Learning to improvise by ear!

Learning to improvise by ear!

I currently feel that there is an issue with how many guitarists (and pianists, albeit to a lesser extent) begin to learn how to improvise. For many guitarists, the prospect of improvising over a standard tune or through a chord progression, presents an immense challenge. That it is only after a mountain of theory, scales, arpeggios, chord tones and patterns are memorised, one can start to improvise freely and spontaneously. Whilst these things are really important (more on this later), there is one aspect that is often not considered - your ears! I believe that this is the most important tool for any improviser and developing the ability to interpret melodies that you hear onto your instrument will free you up to make music, rather than trying to remember what notes go into an F#m7b5!
 
One of the best ways I’ve found to develop this skill is to learn music by ear, rather than using sheet music, lead sheets or solo transcriptions. I’m going to outline my method for learning a jazz solo, however this method can be applied to any music in any style from any era. For example you could apply this method to: a Clifford Brown solo, a Radiohead song, a Bach Two-Part Invention or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The key is to get the music ingrained into your ear/aural memory and THEN onto your instrument so that you will be free to manipulate the materials when you go to improvise.

  • Step 1) Start by listening to it...a lot! - Whether it’s something that you’ve been listening to for years or something new, hone into the solo or a section of it by listening repeatedly to it. It may help to edit an mp3 so that it only plays the solo if it is a longer overall track, but the idea is to know the solo or song really well before you even begin to proceed to the next step. 
  • Step 2) Sing along with it - Whether you’re a crooner or a croaker, everyone, for better or worse, can sing and should learn to enjoy it as this step is so important. After you’re very familiar with the solo, it’s time to start singing along with the recording. Trying as best you can to match the pitches of the notes played, sing along, trying to capture the inflections, rhythmic feel and phrasing of the musician. If it is too quick, you may like to slow it down so that you can hear each individual note clearly. There are heaps of programs that will do this and a quick Google search will provide everything you need.
  • Step 3) Start working out the notes - Depending on how well you went with step 2, this step can be really easy or really hard so it’s important to be patient and easy on yourself if you find it tricky. As best as you can, try to learn the notes and melodies from your singing alone rather than directly from the recording although depending on how hard the solo is, you may need to check or refer to the original recording. 
  • Step 4) Play it along with the recording - After completing the learning process, it is now time to perfect it on your instrument. Take care to again match the phrasing, groove and dynamics on your instrument with that of the original recording. Again, you may need to slow it down if it’s too quick.
  • Optional Step 5) Extensions - If you’re super keen, I would encourage you to try and challenge how well you know the music by trying these exercises, as well as coming up with some of your own:
  • Can you play/sing it in another key?
  • Can you accompany yourself whilst singing the solo?
  • Can you play it with a metronome? On 2 & 4? On 2? On the and of 2? On every 2nd bar?
  • Can you play the solo and sing the root notes?
  • Can you trade 4s with your own improvising and the solo?
  • Can you use bits of the solo to improvise a new one? 

As important as your ears are, it is also so important that you have a strong foundation in harmony and the basic constructions of music such as scales, keys, chords and rhythms. By developing both a strong set of aural skills and theoretical knowledge of harmony and rhythm, you will have a great foundation to start you on your journey of learning how to improvise.
 
I have provided links to some easy jazz solos that I think would be appropriate for an intermediate-advanced student who is starting to learn about jazz improvisation.
 
Have Fun!

 

There are two great solos on this F blues - the first saxophone solo is by Charlie Parker and is a bit more tricky than the trumpet solo by Miles Davis. I would recommend starting with the trumpet solo and then do the saxophone solo.


Chet Baker's vocal scat solo on It Could Happen To You is a great start because its short AND he's actually singing it, which might help for step 2. Great for singing students also!


One of the more tricky solos could be any of the three solos on this tune Stompin' at the Savoy, the first Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Richie Powell on piano and finally Clifford Brown on trumpet. I would recommend starting with the piano solo first!

Have a go at this great blues solo by Miles Davis - its quite long so you may like to try doing a few choruses or the whole thing. It gets harder as it goes on.

Words by Matt Hoyne.

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