Step-by-Step Guide for Becoming a Great Jazz Improviser

You and I are not that different. We both want to become better jazz improvisers. We both have a passion for jazz music and we daydream about taking killer solos the next time we go to play.

But tell me if you can relate to any of these common problems I hear from my students, listeners, and subscribers:

1. You feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of jazz education info out there.

2. Because of that, you just don’t know where to start.

3. You’re not exactly sure what stuff you should be practicing to move the needle.

4. You have some experience already, but you feel stuck and aren’t improving.

5. You feel like your progress is slow going.

saxophonist sad about learning jazzListen I get it. I’ve been there more than once.

When I first started studying jazz, it was my senior year of high school. Some would call that starting late, others wish they had started that young.

Either way, I was struggling to keep up. I wanted so badly to sound like my more experienced friends and my jazz heroes.

I’ll fast-forward, though, and skip the details.

I now make my living as a jazz musician. I’ve published music books for a big company and self-publish my own. I play gigs here in New York, teach courses, and run my renowned jazz education blog and podcast.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the same aspirations as me. You may be a hobbyist (sometimes I envy you). But what I do know is that you want to improve, just like I do.

The secret is I learned how to practice in a goal-oriented, focused way, working on the right things with an action plan. That’s exactly what I want to teach you.

I want to take away the guesswork and make jazz improvisation simple for you.

Here’s what I’ll cover in this post:

I’ll start from the beginning, but your can click any of these links to skip ahead.

1. Common Myths About Playing Jazz.

2. Step #1: Setting Up Your Jazz Practice Sessions for Success

3. Step #2: “The Big 3” Things You Need to Practice to Improve as a Jazz Improviser

4. My LIST Process for Learning Jazz Language By Ear

5. Step #3: Creating an Action Plan for Quicker Jazz Improvement

6. The Stair-Step Practice Plan

7. Conclusion

I also go over everything in this post in further detail in my free video mini-course called “Accelerate Your Jazz Skills.” So if you want to dive in a bit further, click the link or the logo below, sign up, and I’ll send you the first video right away.

Are you ready for this? Let’s do it!

Common Myths About Playing Jazz

First things first. We need to debunk some myths about playing jazz. I’ve heard them all, and if we want to become great jazz improvisers we need to get rid of some of these limiting beliefs.

Common Myths about playing jazzMyth #1: Jazz is only for the exceptionally talented.

Wrong. I understand that musicians coming from other genre backgrounds sometimes look at jazz and get overwhelmed.

Yes, jazz may be more complex than some other styles of music. But that doesn’t mean that someone with average talent can’t learn how to play it.

I don’t consider myself “exceptionally talented,” but I’ve been able to reach a higher level of playing by doing the things I will be talking about in this post.

Myth #2: You need to learn a bunch of fancy scales.

False. Don’t get me wrong, scales have their place in our jazz education, especially when it comes to knowing your instrument. A little bit of chord/scale theory doesn’t hurt either.

But jazz improvisation is not about scales. Jazz is about learning a language (more on that soon). Don’t worry so much about which scale to play over this chord or that chord.

Myth #3: You need to know a lot of music theory.

I think this one is way over exaggerated. Sure, knowing music theory helps. Indeed, you should know some theory basics like how to build chords, or how chord progressions work.

But you don’t need to know a lot. You don’t need to know every melodic minor application and every fancy term. By doing the things I talk about in this post you can learn as you go along.

Myth #4: If you just listen and keep playing, you’ll eventually get it.

Don’t you just hate it when people say that? That’s just frustrating.

Of course you need to listen, and of course, you need to practice.

But if you don’t have guidance, if you aren’t practicing the right things, and if you don’t have an action plan, it’s going to be a real uphill battle.

Myth #5: The more hours you practice the better you will get.

False. I’ve wasted hundreds of hours of my precious time practicing.

I’ve wasted time learning stuff that had nothing to do with what I practiced the day before. I’ve wasted time just noodling and not actually practicing anything. I’ve wasted time not having an action plan.

It is true that the more you practice the more opportunity you have to improve. But under the right circumstances, it is quite possible to get more out of a 30-minute practice session than a 5 hour one.

