Jazz Improvisation And Soloing

The single most important thing to know when you're soloing is what key you are in. In most rock songs, the key will stay the same at least the length of the solo, if not the whole song. Jazz, however, has this little habit of often changing keys every measure or two, sometimes, a few times per measure, so the scale you're playing from could start sounding pretty wierd pretty fast.

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This lesson will tell you how to know what scales to improv from when soloing over a jazz chord progression. It does not include specific riffs and licks to use is is more of a theory oriented lesson so it wont be too exciting to beginers. Note: the stuff covered in this lesson is far from basic. I will do my best to briefly explain things that you might not understand but for me to include every single piece of prerequesete information would fill up a whole lot of space. The single most important thing to know when you're soloing is what key you are in. In most rock songs, the key will stay the same the same at least the length of the solo, if not the whole song. Jazz, however, has this little habit of often changing keys every measure or two, sometimes, a few times per measure, so the scale you're playing from could start sounding pretty wierd pretty fast. So the jist of it is that you will be changing keys a lot and therefore changing what scale your using. But how do I know what key I'm in? This can be the hard part. The 8 scale degrees of a scale help us out. Using only the notes in a petucular key, if you played a seventh chord with a root on all 7 scale degrees, it would look like this:
I   | major 7th
II  | minor 7th
III | minor 7th
IV  | major 7th
V   | dominate 7th
VI  | minor 7th
VII | minor 7th flat 5
If we apply that to a simple scale (C major is pretty easy) it would look like:
I   | CMaj7
II  | Dmin7 (D-7)
III | E-7
IV  | FMaj7
V   | G7 ("tritone" - dominate)
VI  | A-7
VII | B-7b5
Now you say to yourself, "Self, how does that help me?" Well lets say you saw a chord progression with a D-7, G7, Cmaj7. You say, "Well, what scale would have a D-7, a G7, and a Cmaj7? Why a C major scale, of course!" Easy stuff, right? Try one on your own. Say you saw a A-7, and a D7. Well, a few scales have a A-7, but only one has a A-7 and a D7. If you guessed G major, you are right. this brings me into the next topic, jazz harmony. The most common chord progression you will ever see in jazz is a II V progression. That is very important so I will tell you a few more times. The most common chord progression you will ever see in jazz is a II V progression. What? I forgot what you said. The most common chord progression you will ever see in jazz is a II V progression. Oh thanks. I'll be sure to remember that now. What does this mean? It means that whenever you see a minor 7th chord followed by a dominate 7th chord that is a perfect 4th above it (2 to a 5 is a 4th) chances are that it is a II V progression so the key you will be in is whatever key has those notes for a 2 and 5. Now we will talk about switching keys. Cool! How do we know when we switch keys? Well when we see chords that shouldn't be in the key we're a; ready in. So if we are seeing D-7 G7 D-7 G7 and all of a sudden we see a Eb-7b5, we know something is up. What is up? A key change, of course. That's basically how you know, or also if you see another II V progression thing that's not in your old key, that also means that you have to switch keys. So when you switch keys, you have to do the whole finding out what key your in thing over again. Ok thats about it for finding what key your in now we learn what scales to use. 1st, we have to learn about "modes." Lets assume we're in C major, just to make it easy (so what chords will we be seeing?) You should know how to play a C major scale. Who doesn't? And if you don't, learn fastbecause you won't get much farther without knowing that. So we know, the notes in a C major scale are: C D E F G A B C. Right? Right. Now, what would happen if we played those same notes, but started from the D? We would have: D E F G A B C D. This mode is called Dorian. Know that. Now lets start from the E: E F G A B C D E. That mode is called Phrygian. Know that. Now lets start from the F: F G A B C D E F. That mode is called Lydian (are you writing these down?) and so on. Here's a brief list of all the modes. The roman numeral represents the scale degree you start from, and the name is supplied after.
