Jazz Improvisation – Essential Exercises, Technique, and Tips
Along with chords, scales, and arpeggios, jazz improvisation skills are essential for any jazz guitarist.
When soloing with scales and arpeggios the notes sound correct, but they lack that special something that makes you sound like your favorite guitarist.
This special something is jazz vocabulary.
Mixing jazz vocabulary with scales, chords, and arpeggios, builds a strong foundation in the jazz language.
This vocabulary builds up from that strong foundation as you progress on the instrument.
In this intermediate jazz improvisation guide, you learn one of the most important, and difficult, jazz skills.
Seeing one chord and playing another.
Exploring various approaches to this technique expands your vocabulary, hips your lines to new ideas, and builds your confidence at the same time.
Because this is an intermediate level guide, check out Intro to Jazz Soloing if you’re beginning with jazz.
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Jazz Improvisation Contents
See One Chord and Play Another
The main challenge in this article is seeing a chord symbol on the page and soloing using another chord, stretching your chops in the woodshed.
This concept is a big hurdle for many guitarists in their practice routine.
But, it adds new colors to your solos, opens up the fretboard, and brings a new level of sophistication to your playing.
Throughout this article, keep in mind the following.
The goal is to get to the point where you eliminate all mental math when soloing.
Learning to see a secondary chord as your first choice, not in relation to the first chord, but as the first chord itself.
If you can do this, you can quickly apply harmonic concepts to your jazz lines in the moment.
No thinking involved.
As you work this material, focus on five main jazz concepts.
All of which build your ability to see one chord and play another.
These 5 concepts are:
- 3 to 9 Arpeggios
- Minor Conversion
- Tritone Substitution
- Tritone Pairing
Learning to see one chord while playing another is the biggest challenge you face as an intermediate jazz guitarist.
And it takes a lot of practice to master this important skill.
While it’ll takes effort, that time in the woodshed pays off as you take your jazz soloing skills to the next level.
Intermediate Jazz Arpeggios
To begin your study, you apply advanced concepts to arpeggios.
Then, you take those arpeggios to common jazz chord progressions.
Play the exercises in multiple keys, change the fingerboard positions, and apply them to tunes.
Working these concepts from a technical perspective helps see them on the fretboard.
But, real growth occurs when you take them to a soloing situation.
Running a technique with a metronome is a start, but being creative with that same technique shows a higher level of control and internalization.
Always aim to bring any concept to your solos.
This shows you where you’ve grown and where you need work as a jazz guitarist.
3 to 9 Arpeggios 1 – Major ii-V-I
The first concept is 3 to 9 arpeggios.
This concept is used to add color and avoid root notes in your lines.
3 to 9 arpeggios are built by playing an arpeggio from the 3rd of any chord, outlining the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th in the process.
Here’s an example of a 3 to 9 arpeggio applied to a Cmaj7 chord.
In this case, you play Em7 over Cmaj7 to outline the intervals 3, 5, 7, and 9.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 1
Now that you know how to apply 3 to 9 arpeggios, take this concept to a major ii V I progression.
As a reference, here are 3 to 9 arpeggios for m7, 7, and maj7 chords.
- m7 = Maj7 arpeggio from b3
- 7th = m7b5 arpeggio from 3
- Maj7 = m7 arpeggio from 3
One of the biggest advantages of 3 to 9 arpeggios, is that you add color, avoid the root, and use arpeggios that you already know.
No new learning is needed to explore 3 to 9 arpeggios.
You just work out a new application of previously learned material.
Now, apply this knowledge by working 3 to 9 arpeggios over major ii-V-I chord changes.
Once you can play these exercises with a metronome, in a number of keys, apply them to other fingerings for these arpeggios.
As well, put on a backing track and solo using 3 to 9 arpeggios to work this concept from a technical and improvisational standpoint.
Exercise one features ascending 3 to 9 arpeggios over each chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 2
You now practice descending 3 to 9 arpeggios over each chord in the changes.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 3
You now alternate 3 to 9 arpeggios by playing one up and one down.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 4
Here’s a reverse of the previous exercise, where you play the first arpeggio down and the second up, alternating from there.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 5
Now that you’ve applied 3 to 9 arpeggios to a technical workout, here’s a lick that uses these arpeggios in an improvisational setting.
Learn this lick in 12 keys and apply it to tunes in the practice room.
When that’s solid, write out lines of your own using 3 to 9 arpeggios.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 6
Take your time with these exercises, especially if this is the first time you’ve seen one chord and played another.
