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Jazz Guitar: An Introduction to Improvising


Chuck Loeb Jazz Guitarist

The art of improvisation can sound pretty daunting when you are just starting out learning jazz guitar. Quite literally, you are attempting to pull order out of chaos, and to build something from scratch. Good for those who have Chuck Loeb's excellent lessons at ArtistWorks to guide you along the journey to jazz greatness! 

Let's discuss a few key elements of improvisation as well as the tools you need to help you ease into the creative art of playing in the moment.

Building a Toolkit

Just as a good writer needs a large vocabulary of words to utilize, guitarists need a large vocabulary of scales, arpeggios, phrases and licks to work with. Throughout your guitar tuition, you should be learning scales, arpeggios and patterns, as well as listening to and learning improvisations from well known players. This will help you build your vocabulary and help you to hear and understand how some of the great jazz players use the same building blocks to construct engaging and beautiful solos.

It is also important to start working your way up the neck early on and to learn the 6 positions. Work towards the long term goal of memorizing note names, shapes and intervals all across the fret board.

Start Small

A good way to dive into improvisation for the first time is to restrict yourself to a limited amount of notes at a time. It can be intimidating to just start playing a melody without any sort of definitive starting point or direction, so by simplifying your toolkit temporarily, it will be easier to start training the improvisational element of your playing.

For example, you could limit yourself to the first 4 notes of the major scale and see what kind of melodies and phrases you can construct with just 4 notes. Or try to improvise using only major arpeggios in a key. Once you become more comfortable with creating melodies and phrases with a limited amount of notes, slowly start to add more and more potential notes to your available toolkit.

Approach Notes and Neighbor Tones

It will be helpful when starting out to become familiar with the concepts of approach notes and neighbor tones. Simply put, a neighbor tone is any note that is directly above or below a specific note. These can be diatonic (within the key) or chromatic (potentially outside of the key, also known as non-harmonic tones). An approach note is when you use a neighbor tone (or more than one) to “approach” a specific note. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but the concept remains the same.

Working with these ideas early on will help you break out of the potential rut of feeling locked into scale and arpeggios patterns. Again, a good way to start working with this concept is to simplify it. Using our earlier example, try to improvise using only the first 4 notes of the major scale. This time, however, approach each note with a chromatic neighbor tone (either one fret above or one fret below) before each of the 4 potential notes and see what you can come up with.

Remember, these can be either diatonic or chromatic notes, so experiment with different intervals and start to familiarize yourself with thinking in terms of neighbor tones and approach notes.

When starting out with improvisation on jazz guitar, it is important to focus on building up your musical toolkit, practicing (as always, practice makes perfect), and developing your own musical style. Listen to great players to pick up on some melodic ideas, and never be afraid to think outside the box when improvising.

Happy playing!

Ready to get serious about jazz guitar? Click here to check out our free jazz guitar lessons!



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