John is a student that wanted to learn to improvise, but felt he had no basis for starting. This is nothing to do with his skills, but more to do with the sheer intimidation of a blank canvas. “What do you mean just play?” It’s a daunting request in itself and different personalities respond to this different. John was definitely of the persuasion that he needed a very strong foundation before he could even toy with the notion of improvising. That is something that should be dispelled from any players mind.

A stronger foundation allows for more opportunities with improvising – but improvising is a skill like any other and does not need to wait before being cultivated. Improvisation is making music using your inherent intuition, unless you are tone deaf or have no interest or appreciation of music, you already know what good music basically sounds like. The hurdle most people face is what notes you are supposed to play. As I mention below, you can find your way in using keys/scales, patterns, or motives and your best way in with these is to keep things simple and repetitive. You can lengthen ideas as you improve understanding of notation, pitch relationships, and chords but just as the first scale you learned was probably G major and not C# major, you should find you are probably a lot more capable of being musical than you may have given yourself credit for.
I sent this e-mail to a student to get him started on the idea of improvising. I am going to make this more sensible as a post in the future but I think this is a good place holder for now.

Hey John,

As promised, here’s a bunch of information on improvising. This is stuff to actually implement in your practice. Don’t just think about it, ya gotta do it to see results. There’s a huge amount of ways to approach improvising in a song, but I’ll start pretty basic with some skills that we need to strive for. Please read all the way through and email me with questions. These topics are tip-of-the-iceberg kinda stuff so let me know if I glossed over anything you want to understand more.

Soloing when you have music:

It’s obviously helpful to have some music. It tells us what key we’re in, what notes are used often in that song (which can later help us figure out the chord progression being used). These things are great, but will be less important later as your ear improves and you can take better control of these elements. Right now I want to talk about the advantage of seeing some of the motives of the song – if we listen to the first 5 notes of this Tedeschi Trucks trumpet solo you showed me before, you’ll notice he keeps playing it and changing it a bit. improvising
He decorates this motive with lots of other fancy riffing and techniques that he’s built up in his ‘vocabulary’ (see below). Transpose the line above for alto saxophone (down a minor 3rd) and figure out how he decorates it. Isolate the parts that aren’t the above 5 notes and try to figure out what’s going on.
The point of this is to consider using motives from the actual song you want to improvise in. This is what we heard in that song we listened to tonight. What about Hello Dolly? You probably recognize the start of this line, but he changes the last couple of notes on that motive. Consider what riff you could build on just one riff in Hotline Bling.
Motives are just one way of starting to build a solo, it helps to take away some of the burden of creating entirely original solos (which we will get to) but can also just be a tasteful thing to do.

Soloing when you don’t have music:

I mentioned ear training tonight, which is getting our ear to recognize the intervals between any given note – while I play a G, I hear someone is playing a 5th above me, I can either: match their D (unison), harmonize with it (consonant), clash with it (dissonant), hold my current note (which would be consonant in this case), or not play at all.
We’ve talked about the brute force method of finding they key (just playing random notes until you hear things that work in the key, tracking those notes, and building a scale). Keep practicing this with random songs. Very quickly you won’t have to check the entire chromatic scale to find the key. You will learn what the root note feels like when you nail it. If the key is in G and you hit an F# you will start to feel how close you are to the key and you will adjust accordingly – this is just one trick to get you there faster, we will discuss more later.
When you have the key, you now have to make stuff up. If we are conservative with it we only have 7 notes to work with in a scale, fewer if we are in a pentatonic of some kind. Staying with the key of G – we have G A B C D E F# (g). We have some safer options than others – tonal home bases that we can rest on. G obviously resonates well with a G, so does the 5th (D) and so does the 3rd (B). C and E work well too. A is a bit less stable sounding, and F# is the least stable sounding of these options, but they can all work and I encourage you to try them.
Try long tones on a song at first to get a feel for how they resonate – as chords change they might work better or worse than I describe. Some notes will give you a feeling of pulling you to another note, see if you can follow it. Make a motive that you can keep coming back to – this can be as little as 3 notes or as long as you want, so think short at first. Come up with motives by just making some sounds – try to shake up your patterns if you find yourself playing linearly (scales up and down). Try making larger leaps (G-E, F-B, C-G, etc.) between notes sometimes and small steps other times (G-A, B-C, etc.), try and follow any instincts you have with this.
This is a process!

On creating a vocabulary:

Vocabulary comes from transcribing motives in other peoples solos to use yourself, musicians are a bunch of thieves so don’t be shy about it. The transcriptions get absorbed into your playing over time in a way that informs your sound and style.
Work on different scale patterns.
Along with practicing this:
Practice this:
G b A c B d C e D f# E g F# a G        (Scale in thirds)
Every other note makes a major scale, but the notes in between complicate it by adding leaps
Or this:
G c A d B e C f# D g E a F# b G         (Scale in fourths)
These different scale patterns help to shake up playing tendencies and make your playing flow. Get a better grip on standard scales and scales in thirds before moving onto fourths though.

Tunes to work with:

Hotline Bling
Tedeschi Trucks – Love Has Something Else to Say
Find ways to play with this trumpeter – consider the space he has left and how you can either compliment that or intrude on it. Both options are valid and should be tried.

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (the song, but check out the rest of the album too)

Do not look at the sheet music for this. Find a backing track online and just play and see what happens.
Lots of other  info can be found at, but I’ll point you to a few specific articles that have some good stuff to say.
Here’s an article about playing outside the key:
and one about some general suggestions on learning to improvise

Some topics of improvisation for later:

Tonal vs. atonal vs. free improv
Ear Training
Finding the Key
Finding Progressions


Playing outside/Dissonance/ “the wrong notes”

Building solos

Build around the basic line