Step #1: Setting Up Your Jazz Practice Sessions for Success

After all of those myths, here’s a piece of solid truth:

Becoming a better jazz improviser comes down to how and what you practice. Not learning fancy tricks.

But I don’t think I have to convince you of this. I mean, if you want to become a great chef, what do you have to do? Cook a lot. There aren’t any magic potions to drink or special prayers to recite.

It’s the same with jazz. The more you listen to it, practice it, and get out and play it, the better you will become.

Now, it goes without saying that you need to be listening to jazz. If you aren’t listening to the music you’ll never quite understand it. But I don’t need to tell you that.

So where do we start?

Set goals for your jazz playing

There are those that laugh off this first step. That’s their mistake. Luckily, you and I understand this is important.

When setting off to improve as a jazz improviser we need to first set Master Goals.

What’s a Master Goal?

A Master Goal is your big-picture vision of where you want to be in your jazz performance. This big-picture vision has everything to do with why you wanted to study jazz in the first place.

So why is this important?

Because if you don’t know what you are working towards, it’s going to be easy to lose your focus, discard your action plan, and lose your motivation. It’s like anything else in life.

When coming up with your Master Goal, try to think of a transformation.

Here’s an example of a bad Master Goal:

“I want to learn 50 jazz standards.”

What’s missing in this goal is a transformation. Why do you want to learn 50 jazz standards? What would that accomplish? Simply doing tasks will not be enough.

Here’s an example of a good Master Goal:

“I want to feel comfortable playing at my local jazz jam session.”

Now that’s a transformation. Perhaps someone setting this goal is a beginner and wants to go from watching in the back to playing on stage. Now they know why they want to put in the work of learning a few jazz standards.

Here’s another one:

“I want other musicians to start calling me for gigs.”

This is the next level up compared to the last example. Maybe this musician feels comfortable playing at her local jazz jam and even has some gigs of her own.

But she wants to be good enough that others are calling HER for the gigs. That’s a transformation. From being the one calling to being called. That’s something with real value to work towards.

So here’s what I want you to do right now:

Grab a piece of paper (I prefer post-it notes), think hard about it, and write down your Master Goal.

No, I mean it! Don’t be self-conscious, just do it. Then put it up where you practice so you can be reminded of it.

Did you do it? Good. Let’s move on to the next step.

Step #2: “The Big 3” Things You Need to Practice to Improve as a Jazz Improviser

Once you have your Master Goal established, how do you go about accomplishing it? Great question. Let’s get it answered.

I’ve also done a podcast episode on this as well. So if you prefer to listen, here it is.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, a common struggle people have is being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material floating around on the internet.

I mean there’s YouTube, podcasts, books, courses, and blogs like this one, all telling you a million different things to work on in no particular order.

It’s all well and good, but it also can be a rabbit hole to going nowhere.

In comes “The Big 3.”

I’m going to help you get rid of all of the clutter and make things simple for you. If you want to improve as a jazz improviser you need to be working on these three categories.

It’s not just me who thinks so. I’ve had the opportunity to study with some pretty big deal jazz musicians, and I’ve gotten these from them. I’ve just packaged them nicely.

I can almost guarantee, if you do these things consistently, you will accomplish your jazz performance goals.

1. Technique.

Have you ever seen a sushi chef slicing up tuna or carving out cucumber garnishes? Their knife skills are absolutely amazing. Clearly, they’ve spent a good amount of time honing their craft.

I’m more a fan of French cooking, so here’s a quote from a great French chef:

“I certainly don’t cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that’s what the student needs to learn: the technique.”

-Jacques Pepin

 

 

In other words, you need to know your instrument and be able to navigate it. You can’t just start improvising without a foundation underneath you.

Here’s a quote from a guy more up our alley:

Charlie Parker on Jazz Improvisation

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all of that and just wail.”

-Charlie Parker

 

 

I like the part about forgetting it all and just wailing. But notice the first thing he said: “You’ve got to learn your instrument.”

If we want to be proficient jazz improvisers, we can’t have things holding us back. Therefore we need to work on technique.

