When I was a year or two into being really serious about jazz, I used to lay in bed at night and wonder how I could improve quicker. Even though I had teachers telling me what to do and I was checking out the recordings, I would still lay there and wonder “how do I become a better jazz improviser?” I was completely obsessed. I wanted to play jazz at a high level, and I wished there was some secret formula to get me there.

Well, a good number of years have passed now, and I am here to tell you there is no secret formula. This might disappoint you. It would be nice if there were. We all love getting great things with little to no work, right? But as is most things in life, jazz takes some work to become great at.

While there may not be a secret formula to becoming a better improviser, there are some shortcuts that can help you get there. But the shortcuts aren’t the kind that most people are looking for.

I’ve had lots of students, readers, and podcast listeners contact me looking for shortcuts.

What concerns me from time to time, is the kinds of shortcuts they are looking for. A classic example is: “What scale can I play over…(a dominant 7th chord).”

It’s not that it’s a bad question. It’s not that chord/scale theory is not useful. But I find the intent of the question is to get an easy answer. Essentially, the question they are actually asking is: “What are the “right” notes I can play so I don’t sound bad.” 

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play notes that work, but this is missing the point. To become a better jazz improviser we must look outside of formulas and calculated answers. Jazz is a language. To learn and express it, we have to be saturated with it.

When it comes down to it, to become a great jazz improviser, we need to be listening, reading, writing, and speaking the language. This is how you learn other languages right? Well, jazz is no different. And if you’ve ever learned or even tried to learn a new language before, you know it’s not easy (I’m working on learning Greek right now, and it’s beating me up!).

The real shortcut is making sure you are working on the right things. I’m going to share with you a crucial rule. I call it The Jazz Improv Rule. This is your shortcut.

The Jazz Improv Rule:

To become a great jazz improviser, you need to understand jazz harmony.

Bam. Drop mic.

Now, this may seem simple. But what does it mean to understand jazz harmony?

In short, understanding jazz harmony means learning how chords and chord progressions function in jazz and how to connect them together.

Here are some of the main things you need to know to understand jazz harmony. I’ll list them in order as if we’re building something from the ground up:

  • Important scales. Understanding the 12 tone system and how to modify it.

  • Chord construction. Understand how to build triads and 7th chords and connect them together.

  • Scales and their relationship to chords. This is not about using scales to improvise. This is about understanding how you can convert scales into “pitch collections” as a means to map out chords tones and their extensions.

  • Chord progressions. Know how to build them, how they function, and how to connect them together.

  • Jazz repertoire. Learn jazz standards, identify common chord progressions and let the tunes teach you how to play.

Once you understand jazz harmony and how it works, you can start to conceptualize how to develop jazz language. As is always preached on our blog and podcast, to truly learn the jazz language you need to be listening to it and learning it by ear.

But outside of that, it can be helpful to conceptualize it. If you’ve gone through the process of understanding jazz harmony, you can start focusing on guide tones and how they can help you connect the dots between chords. Then you can start exploring chromaticism and how to approach guide tones by using techniques like enclosure.

Now, if all of this seems like a lot, it is. But that’s the fun part about jazz. There is always something to learn, explore and improve upon. For a good number of us, this is what makes jazz so interesting. There is always something to keep us busy!

The key is to focus on the jazz standards. The tunes will teach you how to play. They have all of the harmonic information in them that you will need to navigate. As you learn them you will inevitably start asking the questions: “What’s a ii-V-I progression?”, “How do I move from one dominant 7 chord to another?”, “What makes a minor 6 chord different from a minor 7?”

Again, this is a lot of information. It may seem overwhelming. That’s why I wrote our flagship eBook “Zero to Improv.”

It’s an eBook that teaches you how to become a great jazz improviser from the ground up. So if you’re reading this and feeling like it’s all too much, this resource could be a great help to you. It starts from the beginning and works its way up, covering many of things, and more, that I have listed above. I’ll leave a button for you to click if you’re interested in learning more.

There is no secret formula for becoming a better jazz improviser. But there are things that you should be focusing on that will help you improve much faster. If we all want to become better jazz improvisers, we need to be treating it like a language, because that’s exactly what it is.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications “500 Jazz Licks” and “Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar.” To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. I play harmonica chromatic and I've been studying quite a lot of these aspects of jazz theory. Scales, chords, pair of triads, chromatic approximations, and so many other things are part of my study routine. I have also performed harmonic progressions through various arpeggios and this has given me a very good notion of the harmony of the songs.
    However, sometimes it seems that I need to mentally intensify the harmonic perception of the songs. I think I would only achieve this goal by being able to play a harmonic instrument. I think I should be able to play basic harmonies on the guitar or keyboard for that purpose.
    So that's my question. What do you think about the need to learn a harmonic instrument? Even playing a melodic instrument, should I seek to learn piano or guitar to better master the harmonic perception of the songs? I want to be able to easily recollect the basic harmonic structure of any song.

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