Making Sense of Jazz Soloing

Find out how overlaying a chord, an arpeggio, and a scale keeps you from ever getting lost while soloing in a jazz tune. No keys necessary!

Making Sense of Jazz Soloing
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Soloing in a jazz style can be really intimidated for someone coming from a rock background. There tend to be a lot of key changes, making it hard to keep track of just which scale you're supposed to use in your solo. The trick is to frame the whole situation differently. Don't worry about keys, and don't start with scales. Start with just the chord. 

Let's say that the first chord in the tune is Bm7. One way to play this chord is with a simple "shell" chord shape, just the root, flat 7th, and flat 3rd.

Bm7 chord

|-------| 
|-------|
|---7---|
|---7---|
|---x---|
|---7---|
This provides just the absolute essential elements of the chord, just enough to let you know it's a Bm7. This shape can also act as a mental anchor. Let these three notes be the foundation of the chord on the fretboard, from which we'll build the arpeggio and the scale next. 

So you've already got the root, 3rd, and 7th of the Bm7 chord in the basic chord shape.

Next, fill this out into an arpeggio pattern by adding in the 5th of the chord. Let's also add in all the different octaves nearby of the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Here's what you end up with:

Bm7 arpeggio

|----------------------------7--10--| 
|---------------------7--10---------|
|------------------7----------------|
|------------7--9-------------------|
|---------9-------------------------|
|--7--10----------------------------|
Notice how the basic Bm7 chord shape is still hidden within this arpeggio pattern. The chord shape is just now surrounded by the rest of the notes of the arpeggio. Try to keep the chord shape and arpeggio shape connected mentally. Practice switching back and forth, playing the chord, then running up or down part of the arpeggio. The goal is to be able to switch between them easily at any time. 

Arpeggio patterns give you a good set of notes to draw from as you're soloing through chord changes. An arpeggio is sort of a home base that you can always fall back on. And hidden within that arpeggio is the chord shape you can always jump to for a bit of rhythm.

But let's say you want to spice up your playing with more than just the notes of the arpeggio. That's where the scale comes in. Think of building a house as a metaphor. The chord is the foundation, the arpeggio is the structure built on that foundation, and the scale is like interior decoration. The scale is where personal taste comes in. It's where you get to explore your own voice as a soloist. 

So which scale do you play over the Bm7? Well, you build your own.

Start with the arpeggio pattern. The arpeggio already gives you the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th scale degrees. Three notes are missing: the 2nd, the 4th, and the 6th. Here's where you get to make some choices. Do you want a flatted 2nd or a natural 2nd? A natural 4th or a sharped 4th? A flatted 6th or a natural 6th? It's totally up to whatever you like the sound of. 

Go through the arpeggio pattern from before, and try filling in the missing notes based on what you think sounds good. Let's say you like the sound of a natural 2nd, a sharped 4th, and a natural 6th.

You'd end up with a scale like this:

Bm7 scale example

|-----------------------------------------------7--9--10--| 
|-------------------------------------7--9--10------------|
|---------------------------6--7--10----------------------|
|------------------6--7--9--------------------------------|
|------------8--9-----------------------------------------|
|--7--9--10-----------------------------------------------|
That's just one example, but you can fill in the arpeggio with whatever notes your ear likes in order to build a scale. This approach ideally leads to a tight connection between the chord shape, the arpeggio pattern overlaying that chord shape, and the scale built out of the arpeggio pattern. Chord, arpeggio, scale. 

Both the chord shapes and arpeggio shapes are moveable, so you can use the above Bm7 arpeggio shape for any minor 7th arpeggio, as long as you start on the correct root.

Then soloing becomes a matter of just decorating each arpeggio as you see fit. That's where you can really let your ear guide you and enjoy the exploration of your own voice as a guitarist.

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Vantage
    "The trick is to frame the whole situation differently. Don't worry about keys, and don't start with scales. Start with just the chord. " If I had read or heard these words before attending jazz school, my first few months would not have been as embarrassing.
    Wiegenlied
    A good template for people who don't know where start. The only thing I would of added would be to talk more in depth about the notes outside of the arpeggio and how to use them as a passing tones, to connect two in the chord in some sort of movement and intent. I'd encourage a student when using notes outside of the chord, to use the notes that are in the key unless for a specific reason ie. don't just randomly play notes, choose them with a purpose of creating a certain sound. For example how playing a b5, you'd typically want to follow it up with an adjacent note, the 4 or the 5, as a referred to before as a passing tone.
    kratos379
    This definitely does seem like a good idea and I've heard similar advice before, but not as well explained as this. I I imagine that you need to train your ear in order to help identify the chord as you're playing and that's something I already need to work on...
    GameSkate
    Or just memorize the certain piece chord progression. It's really, really hard (and IMO pointless) to improvise to backing track where you don't know which chords are used. Especially in jazz, where you have chords that goes way beyond simple major/minor/7th. Of course having good developed ear will help you a lot.
    Deadds
    This is more of an incomplete Modal jazz lesson than anything else.Ignoring the progression and telling someone that you can play any type of 2nd, 4th and 5th is detrimental to a beginning jazz guitarist. If the Bm chord is not a ii chord but a iii chord adding a C# would make it sound like a ii(Bm9) chord which would make any jazz player wonder if you know what you are doing. It seems that the writer thinks of every minor chord as a ii chord and using Dorian scales is just ok. it's not.
    a0kalittlema0n
    Can you explain better why this is detrimental to a beginning jazz player? I'm curious because I'm planning on doing something similar to this to start my jazz soloing.
    Wiegenlied
    Here's an example for soloing over your Bm7 chord: |-----| |-----7----9br-7---| |-----7b7.5----7----9b r-7---| |-----7---7h9-----9----9-----9-| |---5-7/9----9----- | |-7-----| I used the third note, the E, 7th fret on the A string, as a passing tone from the D to the F#. It was a logical move that followed an ascending pattern and serve a function because it allow me to slide up the next and get into a different position.Then later on in the lick I got experimental with the second double stop chord on the 9th fret. Out of the notes in the chord E and G# the latter isn't even in the key of B minor. I'm actually borrowing it from the major key, and I'm using it to add some flavour and straying away from the notes in the chord, so when I come back a split second later the resolution contains even more closure, and gives some character, rather then just seeming like a typical pentatonic run.
    GuitarGod610
    If we're talking about B melodic minor or B dorian (which is what you'd probably be using in a jazz context, not natural minor), G# is just the 13th and a very hip sound. It's not necessarily borrowed from E major, it's more just an extension of Bm7, since m7, m9, m11, and m13 all fall under the same umbrella of sounds.
    CurlOfTheBurl
    Its worth looking outside of chord-soloing too, by implying notes which aren't explicitly in the progression. This can really spice things up If the changes are all vanilla 7 chords, the whole fretboard is your oyster! Whereas, say, a 7 #11 b9 is a little restricting in terms of what clashes. Great lesson!