Technique doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with jazz, but improvising requires flexibility.

So what should you be working on when it comes to technique?

  • Instrument Specific Stuff

Each instrument has its own sets of challenges.

I’m not a trumpet player, but I know from some of my friends that working on long tones is important.

As a guitar player, I don’t need to work on long tones. I need to be working on playing things in different positions on the fretboard.

If you don’t know what instrument specific technical exercises you should work on, be sure to ask a teacher of your instrument.

  • The Basics (scales, arpeggios)

Make sure you know your basic scales. If you already know them, there is no harm in warming up with them from time-to-time, and playing them in different keys.

I don’t necessarily think you need to know every scale ever invented, but at least know the basics. Here are a few:

Major Scale

Natural Minor Scale

Harmonic Minor Scale

Melodic Minor Scale

I also think that it’s important to know the Modes of the Major Scale. These can really help you start to understand scales more as “pitch collections” rather than things to play verbatim.

Here’s just one example:

Mixolydian Mode

Also, make sure you know arpeggios of basic triads and 7th chord qualities. I prefer calling them chord tones.

Make sure you know their formulas and then try making fun exercises out of them like this one:

In this exercise, I’m using two random major and minor triads and simply connecting them together by the nearest chord tone. I do a lot of these kinds of exercises in my book Zero to Improv.

  • Pattern Exercises

Patterns are great for all kinds of instrumentalists to practice.

They help you develop flexibility on your instrument so that your fingers can move in ways they may not be used to.

Here’s an example of one to try:

Now, you might be thinking, “Brent, this is actually a lot of stuff!”

Don’t worry, don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t need to do everything at once. Just pick one small thing to do in your practice session.

That’s it.

This is also where having an action plan comes in, which we’ll talk about later.

Technique is really important. Make sure you are working on it at least a little bit when you practice.

Let’s move on to #2 of the Big 3.

2. Jazz Repertoire.

I’m going to stick with cooking as an example. I recently got a Julia Child book called “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

Around my house, I do a lot of the cooking for me and my wife since I work mostly from home. Over time, I’ve developed a repertoire of dishes I’m good at making.

Julia Child and learning jazz standards

I use books like this one to help me learn new recipes. Think about it: how can I be a home chef if I don’t know any recipes? I need to have a repertoire of dishes I can make.

I’ve studied a bit with one of my favorite jazz guitarists, the great Peter Bernstein.

I once asked him what kinds of things he used to do to develop as a jazz musician when he was younger.

This is what he told me:

Peter Bernstein on learning jazz standards

“I let the tunes teach me how to play.”

-Peter Bernstein

 

 

 

So simple. If you want to become a great jazz improviser, just learn jazz standards.

Jazz standards are the vehicles in which jazz musicians use to improvise and communicate with each other.

All of the important lessons about harmony and navigating chord changes can be found in these tunes.

Even if you like composing a lot of your own music, learning jazz standards are essential for understanding the history and tradition of this music. You’ll become a better composer for it as well.

So should a big part of our jazz studies include learning jazz standards? Absolutely.

So which jazz standards should you be learning?

There are hundreds upon hundreds of them, and quite frankly it can be overwhelming and hard to know where to start.

I always like to suggest what I call my “Master Jazz Standards.” 

It’s a simple list of 10 jazz standards that not only are commonly called upon to play but have some valuable lessons to teach us. Here they are:

1. Autumn Leaves: Very common, and is an excellent study of major and minor ii-V-I chord progressions.

2. Blue Bossa: Common starter tune. Great for an introduction to minor harmony.

3. All of Me: Classic jazz standard. Can’t get away with not knowing it.

4. It Could Happen to You: Great study of diatonic harmony in general.

5. Sweet Georgia Brown: Excellent study of cycling dominant 7th chords.

6. So What: The most basic introduction to modal harmony.

7. On Green Dolphin Street: Classic. Study of changing key centers up a minor 3rd.

8. Have You Met Miss Jones: The bridge is a great study of key center changes.

9. All the Things You Are: Excellent study of chords cycling in 4ths (common).

10. Stella By Starlight: A fairly difficult song, but super commonly called upon.

If you learn all of these jazz standards, I can almost guarantee that just about every other jazz standard you will learn after will be 10X easier. I even wrote an entire book on studying and understanding these 10 jazz standards.

