LJS 83: How to Improve Speed and Accuracy in Your Jazz Solos

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Welcome to episode 83 of the LJS Podcast where today we are answering a question from a caller who asked how to improve speed and accuracy in his jazz solos. Brent goes over a great exercise that you can start working on today to develop your time and rhythm feel, as well as technique. Listen in!

Listen to episode 83

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In today’s episode, we are answering a question from a listener who left a voicemail on the podcast questions hotline. This listener wanted to know how to improve his speed and accuracy in his jazz solos. Here’s his question:

“Hi, Brent. Love this show and have been listening for some time. Great technical information, and also really good psychological and emotional tips. My question is, as a newer jazzer, my question has to do with speed. I can get a fairly decent solo that sounds pretty good just playing myself, but in no way does it sound like the pro’s that I’ll see on stage or even on YouTube and that has to do often with a speed and rhythmical speed, and I don’t even mean Charlie Parker Coltrane style speed. So my question is, how do you make that leap from, yes, getting the basic understanding of the what notes to be able to play over a particular chord in progression to really be doing that with a lot more speed and accuracy. Thanks and keep up the great work!”

To help answer this question, I talk about 3 elements that I believe make a big difference when it comes to playing with speed and accuracy:

  1. Great time feel.

  2. Great command over rhythm.

  3. Great technique.

So to help answer this, I go over a great exercise that addresses all three of these elements at once. This exercise is definitely worth your time!

Here’s the process:

  1. Pick a jazz standard you are familiar with.
  2. The first chorus, play only half notes in your improvisation.
  3. The second chorus, play only quarter notes.
  4. The third chorus, play only eighth notes.
  5. The third chorus, play only eighth note triplets.
  6. (Optional) If speed is slow enough, try playing sixteenth notes.

This exercise can be challenging, but will really push you and help you grow. Play with a metronome or a backing track if that helps.

If you are not experienced with playing over chord changes, you can also play “free,” meaning improvise whatever you would like, no need for chord changes.

Give this a try this week, take your time, and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

Read the Transcript

Brent: What’s up everybody? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website learnjazzstandards.com which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. I’m really excited you’re here and I appreciate you coming to hang out with me today. As always, special welcome to those who are listening for the first time and also for those who are regular listeners. You guys keep this thing going round and I appreciate you so much.

I’m really excited to serve you on today’s episode 83, which is all about a special simple exercise that actually helps us improve three different things all at the same time. Time feel, rhythmic feel and our technique. I think it’s a great exercise and the reason I’m inspired to teach this today is because of a call I received on our podcast questions hotline. We’ll listen to that in a second and discuss it, but I’m excited to teach you this today. I think this is one of those episodes where you could just have one takeaway to practice, to work on this week.

You know, I know a lot of times with these episodes, sometimes it’s a lot of information you need. There’s a lot of meat to it and just a lot packed in there, but today is one of those episodes where you can just listen to it and really get the idea of it and actually go and take something with you to actually work on this week, so not being distracted by too many things. So I think this is a value packed episode just for that reason.

Now it’s been such a big week in Learn Jazz Standards. I mean, you guys know that if you’ve been following the podcasts for awhile, you know that this last Thursday, October 5th, we launched our ear training course “How to Play What You Hear” and it’s been so exciting just to see all of the new students coming into this course, and I’m already getting such great feedback from them. So it’s just been a very exciting time and I appreciate all of you who stuck around for your training month last month and listened to that.

Just one more extended, I’m not going to talk much about this course because I know that you guys have heard way too much about this course, so don’t worry. Don’t start panicking and looking for the Stop button on your player. But if you’d like to go check out this course, go to howtoplaywhatyouhear.com and you can check out the ear training course there.

All right, now let’s listen to this call that I got in from the podcast questions hotline.

Caller: Hi Brent. Love the show. I’ve been listening for some time. Great technical information and also really good psychological and emotional tips. My question is as a newer-ish jazzer, my question has to do with speed, time the speed. I can get a fairly decent solo that sounds pretty good, just playing myself, but in no way does it sound like the pros that I’ll see onstage or even on YouTube. And that has to do often with speed and that rhythmical speed, and I don’t even mean Charlie Parker or Coltrane style speeds. Just a sort of professional speed. So my question is how do you make that leap from yes, getting the basic understanding of what notes to be able to play over that particular chord and progression, to really being doing that with a lot more speed and accuracy. Thanks and keep up the great work. Bye.

Brent:
All right, unknown caller. I missed your name there but we’re going to unpack your question today and we’re going to base our entire episode off your question. Now if you’re wondering by the way, anybody else who’s listening, who did unknown caller call in and ask question on the podcast questions hotline. Well, the podcast questions hotline is a place where you can ask a jazz question you think it might help other people and not just yourself. You think it could be a worthy question that we could feature on the show. You can go ahead and do that by calling 910-LJS-CAST or that’s 910-557-2278. It could be answered on a future podcast episode.

