Jazz Improvisation Exercises - Play the Melody

Learn how to use compositional devices to decorate the melody and use the melody as a basis for improvisation!

Ultimate Guitar
My jazz guitar students are always looking for ways to improve their improvisation and there are a ton of different exercises I will give them. This one isn't just an exercise but a way to also improvise through an entire chorus! Many jazz musicians will improvise based around the melody, some jazz musicians will even play a very slightly altered version of the melody and it will always sound fantastic!

For someone wanting to learn to play melodically there is no better way than to learn a lot of melodies, then learn to alter them as slightly or heavily as you want and use them for a chorus of improvisation! This is also called "decorating the melody." I will use the A section of the jazz standard "Autumn Leaves" as an example.

Here is the given melody (click image to enlarge):

This is a pretty simple melody that you can learn quickly. It lays on the guitar really well and is pretty easy to manipulate. The next example of this melody is an altered version that would be good to play during a chorus of improvisation (click image to enlarge).

You will notice that I use quite a different methods of altering the melody. These different methods are called "compositional devices." Compositional devices give a name to common ways and ideas on how a melody or harmony is composed or improvised. A good study of these devices can greatly increase your improvisation ability.

Some common compositional devices are:
  • Scale fragments or patterns.
  • Silence, or rests.
  • Augmentation - using the same pitches, but with a longer note value. An example would be changing a quarter note to a dotted quarter note.
  • Diminution - using the same pitches, but with a shorter note value. An example would be changing a quarter note to a half note.
  • Rhythmic displacement - using the same pitches and note values, but displacing them rhythmically, such as offsetting a melody by a half beat.
  • Addition/subtraction of notes.
You can find many of these compositional devices in my second example. You can see I used the diminution compositional device in the first measure, as well as in the third and fifth measures. I added in notes throughout the example by using scale fragments. Although I didn't use much silence in this improvisation, I did have a half beat rest in measure three.

You can alter the melody even more heavily than what I did, or even much less. It is all personal taste, but using the melody in some form will give you a solid base to work from when improvising. Take another common jazz melody and try out some of these compositional devices! Good luck and keep practicing!

About the Author:
Seth Holobaugh is a jazz guitarist and educator located in Flower Mound, TX. guitarlessonsflowermound.com sethholobaughmusic.com

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