It takes time until this becomes natural.
But, with practice, you will apply this concept with confidence to your solos.
3 to 9 Arpeggios 2 – Minor ii-V-I
As well as applying 3 to 9 arpeggios over major ii-V-I changes, you can apply the same concept to minor ii V I chords.
Though in this case using different chord qualities and caution over the iim7b5 chord.
Here are the formulas for each chord to build 3 to 9 arpeggios from these changes.
- iim7b5 = m7 from the b3
- V7b9 = Dim7 from the 3
- Im7 = Maj7 from the b3
Before you go on, you need to address the iim7b5 3 to 9 arpeggio, as it’s more tense than the chords you’ve seen so far.
When you play a m7 arpeggio from the b3 of a m7b5, you outline the intervals b3-b5-b7-b9, with the b9 being the sticky point.
This isn’t to say that you can’t use the b9 in this situation.
But, if you find it’s too outside for your taste, play the R-b7 arpeggio over iim7b5 chords.
Then use 3 to 9 arpeggios to solo over the other changes where they’re an easier fit.
Give it a try and see what you think.
It might take time to get used to, but with practice you might love that tension over the m7b5 chord.
Never eliminate a concept from your practice that doesn’t sound good to you today.
Your ears change over time and ideas you didn’t like in the past sound great today.
To begin your practice of minor ii V I 3 to 9 arpeggios, here are those shapes ascending over each chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 7
Moving on, here’s the descending version of those arpeggios to workout in your practice routine.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 8
The next variation features an alternating, one up one down, approach to practicing minor ii V I 3 to 9 arpeggios.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 9
The final exercise begins with a descending arpeggio followed by an ascending arpeggio.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 10
Here’s a lick that you can learn, work in 12 keys, and add to your jazz guitar solos.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 11
After you work this lick, write out 3 to 5 of your own to take this approach further.
Minor Conversion 1 – Major ii-V-I
“How do they get that cool sound in their lines? It sounds so smooth.”
The answer is the minor conversion concept.
Minor conversion is an easy concept to understand, but it takes time to use it with confidence.
Minor conversion means that you replace any chord with a related m7 chord from the key center.
To begin with this concept, you apply it to the V and I chords of a major key ii-V-I.
When applying minor conversion to a V7, you continue to use the iim7 arpeggio over that chord.
This means that if you’re playing over Dm7-G7-Cmaj7, you use Dm7 over both Dm7 and G7.
Here’s how that sounds.
Pay attention to how the Dm7 arpeggio changes color when played over G7, as it outlines the 5-b7-9-11 intervals over that chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 12
Put on a ii-V-I backing track and solo over both the iim7 and V7 chords with the iim7 arpeggio.
This helps you understand and hear this concept in a musical situation.
Here’s a line that uses minor conversion over a V7 chord in a ii V I progression.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 13
The next minor conversion is playing a vim7 chord over Imaj7 to create a I6 sound.
In the key of C, this means playing Am7 over Cmaj7.
When doing so, you outline the intervals 6-R-3-5, removing the 7th and creating a “softer” sound in your lines.
Here’s how that sounds over a iim7-V7-Imaj7 progression.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 14
When you’ve played this example, put on a backing track and solo using minor conversion over Imaj7.
Here’s a line to get you started with this application.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 15
When these subs are comfortable, apply both the V7 and Imaj7 minor conversions to take this exercise a step further.
Here’s a ii V I line that applies minor conversion to both V7 and Imaj7.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 16
Minor Conversion 2 – Jazz Blues
Now that you know what the minor conversion concept is, you can apply it to the jazz blues chord progression.
To accomplish this goal, you need to replace 4 different chords in your solo.
In the key of F blues, these subs are:
- F7 replaced by Cm7
- Bb7 replaced by Fm7
- D7b9 replaced by F#dim7
- C7 replaced b7 Gm7
As the 7th chords are familiar from the previous section, you only need to learn about 7b9 chords.
Since minor conversion doesn’t work well over 7b9 chords, you use a 3-9 arpeggio here.
Doing so creates a tension-release sound over the VI7b9 chord in a jazz blues, modernizing your sound over that change.
Here’s an ascending arpeggio exercise to practice over an F blues.
To help you practice the exercises, here’s an F blues backing track.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 17
Moving on, you can work descending arpeggios over the same progression.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 18
The next exercise consists of playing one arpeggio up, followed by one arpeggio down, over each chord change.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 19
The final exercise features one arpeggio down then one arpeggio up.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 20
After you’ve worked these exercises, solo over those changes using the minor conversion for each chord in the tune.
