NOT hitting something.

#2 It doesn’t describe the music

If avoid notes make sense then surely nobody uses the avoid notes in their solos. But at the same time, I was given a ton of examples and transcribing solos and it doesn’t matter if it is Joe Pass, Charlie Parker, or Pat Martino. They all use avoid notes in their solos, even if they don’t often really sit on them. So that never made any sense to me. It was not only a rule that I couldn’t use to make music it also seemed like it wasn’t actually true.

Bad Teaching vs Good Teaching

To me, avoid notes is the same as teaching people not to use a hammer because that isn’t the right tool instead of teaching them how to use a screwdriver which would be the right tool when they are putting together something they bought at Ikea.

And it is really obvious that you benefit more from thinking about what to play instead of thinking about what not to play.

So focus on playing notes that sound good and making melodies that work with for example the arpeggio of a chord rather than thinking about not hitting a specific note in a scale. It is almost like telling you “don’t think about a pigeon.”

What Are Target Notes

The strange thing about target notes is that it isn’t really about the notes, it is about playing towards them. Anything can be a target note, that is really up to you.

You can even make an avoid note the target note, and sometimes that is a great thing to do…. 

I’ll show you that later in the lesson

In general, we often hear music as movement so there is a flow and there is a direction.

You can hear how this works with Bach:

Where the melody is moving forward and aiming for the target notes repeating a similar structure or motif to make it clear when you hit the target note on beat 1 of the bar.

And This is one of the things that really link Bebop and Bach: playing the movement and linking to the chord.

Take this Barry Harris lick, Where is clearly aiming for the 5th of Cm7 and uses the Bdim to really add momentum on the G7 that resolves to that Cm7 and in fact does the same to moving from Cm7 to F7 targeting the A.

So when you talk about target notes then you are talking about something that you can find in the music, which, as you may or may not know, is how I usually like to think about valid music theory: Something that describes the music that we play.

And it is also a way to develop your playing. Whatever target note you choose, you can sit down and practice to make lines that hit that target note, gradually moving from composing lines to improvising them and in that way internalizing the skill.

Examples of lines resolving to the 9th of Dm7: E.

This is important to be able to do. so let’s go over a basic example of how that works.

Practicing Target Notes

I’ll demonstrate this the way I learned to use target notes from my teacher, but actually, Hal Galper wrote a book on the topic that is worth checking out it is called Forward motion. I am just using the approach that I learned because that worked for me and has also worked very well for my students.

Target notes as a strategy works because you play melodies that are actually going somewhere. You are not just playing another note into the void (b-roll into the void) As you heard with Bach or the example from Barry or actually any other Bebop solo, there is an energy that drives it forward.

The first thing is to choose a target note, and if you are new to improvising over changes then you want to take notes that are very clear and easy to hear. This is just because that makes everything easier to learn and also helps you hear how the chords are moving, but as I already mentioned, you can really target any note you want to (which often ends up being any note you can hear anyway because otherwise you probably can’t make any lines that make sense).

For a II V I, the easiest place to start is just to use the 3rd of each chord: Clear notes that define the color of the chord:

So for a II V I in C major you have these chords:

And if you take the 3rd as a target note for each chord then you have these notes:

Now you can practice composing simple melodies that take you from one target note to the next:

And I am sure you can imagine that you have lots of options in terms of melodies for these target notes here’s another basic one:

If you start to be able to do this then You can also start to use the same target notes in other octaves, again because you build on what you can hear and use that to expand.

And then you can start opening up which notes you use, after the 3rd then the 5th is a great option, here I use that on the Cmaj7 chord:

And from here you can gradually start to learn to use other notes, see what you think works and give your ears time to get used to the sound. You can also gradually start to add things like other sounds on the dominant and extra chords. Having the direction in your lines will make a lot of things easier to get to work.

Target Avoid Notes

As I mentioned earlier, then you can take any note as a target note also a target note like the F over a Cmaj7. A basic way to do this could be this:

As you can hear then I treat the F as a suspension and resolve it to an E later in the bar. And that is simply just because the F sounds the way it does, and the most common way you will see the note in a melody would be like this, so a tension that is resolving later. Which is a great effect used in many melodies, and keep in mind that if you thought of it as an avoid note then you couldn’t do stuff like this.

Target Notes Are Not Everything

As you might have realized then there is a specific drive or type of sound to this type of melody, and that is a huge part of especially Bebop-inspired music, but it is not the only type of melody that you want to be able to play, so while this is a great way to get started playing over chord changes then it is not the only way you want to work on creating melodies. You want to also work on melodic techniques like Motivic development and Call-response. If you want to explore these techniques that are amazing for getting more of a story into your solos because phrases are more connected then check out this video that builds that up step-by-step.

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