For those of you who have called and left one, hang in there. We eventually get to all these questions so feel free to ask away. All right, let’s dig in to today’s show.

All right, so let’s get to today’s question. Remember, you can find the show notes today at learnjazzstandards.com/episode83. That’s episode 8-3. I’ll have today’s exercise that goes along with this episode outlined there for you and any other information that might be important to this episode. So let’s just recap our caller’s question today.

Essentially he’s a newer jazzer. He’s kind of new to the music according to him, but he’s able to construct a reasonable solo which means that he has an idea of how to navigate chords and chord changes and stuff like that, but he’s just wondering how to go to that next level. It sounds to me that his analysis here is that speed, when he’s listening to other jazz musicians, that speed is a big factor, maybe rhythmic or technical speed is a factor in what’s holding him back from being able to accomplish this stuff.

While I do think that the caller is right in some ways, I think there’s some other sides missing here that we need to address. You know, what makes the jazz musicians that are some of the best jazz musicians in the world or the best jazz musicians that have existed in history, what’s made them so great? Well, first of all, number one, just an incredible command of the jazz language, right? So obviously here we’re talking about this all the time on the podcast, you know, listening to jazz and learning solos by ear and all these different elements that create a great improviser. Just knowing these things, knowing how to express this language.

But this other side here, it really has a lot to do with general music ability and general ability on your particular instrument. So the three elements that I think really can make a solid player as long as they’re coupled with a great knowledge of the jazz language, is number one, a great time feel. Time feel is really huge. If you listen to any of these musicians, they have an insane time feel. They can feel the time. They can go on the back of the beat. They can go on the front of the beat. They can go straight on the beat. They’re able to play over bar lines. They’re able to express their ideas freely because they have such confidence in the time and feeling the time. So time feel is number one. That’s a really important aspect.

The second aspect is rhythm, like rhythmic freedom, able to express different subdivisions on their instruments, able to again play over bars and split up their phrases into different rhythms. So they have this controlled rhythm that’s really important.

The third one is technique, right? I think this is more the side that our caller was focusing on today, is just this ability on the instrument to be able to express things at maybe faster speeds or just even more difficult passages seamlessly, right? I don’t want to give too much advice today specifically on technique because I actually think technique is probably the least important of the ones that I just mentioned as far as jazz language, as far as time feel, as far as rhythmic control. I think technique, while it is important, is the last important.

Now there are certain things on your instrument that you should be aware of and that’s partially why I don’t want to give specific advice. I’m primarily a guitar player here but you know, a trumpet player for example, you teacher might tell you okay, big part of technique is working on long tones every single day. Well that, for me as a guitar player, I’m not going to have to do that at all. And a piano player might have something different. And a bass player, a drummer, vocalist, all these different approaches to the technique that you need to work on. So I highly suggest if you’re taking lessons from a teacher, to ask your teacher specifically what technique specific to the instrument you are learning you need to be working on.

There are a lot of other things you can be doing though, of course, like patterns and working on scales in patternistic ways and different things like that. Those are important things to do. But when you can combine all these things together and try to put them into more musical situations, I think that’s a great place to start to try to develop some of these things.

I mentioned this at the beginning of the show, I do have an exercise that I want to demonstrate for you. I’m going to be playing example for you, and this particular exercise combines all of these different skills together, particularly the technical side. It works that technical side. It helps you develop technique because you’re working on rhythms, okay? I’ll explain that in a second. We’re basically going through all the different subdivisions of the rhythms that we can and working on them.

The second thing is time feel because we’re going to be going over all these subdivisions in time. You’ll see what I mean in a second. So it really is working all these different muscles and more and more. I’ll talk about that as we go along.

So this is how the exercise goes. Essentially there’s two versions of this. There is one for people that maybe aren’t so great at navigating chord changes yet, and I’ll talk about that one last. Then there’s picking a jazz standard that you know really well. Like, don’t pick one that’s hard for you or one that you’re not familiar with. You pick a jazz standard and essentially what we’re going to do is you’re going to be going through this jazz standard playing different subdivisions, and let’s dive into that really quickly.

Now, I would suggest rather than using a backing track, that you do a metronome on beats two and four, okay? If you really build up your time feel really strong and really have this together, I would suggest that and that’s how I usually practice. Today I’m actually going to be using a backing track because I think that it’s going to serve more people better to be able to hear the context of what I’m playing in. So I’m going to be using a backing track for this, but I would say while both are fine, it’s great to start with maybe just beats two and four on your metronome. Or if you’re not very strong, if you’re really a beginner with time feel, it’s okay to have that click on every single beat too. But ultimately the default that I like to go for with a metronome is on beats two and four.