The final arpeggio concept digs into one of my favorite soloing approaches, arpeggio sidestepping.
Again, this is an easy to understand approach that takes time to get into your playing.
Sidestepping is where you move between the underlying chord and one a half-step higher, creating tension and release sound in the process.
When applying this concept to arpeggio lines, the inside sound is the chord you’re on, and the outside sound is the chord one fret higher.
The key to a successful sidestep is not stepping outside, it’s bringing everything back to the original chord.
Leaving a line hanging over the outside sub, or not resolving it properly, leads to this concept sounding like a mistake.
Because this concept is fairly straightforward, the best way to practice is to put on a backing track and solo with sidestepping.
Here are 5 progressions to work on with sidestepping, from easiest to hardest.
- Static chord – m7, 7, maj7, etc.
- ii V Chords
- ii V I Major Key Chords
- ii V I Minor Key Chords
- Jazz Blues Chords
Here’s a static Am7 line using sidestepping.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 21
Here’s a ii V I line to practice when first learning how to apply sidestepping.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 22
Lastly, here’s a minor ii V I line that uses sidestepping to create tension and release.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 23
Arpeggio sidestepping is tough at first to get smooth.
But, with practice, you can use this concept to hip up your lines, and bring a modern sound to your jazz guitar solos.
Intermediate Jazz Arpeggio Solo
After exploring these arpeggio concepts, you can learn this solo, which applies these concepts to a musical situation.
The study is written out over the chord changes to the song “Summertime.”
You can learn the solo as a whole, or break it down into 4-bar chunks to isolate phrases in your studies.
Once this solo is under your fingers, write out an arpeggio solo of your own that uses concepts in this lesson.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 24
Intermediate Jazz Scales
Now that you’ve explored seeing one chord and playing another with arpeggios, you can apply similar concepts to your scales.
As scales have more notes than arpeggios, they’re more difficult to maneuver when applying advanced jazz concepts.
Because of this, start with modal tunes, such as “So What,” “Maiden Voyage,” and “Milestones,” to get used to these concepts on slow progressions.
Then take them to tunes with fast moving changes.
Make sure to practice these exercises in 12 keys and work them with both a metronome and over progressions and tunes in your studies.
Even if you haven’t played one chord while seeing another, you’ve probably heard of tritone substitutions.
It’s the most common outside jazz concept, and something you’ve probably read about but might not understand.
Tritone subs are when you see one chord and play another chord a tritone away.
The most popular application of this technique is over dominant 7th chords.
This is where you see one 7th chord, C7, and solo over a 7th chord a tritone away, F#7.
Here’s a line that uses a tritone sub over the V7 chord to hear this technique in action.
Notice how the tritone sub resolves into the Imaj7 chord in bar 3.
This is essential, resolving to the next chord, when applying outside sounds to your lines.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 25
When you approach tritone subs, you can use any mode that you normally apply to that chord.
For example, over a tritone sub 7th chord, you can use:
If you’re new to tritone subs, begin with the most direct mode, then work to more complex sounds from there.
Now that you know how to apply tritone subs, put on a backing track and solo with a tritone sub over the V7 chord.
As well, you can apply this concept to any chord you solo over.
When doing so, you want to use the same quality as the chord you sub.
This means that if you play a tritone sub for Dm7, you solo with Abm7.
In doing so, you step outside the chord change, but the common chord quality brings a sense of cohesion to the line.
Here’s an example of how to apply a tritone sub to a m7 chord, Abm7 over Dm7, resolving to the G7 chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 26
You can also apply tritone subs to Maj7 chords, such as this line, where you use F#maj7 over Cmaj7 in a ii-V-I progression.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 27
As long as you resolve the tritone sub into the next chord, or underlying chord if it’s longer than one bar, it works out.
If you don’t resolve the sub, well, it doesn’t work out so well.
Once you’ve explored these exercises, find other chords that work with tritone subs.
Begin with minor ii-V-I changes, or a jazz blues, or apply tritone subs to any jazz standard.
Experimentation is your best friend with this concept, as it takes time to make it sound good over a tune.
Once you get this approach down, it adds an essential concept to your solos, getting that hip sound in your lines at the same time.
Tritone Scale Pairing
You now move on to a variation of tritone subs, where you freely move between the underlying chord and its tritone sub in your lines.
Whereas you resolved the tritone sub into the next chord, here you resolve the sub into the same chord.