I would also suggest learning how to play a jazz blues, and learn multiple heads. Tenor Madness is a good example. In fact, if you are a complete beginner, this is a great place to start.

Rhythm changes is an important song form to know as well, especially when it comes to playing in the bebop style. Oleo is a good example.

So you know you should be learning jazz standards, but how do you learn them?

Great question, but bear with me just a little bit longer. I’m going to go over that right after we finish with the 3rd and final category of The Big 3.

3. Jazz language.

I can’t resist. I have to go with another cooking example.

I mentioned that I have developed a repertoire of dishes I can cook. Well, the truth is, most of them I don’t really have to read a recipe for anymore.

You see, I’ve made them enough times and I’ve copied enough different versions of the same dish, that I’ve developed my own way of making them.

But to do that I’ve had to steal culinary ideas and techniques from other chefs. The same way I’ve stolen musical ideas from other musicians.

learning jazz improvisation from recordings

I know, this sounds bad. But trust me, I don’t mean stealing in a bad way.

In fact, stealing probably isn’t the right word for it. Because at the end of the day, learning jazz (or any style of music) is like learning a language.

In order to learn a language, we need to mimic native speakers.

Think about it. When you were a little kid, that’s exactly how you learned to speak your native language. By mimicking your parents.

We have to do the same when learning to become jazz improvisers. We need to learn phrases and ideas from great jazz musicians so that later those ideas can evolve. Through this learning process, we can then develop our own way of playing.

So what kinds of jazz language should we learn?

I like to break it down into two different categories: micro language and macro language.

  • Micro language: Licks

Licks are small musical phrases, usually over a particular chord or chord progression.

Licks are great to learn because they can help you understand more detailed elements of jazz harmony, such as chord progressions.

Here’s an example of a lick I “stole” from Jim Hall:

2-5-1 Jazz Improv Lick

It’s over a ii-V-I chord progression, which is the most common chord progression in jazz harmony.

By learning Jim Hall’s lick, I’ve been given insight into how he approached this progression and can analyze it further.

  • Macro language: Solos

Learning entire jazz solos is a great way to get inside a macro approach of how an artist approached a jazz standard.

Every time I’ve done this it has been totally worth the time investment.

I suggest learning jazz solos that you really love, and ones that are accessible to you. What I mean are ones that are inside your skill level and won’t be overly difficult.

For beginners (or anyone) I like to suggest Miles Davis’ solo on Freddie Freeloader (a blues).

So how should you learn jazz licks and solos?

By ear.

Preferably not with sheet music. I know there are some people who disagree with me, but there are a multitude of reasons why, when it comes to learning jazz language, you should do it by ear.

Here are a few quick reasons:

1. You will internalize it better. Repetition builds memory.

2. You will build your ear. Your ear is your most powerful asset in jazz improv.

3. Trains you for reaction. Reading music is a different mindset.

All in all, I highly encourage you to go through the work of learning jazz language (and jazz standards) by ear. It will pay dividends.

I know what you’re thinking now.

It begs the question: How do I learn jazz language by ear?

I’ve got you covered.

My LIST Process for Learning Jazz Language by Ear

Whether it be jazz standards, licks, or solos, learning them by ear can be challenging if not done correctly.

In comes my LIST process for learning jazz language. It’s an acronym and I’ll go over it in just one second.

But if you’d like a printable pdf for the LIST process that you can hold on to, get my free eGuide Learn Jazz Standards the Smart Way.

It’s completely free, sign up at the link and I’ll send it to you right away. I also include a bonus step.

Listen.

The first step in the process is fairly simple: listen to the jazz standard, solo or lick.

That may seem like an obvious first move, but you would be surprised how many students rush into learning a piece of music with having barely listened to it.

The most important thing you can do when learning jazz language is to put your instrument away and just listen.

Find as many recordings as possible of the jazz standard you want to learn and go through all of them. If it’s a jazz solo, have that thing looping on repeat.