So, I’m going to pick a jazz standard today, and the jazz standard I’m going to pick is “All The Things You Are.” It’s kind of like my test dummy song for everything. I know that song really well and I think it’s easy for me to demonstrate things on it. So the first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to go through this entire song, the entire form, and I’m going to play only half notes, okay? So two beats each. I’m going to be improvising melodies that are only half notes over this entire song within the time. This is quite challenging but let me just play through it and then I’ll talk about it, so here we go.

(music)

Okay, so did you see how that works? We were just playing half notes throughout the entire form. Pretty simple, right? Seemingly not too difficult. At the same time, if you try it yourself it requires a lot of restraint not to play more than just half notes. You really have to stick to it and so while this does develop your time feel here and it really develops this sense of where’s the time as far as half notes go. It’s almost like you’re, I mean if you’re a bass player this is totally natural. If you’re not, it’s kind of like you’re playing half-time feel but you’re creating melodies on the spot only using half notes which I think is a great exercise in and of itself.

You know, it’s not about if it sounds really hip or really awesome or not. That’s beside the point of this exercise. In fact, you would never actually play this way and continuing on the next subdivision we’re about to go over, you would not improve this way. But again that is what an exercise is all about, right? It’s about putting up restraints. It’s about putting up borders for yourself to hone in on the specific things you want to work on, in this case time feel, rhythm and technique.

Okay, so the next step, you may have guessed it already is we’re going to play quarter notes throughout the entire form of whatever jazz standard you’ve chosen. So I’m going to go ahead and demonstrate that for you.

(music)

All right, so that makes sense, right? It’s pretty straightforward. Now if you’re experienced bass player in jazz, right now you’re rocking this, right? Because half notes, quarter notes, that’s your jam. That’s what you do so I mean, you’re rocking this. Maybe for others might not be quite so much the same way. So great restraint, I mean just really focusing on really locking in those quarter notes with the time and really just focusing on only quarter notes. Again, don’t accidentally start playing eighth notes. Don’t accidentally start playing it. No, you have to focus on only playing quarter notes.

I want to point something out here really quickly, and this goes back to our caller’s question and it’s about accuracy and technique. You may have noticed if you’re paying close attention, I actually flubbed a note there. Actually, I may have flubbed a couple of notes where I sort of accidentally missed the quarter note. I was trying to play a note but I sort of missed it. Well, that’s definitely a guitar thing, right? My right hand didn’t lock up with my left hand. That’s a great example of how even something as basic as quarter notes, I mean, just because it’s a quarter note, just because the speed isn’t fast, just because you’re not playing a lot of notes, doesn’t mean that you don’t need to work on your accuracy. So I hope that’s a great lesson just in and of itself, is man, even quarter notes, we’ve got to work on quarter notes. We’ve got to work on half notes. Make sure we have those together.

All right, let’s go on to the next one. Now the next one, now a lot of you could do this. You could go quarter note triplets. We’re going to skip over that. That one is pretty tough, okay? We’re going to go straight to eighth notes, so now I’m only going to play eighth notes. This is, for me it starts getting a little bit tougher because you’re just playing this continuous stream. Again, this is not how you would normally play in a playing situation, right? This is an exercise. Let’s listen to this. I’m going to play eighth notes over top of the form now.

(music)

All right, yes, so that was way harder at least for me, and I’m sure it will be for you too. Now eighth notes are important because eighth notes are really a common subdivision used in jazz. You have to really have your eighth notes down. If I go back and re-listen to that again, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to hear some areas where I could probably tighten up my eighth notes. It’s really difficult to play long streams of eighth notes like that and not switch it up, not leave some space. It really takes a lot of focus and this is where someone, if you’re listening right now and you’re like, “Whoa Brent, that’s cool and all but that’s way above my head because I can’t even play changes like that.”

To play eighth notes continuously, you really have to have an idea of how to navigate chord changes. You have to know what notes to be hitting, how to outline these chords and connect them together, right? I mean that’s really important to be able to do this. So don’t worry. I’m going to be going over a simplified version of this exercise in a second, so stay tuned for that. For now hang in there with me.

Now things aren’t going to get any easier. They’re going to get a little bit tougher. Now we’re going to move on to eighth note triplets, okay? If eighth notes was tricky, which they are, now this is going to be a little more tricky because, and this is where that technique starts coming in to really locking in those triplets. Let’s try this out. I’m going to play triplets over top of “All The Things You Are.” Oh and quickly, in case this is a completely new thing for you, if you’re not really familiar with what a triplet is, just in case this is you. The time is one, two, three, four. The triplet is one, two, three, four, triple it, triple it, triple it, triple it, triple it, triple it, triple it, okay? So here we go.

