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A Simple Exercise to Help You Develop Better Jazz Solos

When I think about all of my favorite jazz solos and what makes them stand out to me, it comes down to one key component: development. 

Sure, there are lots of factors that make great solos: an original sound, a firm grasp on jazz language, great licks, and lines…etc. But if you really stop to think about it, what are any of those things without development?

What do I mean by development? To develop means to evolve, to build off of, and to change. And when something evolves it does so gradually, and it doesn’t do so apart from its previous environment. Consider this sentence:

I was going out for a walk when I noticed a strange object lying on the pavement.

Now, I know this may seem like it has nothing to do with music, but bear with me for a second. This is a strong sentence. Not entirely creative, but it describes a definite action, paints a basic picture of the scenario and then leaves you with something to keep you reading; to trigger your curiosity. Now here’s the next sentence to follow:

As I walked past a grocery store, I realized I needed to buy some milk.

Do you see the problem here? This sentence completely ignores the fact that a strange object was found lying on the pavement. I wanted to know what it was! Instead, it moves on to a different moment of realization on the walk. If this was the opening to a book I was reading, I would be losing interest quickly if this trend continued.

But so often I hear musicians play solos that sound a lot like these two sentences. They play one idea and move on to the next, with little regard to the idea they had played previously.

Even though we are not using words, when we improvise, we are telling a story. And if we want to tell a good story, we have to make sure that our sentences and even paragraphs are building off of each other. We need development in our jazz solos.

We are all guilty of playing directionless, meandering jazz solos, from time to time, including me. We get wrapped up in playing “hip licks”, playing “the right notes” and comfortable phrases we know will keep us afloat.

But if we give in to the temptation we are doing ourselves no favors. We can play the hippest sounding lines, but if the line that follows makes no sense in context, then what is the point? We need to tell stories, not bark out sentences of irrelevant content.

A simple exercise

Rather than simply diagnosing the problem for you, as I just have, I want to give you something to work on to help you exercise development in your solos. And rather than give you five or ten things to work on, I want to just give you one. If you’re anything like me, focusing on one thing can be so much more valuable than focusing on one too many.

Here’s what you do:

  • Compose a short melodic line. It can be over a particular chord progression, such as a ii-V-I, or it can be over one chord.
  • Play the melodic line until you are familiar with it, and have it properly transferred to your instrument.
  • Start coming up with as many possible variations of the melodic line as possible. Add notes, subtract notes, or even change the direction of particular parts.
  • If your riffing ends up evolving into a different idea altogether, start coming up with variations on that.

What does this do? It starts exercising your ear so that you are able to take a theme and develop it. It helps you focus on evolving a musical idea and turn it into a story. You’ll find that the more you revamp that musical idea, the more it starts moving in a particular direction. Before you know it, you’ll have a really big selection of musical options to go in.

The hope is that the more you are able to re-train your brain to think this way, the more interesting and musical your jazz solos will be. We have to work on discarding the mentality of single-serving licks and hot shot one-liners.

Let’s all focus on developing our solos this week and putting this simple exercise to use. I know what I’ll be practicing 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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