You need to become acquainted with the material, and without becoming acquainted with it first, you will have started off on the wrong foot.

Internalize.

This step involves more listening, but a different kind: intentional listening.

What do I mean by that?

Imagine you are sitting in your living room watching a movie. As long as it’s engaging enough for your tastes, it’s likely you will sit still, eyes trained on the screen for two hours or more.

What if you treated music in the same way you did the movie?

In general, it’s a great practice to listen to music and give it your full attention, no distractions. But this is especially important to spend time doing when you are trying to learn new jazz language.

If you give that song, solo, or lick your full attention, you will begin to internalize it, and it will start to sink into your subconscious.

I talk about intentional listening in further depth in this video:

Sing.

This next step is really important. Singing is a powerful way to prove that you have actually internalized the information you are hearing.

No, you don’t have to be a great singer, and sure, if you want, you can whistle or hum.

When it comes to jazz standards, the primary application of singing involves the melody. Be sure that you can sing the melody of the standard, both along with the recording and on your own before you learn it on your instrument.

If you’re learning a solo, this is especially important.

What singing does is it takes away 50% of the learning process. It proves you have internalized it and all that is left is transferring that musical information to your instrument.

Transfer.

Now it’s time to actually pick up your instrument (you shouldn’t have been touching it until now).

You should be quite familiar with the song or solo and have at least a grasp on the chord changes depending on where you are at in your musical abilities.

If you’re learning a jazz standard:

1. Transfer the melody. Start learning the melody on your instrument. Again, this should only be a matter of you taking what you can already sing and finding the notes on your instrument.

2. Learn the chords. This is the most challenging part of learning songs by ear, but I encourage you to do your best! It is incredibly helpful to have a good understanding of how jazz harmony works.

Now, if learning chord progressions by ear is brand new to you and you get stumped, that’s okay.

This would then be a good time to take a look at the sheet music. But when you do, go through it while listening to a recording, starting and stopping when appropriate to see if you can decipher what’s going on by ear.

You may be thinking: “Brent, that’s too much work!”

Not really. A lot of this stuff you can do on your commutes, runs, or while you’re at the gym. 50% of it is just listening.

Also, wouldn’t it be worth following the LIST process if it helped you learn jazz language really well the first time? Of course it would.

Step #3: Creating an Action Plan for Quicker Jazz Improvement

Okay, before we move on, let’s recap what we’ve learned so far:

  • Set Master Goals.
  • Practice “The Big 3.”
  • How to learn jazz language by ear (how to do The Big 3).

But let me be very clear:

None of this matters unless we create an action plan.

Action plan to become a better jazz improviser

This is where many people fail, and I’ll admit, I’ve been one of them.

You may know your big picture vision of where you want to be as a jazz improviser, and you may understand what you need to practice to get there.

But without a focused, goal-oriented action-plan, you could be wasting tons of your time, and even money.

So with our Master Goals and The Big 3 in mind, how do we create an action plan for jazz success?

First, we need to understand three other kinds of goals:

1. Project Goals.

Project goals are exactly what they sound like. You establish a project you want to accomplish.

We’ll pick a category from The Big 3: jazz language.

Let’s say our project goal is to learn one jazz solo. Sounds like a good project right?

Let’s also say that this solo is 4 choruses long and has a 32 bar form.

Awesome, but that’s way too much to bite off all at once. Even just the idea of learning a 4 chorus jazz solo is overwhelming.

We have to break it down even further.

2. Short-Term Goals.

A Short-Term Goal breaks down your Project Goal into smaller pieces.

It’s like a pizza. When it comes out of the oven it’s this massive, beautiful, piping hot circle of cheesy goodness. You want to eat it, but it’s just too big to pick up and eat like that. You need to make it smaller.

So let’s pretend our jazz solo is a pizza (bear with me).

It’s four choruses long, so why don’t we cut it up into four pieces?

Now we’ve broken it down into 4 short-term goals of 32 bars. It’s now easier to see how we can accomplish our Project Goal when we do this.

But still, 32 bars is a lot to chew on! We need to break it down even further.

3. Micro Goals.

If you’re trying to eat one-quarter of a pizza all at once, it’s a little ridiculous. I mean, you can do it, but you shouldn’t. It’s not practical.