(music)

Oh my God, that was hard. So yeah, that’s way more difficult, you know, and it almost sounds a little ridiculous, right? But that’s besides the point. The point is is that you’re able to sustain those triples. Even though I flubbed a few times there I’m sure you can forgive me for that. That’s the whole idea of it, is to really hone in on trying to keep that subdivision going, a constant stream of notes. Man, it’s really working my technique. It’s really working my listening skills, really listening, and of course again this level of playing the changes and like actually coming up with lines and trying to create melodies.

Man, I mean you could work on forever trying to create creative melodies out of playing straight triplets. I wouldn’t play that way but that’s such a great exercises. Like I’m working so many different levels of my musicianship by doing this.

Now the next level would be to do 16th notes. Now at this speed I personally can’t do it. I could probably do it for like four bars and then I’d probably peter out on it. You know, and that’s another thing I want to point out here is you don’t have to do things at this speed. You can slow this down as much as you’d like, so if those triplets are just like that’s impossible, I can’t do that. Then just slow it down. Slow down the tempo in general. You don’t have to go near as fast as I’m going.

You could do 16th notes. I really think though that half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes and eighth note triplets, those are the main ones. I would say focus on those ones because those are the ones that you’re really going to encounter a lot in your playing, so those ones I would definitely want to work on.

Now one other thing you can do with this is to instead of playing one subdivision over the entire form, right? That’s pretty taxing. That’s pretty difficult as you probably just heard. What you can do is switch every four bars, okay? That adds a level of thinking to it but it’s a good practice. For example, the first four bars you would do just half notes. Then the second set of four bars you would do quarter notes. And then you would do eighth notes, and then you do eighth note triplets. Let me show you what I mean really quick, just so you can get idea of what I’m talking about.

(music)

Okay, so you just keep going on and on with that pattern. So the benefit of doing it this way, of switching back-and-forth between the subdivisions like this is that it’s constantly checking your time feel, making sure you have the time locked in. Because if you noticed when I switched from half notes to quarter notes, you probably felt the difference in the time, right? The time felt different suddenly. When we switched from quarter notes to eighth notes, the time really probably felt different. Then of course when we did triplets, that was even more extreme.

So everything feel different and you have to check yourself. Am I rushing? Am I dragging? All these different things are going to come into play when you start doing this exercise. Now of course this exercise is not a good exercise for leaving space in your solos and all this stuff, and again I said it a million times in this episode already but this is not how you play in a playing situation. It’s just an exercise that’s going to help you work on your time, your rhythm, and your time feel.

Okay, now let’s get to the aspect of this for you who have been listening so far but they’re like, “Ah man, this sounds great Brent, but I just don’t really have my playing together, playing over chord changes yet. I’m kind of new at this and trying to get started on this.” That’s great. I want you to keep working on that but you can still practice this exercise without doing that. You can just simply doing this by playing free, okay? Just by simply playing free. What I mean by free is not play esoteric or play avant-garde or anything like that. I mean it can be, but you’re simply just playing whatever you want to play.

Now again, set this up with a metronome but it’s going to sound something like this.

Three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
(music)

All right, you get the idea. So just playing free, playing whatever you want and going through that with a metronome and just playing different subdivisions. In this particular case I didn’t play a certain number of bars. I kind of just went with my feeling when I wanted to switch to the next one. That’s where you really start feeling again like especially where, you know, how well is your time in place, right? Am I rushing? Am I dragging? That can really help, but again if you need to put the metronome on every single beat, that could be helpful if you’re just getting started out with this.

To kind of sum up all of this together, you know as far as when you hear the great jazz musicians playing, yeah, they’ve got that jazz language down. Yeah, a lot of times they do have good technique on their instrument, but a lot of it comes down to time feel and rhythm. This exercise really combines time feel, rhythm and technique all into one. So go ahead, get out there. I want you to just practice this this week. Give this a try. Start at a slow tempo and just put this to work today whether it be just playing free or whether it be actually playing over a particular jazz standard.

I know that you can get a lot of benefit out of this exercise. I do every single time I work on it.

All right, everybody. That’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening. Thanks for tuning in. Again, you can find the show notes on learnjazzstandards.com/episode83. I have this exercise outlined for you there is you just want to see it in writing. Can I ask you a favor? If you enjoyed this show today, go to iTunes, leave a rating and review. You can also leave a rating and review on any podcast listening platform that you use, but go to iTunes, leave a rating and review. That helps other people find this podcast. You know, everything that we do in this podcast is 100% free for you. It’s just an easy way to give back is by leaving us a rating or review, so I really appreciate going out and doing that.

Now next week we’re going to have episode 84 on the LJS podcast. I look forward to seeing you back then.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing

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