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4 Ways To Improve Your Jazz Solos Today

I remember when I first started playing jazz I was constantly frustrated. Part of it was I was too hard on myself , but lets be honest: jazz is not the easiest of styles to play! When I really started getting into it, I was obsessed. I was listening to tons of jazz records. I loved the spirit of the music, I loved the highs and lows, the instruments, but most of all I loved the solos. I was fascinated by jazz improvisation and improvisation in general.  I wanted to sound like my jazz hero’s so badly!

I remember attending a particular masterclass in the early days of my jazz studies that stuck with me. Giving the masterclass was the incredible L.A jazz guitarist Bruce Forman. To kick off the masterclass he didn’t say anything, he just started improvising. What boggled my mind at the time was that he didn’t play the melody but I knew he was playing All The Things You Are. He didn’t have a band backing him up, and he wasn’t even playing chords.  I was amazed that through his lines and phrases I was able to hear the chord changes perfectly and at the same time it was stunningly musical. His guitar solo alone had me captivated and intrigued. He didn’t even need to have a band behind him!

After the masterclass I raced to the nearest practice room. I wanted to do the same thing, so I sat down with my instrument and started to solo on All The Things You Are. I was incredibly disappointed, because as much as I wanted it to, my solo didn’t sound anything like Bruce’s!  I couldn’t really hear the chord changes when I was playing. My jazz language at the time was fairly primitive, so I didn’t sound like the players I had been listening to.

That week I practiced extra hard. I told myself “If I could just do what Bruce did, then I’ll be happy with my playing!” Of course, what I didn’t realize then is it would take me years and years to even begin to come close to what Bruce did. After all, Bruce had been playing jazz professionally for decades.

Today, playing jazz language and the chord changes in my solos is not quite the mystery it used to be.  Ultimately it takes a lot of time and pressure. I’ve spent countless hours practicing and listening to music. I’ve played hundreds and hundreds of gigs and I graduated college with a Jazz Performance degree. As with anything in life, nothing comes for free and if you want to become a fantastic jazz musician you need to prepare yourself for the long haul.

However, I find that when you look at the scope of your jazz playing from too far away it becomes overwhelming.  There is so much to work on and so much to do! It’s important to narrow down your practice by identifying your goals, but it’s important to practice the things that will make a big difference as well.

I’ve listed 4 things that you can start doing today to improve your jazz solos. These are tangible things that you can practice today and add to your routine. There is no better day than today to get started on these things. Don’t wait any longer!

1. Play the 3rds and 7ths.

If you want to really start hearing the chord changes come out in your solos, you need to start identifying which notes distinguish certain chords from others. It’s all about voice leading. A great practice is to take any tune that you know and only play the 3rds and 7ths of each chord. When you do this you’ll notice that you are already hearing the chord changes by just playing those two notes. For example, lets look at a common ii-V-I progression:

Chord progression: Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7

3rds and 7ths:

  • Dmin7: F-C
  • G7: B-F
  • Cmaj7: E-B

Practice playing each of these notes separately and move on to the next chord. You’ll notice that the 3rd of Dmin7 (F) is also the 7th of G7 and the 3rd of G7 (B) is the 7th of Cmaj7. Applying this to an entire song can be really enlightening in showing you how the chords move together and what the key differentiating notes are.

2. Learn a musical phrase in all 12 keys.

At the end of the day, improving your jazz solos is all about internalizing musical information.  Take a musical phrase, or “lick” that you like and take it through all 12 keys. This will help you internalize it and be able to play it fluently on your instrument.  I would suggest taking a line that you like from one of your favorite players. If you need some help finding a lick to learn, click here. Ultimately you want to start building up a library of these. Jazz is a language and you need to constantly be learning more vocabulary.

3. Play the arpeggios.

Don’t confuse this one with playing the 3rds and 7ths. Whereas the 3rds and 7ths were to help you identify the voice leading from chord to chord, arpeggiating the chords will help you identify all of the notes you have to work with. I encourage my students to do this rather than play scales, because playing chord tones lends itself better to creating music, in my opinion. All that being said, scales can be helpful for applying theory concepts to your playing. Take a tune you know and play the arpeggios (chord tones) of each chord. Spelling out the chords like this will not help you learn jazz language, but it will help you learn your instrument better and open up your options.

4. Listen to bebop.

I always preach that listening to jazz is just as important as practicing your instrument. Anytime you are listening to jazz you are consciously and sub-consciously internalizing those sounds. If you are not listening to jazz music you will never get it, it doesn’t matter how much you practice! I specifically think it’s important to listen to bebop and hard bop (1940’s-1960’s). Why? Bebop is the language that jazz musicians still are well versed in today. I’m all for listening to modern jazz, pushing the music forward, and having an original voice, but you have to do your homework! All of the best jazz musicians on the scene today have at least a familiar grasp with the bebop language. Listen to Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles, Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery…the list goes on and on.  Specifically take time out of your day to actively listen to jazz.  Get friends together and have listening parties. Make it a social thing. Geek out! Consuming lots of jazz music is one of the most important things you can do for your jazz solos today.


Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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