How do you fix the problem? Slice it up into smaller pieces.

So if you want to make your 32 bars easier to digest. Learn smaller bits.

I think of Micro Goals on a practice session basis. It is the ammount of new material you will learn in one practice session.

When it comes to learning solos, I usually suggest 4-8 bars. That’s not a hard and fast rule. That’s just normally what a phrase in a jazz solo is. Start with just the first phrase (a place with a good stopping point) and just learn that.

This is commonly called “batching.”

There is no need to learn more. In fact, I encourage students in my jazz practicing course 30 Steps to Better Jazz Playing, to only learn that much in one sitting.

It’s the less is more approach, and it’s a good approach for internalization.

So your Micro Goals are informed by your Short-Term Goals, and your Short-Term Goals are informed by your Project Goals.

action plan for better jazz playing

Create a Stair-Step Practice Plan.

To make this even more understandable, I’m going to show you my Stair-Step Practice Plan.

You can apply this exact framework to any of The Big 3 categories and the stuff I’ve suggested you practice within them.

Let’s keep going with the Project Goal of learning a jazz solo. This time we are going to hone in on how to use Micro-Goals to reach our Short-Term Goal of 32 bars.

Take a look at the illustration first, and then I’ll explain further.

You’re looking at a set of stairs with a longer step (let’s pretend it’s the second floor of a building), and then more stairs going further up.

That second floor is our Short-Term Goal of learning 32 bars of our jazz solo. The stair steps are our Micro-Goals (our per practice session accomplishments).

You’ll notice there are 7 stair steps. This doesn’t necessarily represent 7 days of consecutive practicing. I hardly know anyone that actually has the time to do that.

It simply means 7 practice sessions before arriving at our Short-Term Goal. That’s just the framework we are using.

Here’s how it goes:

Session 1: Learn just 4-8 bars or the first phrase of the jazz solo.

Session 2: Learn just the next 4-8 bars or phrase of the jazz solo.

Session 3: Review what you’ve learned so far.

Session 4: Learn just the next 4-8 bars or phrase of the jazz solo.

Session 5: Review again (don’t learn anything new).

Session 6: Learn the next 4-8 bars or phrases needed to complete 32 total bars.

Session 7: Review all 32 bars (Short-Term Goal accomplished.)

Importance of Review

Notice how much review there is in the Stair-Step Practice Plan.

Often times we are tempted to constantly over-saturate ourselves with new musical information. It’s the more is more approach.

I’m all about the less is more approach. The more you review, and learn small batches of musical information, the more you will internalize it. That’s the end goal, isn’t it?

jazz improvisers performingYou can apply the Stair-Step Practice Plan to any of The Big 3.

Now, of course, motivation and guidance will play a big factor in your success. Which is why I’ve created my course 30 Steps to Better Jazz Playing, to offer that community and support that some of us need.

But if you implement this plan and align it with your Master Goal, you will be blown away by what focused, goal-oriented practicing will accomplish for you.

Conclusion

If you’ve been following along from the beginning, you probably need some help summing all of this up.

Becoming a better jazz improviser doesn’t have to be so difficult. It’s not about learning fancy tricks and chord/scale theory.

It’s about practicing the right things with an action plan.

We can improve as jazz improvisers more quickly with three steps:

Step #1: Establish Master Goals. Knowing your big-picture vision will set you up for success.

Step #2: Practice “The Big 3.” Work out of these 3 categories and you will accomplish your jazz improv goals.

Step #3: Create an Action Plan. With your Master Goals and The Big 3 in mind, create your Stair-Step Practice Plan.

In between all of this, we debunked some common myths about playing jazz and some limiting beliefs.

We talked about how to learn jazz language by ear with the LIST process, and we talked about how to reach our jazz improv Master Goals.

Do all of this, and you will be surprised at how far all of this will get you.

Remember, I go over all of this in even more detail in my free video mini-course called “Accelerate Your Jazz Skills.” I’ll send that to you if you want to dive in a bit further.

What things do you do to improve as a jazz improviser? Leave them in the comments below.

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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