I   | Ionian (aka. major)
II  | Dorian
III | Phrygian
IV  | Lydian
V   | Mixolydian
VI  | Aeolean (aka. minor)
VII | Locrian
Figure out how to play these on a guitar. go all two octives, be able to arpeggiate them and do all sorts of crazy things with them. know them like the back of your hand. Now you say to yourself, "Self, how do I know which scales to play? Oh, wait, thats what this lesson is about. Maybe I should read on." Well, to tell you the truth, it is not especially critical what scales you do play, just so long as they're in the right key. Remember, a Dorian, Phrygian, etc. scale is in it's respective major key. I.e. a G Mixolydian is in the key of C major. Most of the time, you; ll have to play it by ear. Literally. There are ways to know exactly what to play and when but that requires a few years of college and I'm just a 14 year old guitar player who is typing what I know. Basically, in a II V progression, you will want to be playing either the respective Dorian or Mixolydian scale. Apreggiating sounds pretty good, so do chormatic guide-tones (guide-tones coming up soon). Remember for jazz never ever do a bend. It just sounds like crap. Don't ask be why, it just doens't fit. Remember in english class when they tell you that your writing needs to have transitions in it? "On the other hand" "Conversly" "However" "Unlike..." Well, that's what guide-tones (GTs) are like. GTs are transitions between keys in music. Now I will tell you a little bit about how to use them. Two guide tones that you will see a lot 3rds and 7ths. The reason that these are common is that it is the 7th and the 3rd that really define the chord. They make it major, minor, dominate, so if you hear a major 3rd, you will right away be thinking: wow! Major! Not minor! It is important to find notes that are common to both keys. The key that you are in and the one that you are changing into. It just makes it smoother. Other GTs include doing chromatic (half step) assencions or dessencions into notes in the new key. That's about it. I know I've really only touched on the surface but its the best I could do in half an hour.

43 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Icebolt
    Rap is actaually a style of music, any1 who doesn't count it as music is an ass I accept all types of music, although i dont even like rap or many other genres, rap forms from reggae where the first use of dubbing (speaking over an original recording) took place, any sound can be music.
    Bardi
    Great lesson. You explain the theory as understandable as it can be with such advanced techniques. A thing which would improve the lesson would be to explain more about the use of different scales. But thumbs up man
    Gundam pilota09
    to put my two cents in on the rap debate i've got four words for you:rage against the machine. if raps not music then why do their songs require a band?
    cameronlj
    Minor 7 flat 5 makes sense. I've seen it quite a bit. It would just be a minor chord with a flatted fifth(aka. diminished chord) and a minor 7th added on. Which would make it a half diminished 7th chord, right?
    FortePenance
    That's probably why he said that this lesson isn't for beginners. =/ A minor 7th flatted 5th should be a minor chord with the 7th and the flatted fifth added on if I understand correctly. o_0
    Brandito07
    nice work doin this article but i did notice somethings while skimmin through, first its called jazz improvisation AND soloing, isnt that the same thing? lol not important neway, wut i really noticed was the part that said you should never ever bend b/c it doesnt sound right. Well first of all isnt a pretty basic rule of jazz "anything goes"? of course, but bends are probally one of the most common inflections in jazz, not only in guitar but in trumpet, trombone, sax, anything really. Another thing with this whole rap isnt music talk goin on here. First, you cant call a genre you dont like "not music". i dont like country... but i know its still music and other people like it so wutever, but come on, rap has melody, harmony, rythem (sp?) and most importantly EMOTION. so whats wrong? have you ever tried to rap? its hard lol, well atleast to me. and lastly... minor 7th flatted 5th... doesnt even make sense... atleast the flat 5th part... come on
    TK1
    i get the article. its well written for a 14 year old. kudos. also, its Dominant, not Dominate.
    TheSixthWheel
    All you people are hilarious - who gives a rats arse about rap anyway?? Next time you want to waffle on about jazz, be aware that most people who are learning guitar want some diagrams or at least tab. Minor 7th flat 5? You're lucky if only about 10% of the people reading this know what that means.
    vinyinnyincy
    Decent explanation but I don't know where you heard not to bend in jazz. I listen to jazz artists all the time that bend. Try listening to some Per Gade or John McLaughlin. Extremely inventive guitarists! Thanks for the article, though!
    19scotty70
    Excellent Job son!! Listen everyone so the modes dont confuse you. Everything in music is based off of the major scale. The c major scale in chords is CMAJ7, Dm7, Em7, Fmaj7,G7 ,Am7,Bm7b5(half dim). Now play the adjacent modes with each chord. EX: Ionian w/ Cmaj7 chord, D dorian with Dm7 chord,etc.. etc... Its the same scale and the same pattern you are just starting on a different note. As for jazz, just play the mode with the adjacent chord for three measures and then play garbage and chromatics every fourth measure and land on the root and everyone will think your a genius!!