I was first introduced to this concept in the playing of Woody Shaw, who used pentatonic scales with this technique to great effect.
In this first line, you see this concept applied to Dm7, the iim7, as you move between Dm7 and Abm7 in that bar.
Listen for the “slippery” sound this produces, how it creates tension that is quickly resolved to the underlying chord.
This is in contrast to the tritone sub, where you create longer tension before resolving to the next chord in the progression.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 28
Here’s the same technique applied to the V7 chord in a ii V I progression.
After you’ve played these lines, put on a backing track and solo with this concept.
When doing so, begin with a static m7 or 7th-chord backing track, before improvising with this concept over full progressions when ready.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 29
The last line applies tritone pairing to the Imaj7 chord.
As you have two bars with this chord, there’s more time to experiment over that change in your solos.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 30
As well as applying this concept to your solo practice, work on a few of my favorite patterns in the technical side of your practicing.
In this first pattern, you climb up the 1234 notes of each chord, Dm7 and its tritone sub Abm7.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 31
The second pattern is the classic John Coltrane 1235 grouping, again applied to both the underlying chord and its tritone sub.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 32
The final pattern is a descending line, 8765, over both changes.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 33
As well, you can bring scales into your sidestepping lines, but with more caution than with arpeggios.
Because scales have 7 or 8 notes, sidestepping can get a messy if you try to cram all those notes in a single line.
When applying sidestepping to scales, don’t play too many notes in your lines.
To begin, put on a one-chord backing-track, for example a D Dorian Backing track, and solo with D Dorian and Eb Dorian.
How did it sound?
Were you able to use the less is more technique?
If you’re new to sidestepping with scales, the best ways to introduce this concept is to play one idea, then play the same idea over the outside chord, then return to the original idea over the diatonic chord.
Here’s an example of that approach over a Dm7 chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 34
You can also hear an example of this idea over a G7 chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 35
Now that you’ve applied this approach to your playing, put on a backing track and apply the “melodic motive” approach to sidestepping.
Here’s a lick over the first 8 bars of Blue Bossa that you can practice and apply to your own jazz guitar soloing.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 36
After you’ve explored this concept with scale, mix arpeggios and scales together in your lines.
Here’s that approach over a Cmaj7 chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 37
When looking to expand your playing into a more “modern” feel, 4th intervals are one of the most direct ways to reach that goal.
While 3rd intervals are great for outlining chord changes, 4ths allow you to play over the changes with an “open sounding” vibe to your lines.
This open sound hides the underlying chord quality compared to 3rds.
Here are ascending 4ths applied to an E Dorian scale, which you can then take to all 12 keys in your studies.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 38
Here’s the descending version of those 4ths through the same scale.
Make sure to practice these patterns with a metronome to get the most out of your time in the practice room.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 39
Lastly, here’s an alternating approach to 4th intervals over E Dorian to practice.
Once you have learned this pattern, put on a backing track and apply it to your soloing practice.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 40
Here are lines that you can work into your solos as you take 4ths into your improvisational practice.
This first lick is played over a ii V I progression in D major.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 41
This lick is played over a minor ii V I progression with 4ths applied to each mode in the changes.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 42
Lastly, here is a 4th based lick over the first four bars of Rhythm Changes in Bb.
After you’ve learned these licks, write out three of your own to take them further in your studies.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 43
4th Chords Through Scales
If you are looking to expand 4th intervals, work on 3-note 4th chords through scales and modes.
When doing so, you add one note to the previous exercises.
Take your time with these exercises, and practice them with a metronome to ensure they’re smooth in your playing.
It’s better to be slow and smooth than fast and choppy.
Here’s an ascending exercise through A Dorian.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 44
And here’s the same exercise, though with descending intervals through A Dorian.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 45
Lastly, you can run these 4th chords one up and one down.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 46
After you work these chords in your technical routine, practice them from an improvisational standpoint.
Here’s a ii V I lick in G major that uses 3-note 4th chords over each chord.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 47
The next lick, works these chords into the line, but more spread out than the previous example.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 48
The final lick is played over the first 8 bars to Summertime.
When you have these lines down, write out your own as you bridge this approach from your technical to soloing studies.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 49
Intermediate Jazz Guitar Solo
Here’s a sample solo written out over the chord changes to the tune “Sunny.”
Before playing the entire solo, learn it in 4-bar phrases, then build the entire solo from there.
Once you get the solo under your fingers, write out a solo study of your own using the scale concepts from this lesson.
Click to hear intermediate jazz improvisation 50
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