    BlueGreen
    A quick note, just in case people are reading these comments.... You can technically get away with knowing only Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian, and Harmonic Minor. It makes more sense if you write the chord scale out as I, ii, iii, IV, V7, vi, vii (upper-case is major, lower-case is minor). Basically, if you're playing over a IV chord, you actually can play Ionian, because IV is a major chord, and if you're playing over any minor chord, it's acceptable to play Dorian! V7 is always gonna be Mixolydian though.
    tom1thomas1
    This is helpful, the bit that explained the Dorian, Phrygina, mixolydian etc and where they start was good, and about how it changes keys
    FortePenance
    The ignorance I see here about rap is amazing. Everyone who's hated on rap here has probably judged the entire genre by listening to 50 Cent and G-Unit and other polluted mainstream trash with incredibly stupid comments about gangsta/thug shit. Just because rap doesn't involve guitars or often any real recorded instruments, does not mean it's not music. Go listen to Louis Logic or Saul Williams and you'll see the true depth of rap. You can probably pull out hundreds of hidden meanings from each of their songs and it probably still rhymes flawlessly sometimes with the last 5 words rhyming together with some sort of memorability embedded in there as well. Now asides from that, nice article. Didn't know much about the Mixolydian and Locrian scales.
    TravuhsWree
    I think he was 14 years old actually... makes me feel ashamed of myself lol. And to Rap, not really music, such little actual music in them, it's kind of sad to see people listening to it.
    bpazolli
    jazzkicksrock wrote: for the love of all things wholesome its dominant not dominate. (also the 5th is not the tritone) other than that not bad for a 14 yr old kid
    I thought the 'tritone' comment might be because dominante 7th chords have a tritone in them due to the 3rd and b7th interval. That it is supposedly one reason why the dominante chord has such a strong resolution to the tonic chord. However, it was probably a mistake.
    paranoiddemon
    jazzkicksrock wrote: for the love of all things wholesome its dominant not dominate. (also the 5th is not the tritone) other than that not bad for a 14 yr old kid
    14 yrs. old? I interpreted it as he was playing guitar for 14 yrs...
    whitebluesboy
    I think the comments about rap are sorta ignorant. I mean yes, I will agree that it takes way more skill to play fushion then it is to ryhme with a beat. BUT there IS some rap out there that isn't about dope, guns, murder, b itches, bling, cars, and the lifestyle of a rich spoiled rapper. Artists like Mos Def, The Roots, and Gym Class Hereos are bands and artist that even the most pashionate of rap haters such as myself enjoy. And props to the kid who wrote the article for being a theory monster.
    CAL_B_VMASTER
    i love jazz to bits and oswald can go suck my love plunger(quote from Spinal Tap) And u r so right sysiphys rap and techno can all take the above mentioned action aswell. Oh and good article u explained a very informal way of music in a quite straight forward manner KUDOS!!!
    numetaldude
    omfg... i thought i'd actually learn something here. but then again, my mind isn't ready yet. oh well.. i'll just keep on reading this over and over until it registers in my brain..
    sysiphys
    Heh... Oswald obviously isn't a true lover of music. Why? True lovers of music respect all music (rap doesn't count) even if they don't like it's style. Oh, this lesson is a nice summary about jazz. I couldn't summerize it any better!
    SRVGuitarFreak
    ohhh I'm trying to learn Jazz, gettin depressed, lol I did understand this but dang it's gonna be hard to play jazz, and be good at it!
    ledfilly
    you should write out the chords because i dont know them just by the name
    Randy_Rhoads17
    rap isn't music, its just some guy (or girl) talking in a monotone voice with a little beat in the back and the guy (or girl) is talking about how when he was a boy he smoked dope and killed someone. then in the music videos there's a bunch of *****s dancing around in really short clothes (i dont mind that) and its crap man!!
    justin_fraser
    rap is not music. Like randy_rhoads17 said, its just talking faster then you normally would. Its crap. Its not music. I find that some of those really (and i mean crazy fast guys) fast guys are talented but not that musically talented from how they rap. Oh, and this article wasnt that bad. Not great though.
    el conrado
    sysipyhs thts rubbish, rap is a style of music, as you said a true music lover respects all music. Why does rap dont count as a style of music? Are you a true music lover?
    EricSewellAUS
    Good Article well layed out... you may want to put it in to laymans terms for people who dont know progressions, other than that... nice
    thesmartguy50
    Good article, man... I don't quite know what the chords are, though. Can you do another article on how to make chords using the name and signs [Abm7(b9), for example... if that's even a chord]
    jazzkicksrock
    for the love of all things wholesome its dominant not dominate. (also the 5th is not the tritone) other than that not bad for a 14 yr old kid