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Improvise With Endless Material


Have you ever felt like there are musicians that have endless amounts of vocabulary and material to play with and you’re stuck with the same handful of “licks” that you repeat over and over again? I used to feel that way until I looked at improvising differently. This post is going to give you some fresh ways to enhance your creativity, while making your approach a lot more simple. 

The first thing you should realize is that you improvise every day, but you don’t think about it as a stressful event. You can “plan” out your day, but there are always things you react to that you didn’t know you would be addressing when you woke up in the morning. It could be as simple as your friend asking you if you want something to eat. Now because you both speak the same language you can understand what was asked of you and respond. Depending on how good your vocabulary is, you can come up with a multitude of answers like: “Yes!” or “Let’s grab a sandwich” or “I’m really craving some duck l’orange with a spicy mango chutney” (disclaimer: I’ve never had duck l’orange). An example of not responding correctly would be if that same friend asked, “Do you know what time it is?” and you answered them with “Man, I love apple pie!” Now that response can be attributed to not having a command over the vocabulary, or just not listening to what was asked. This is how you should think about improvising in music. Once you have the vocabulary down, altering it to react to what is going on musically, in real time, shouldn’t be a huge issue.


Listening is the first thing you should do when learning to improvise. That is how you start off learning any language (yes, music is a language). When your parents taught you as a baby to learn how to speak, they didn’t hand you a dictionary or textbook and wish you luck. They would constantly talk to you and eventually you would repeat what they said. After that you learned simple phrases and how to answer questions. Later on is when you started to recognize things they said with regard to how it looked on paper. With that being said, when you dive into improvising, you should listen to people that are playing your instrument and identify who you like and who is already doing what you want to be doing. Start to pick out little parts that you can add to your vocabulary. This would be similar to using the phrase “What’s up?!” as a greeting instead of “Hello, how are you?”. Then move on to other instruments that you don’t play to see how it is approached differently and see if you can mimic that as well. I knew a couple of drummers that could play all of the solos from the Charlie Parker Omnibook (which were transcribed for saxophone first) around the drumset, note for note.

PRO-TIP: I suggest aurally learning them first by singing some solos or phrases while listening or on your own. This will help you internalize the melodies as well as the way they are phrased.

The next thing is the science behind the music. This would be the music theory. When I took my harmony and theory classes in high school and college, one thing that stuck out to me (especially on the classical side of things) was that I learned a bunch of rules, and then I learned how to break them. Or the different exceptions to various rules. So I am going to break down the way I think about improvising into two categories. Rhythmic improvisation and harmonic improvisation. Because I mainly play percussive instruments that are sometimes pitched melodically (i.e. vibraphone, marimba, etc). I realized I was improvising a bit differently than say a horn player would typically think of things. I tended to play more rhythmically on a pitched instrument and more melodically on a drum.

I am starting with the rhythmic side of things because, people may not know if you’re playing a wrong note, but they can definitely tell when something doesn’t “feel good” or is out of time. You can also play a solo on just one note (pitch) and alter it rhythmically to keep the interest of your audience or convey something you are feeling. Most of your audience doesn’t know what notes you are supposed to play over a C minor seven with a flat five chord. They just know if it “sounds good” to them and/or if they can dance to it.

For the rhythms, there are basically 4 things to change. Take a simple rhythm. For giggles, lets make it four 16th notes (1e+a). Now, in no particular order here are things that can be altered…..
1. You can change the volume of these notes. You can play them loud, soft, medium loud, medium soft, crescendo them, decrescendo them, crescendo and decrescendo them, decrescendo and crescendo them. That alone will make a difference. Here is a standard volume chart used in music.
2. Next you can change the entrance point or placement of these notes. That would refer to what some percussionists know as rhythmic “check” patterns. Start on the beat. Move it over one place (start on the ‘e’), then move it again (start on the ‘+’), and then again (start on the ‘a’). From there you can take notes away, using the three note variations, two note variations and one note variations. That is just in duple (divisible by two) phrasing. There are also triplet (divisible by three) based rhythms. See the chart below for the patterns as well as an exercise you can use to become more familiar with the placement of these rhythms.
3. Then comes the rate or speed at which you play these notes. You can play them fast, you can play them slow. You can speed them up as you play them or slow them down, and so on.
4. Lastly, you can change the orchestration. Orchestration refers to the different colors your instrument may be able to create. Similar to when a composer moves a theme around different sections of the symphony. Play these various notes on different surfaces/drums/pitches.
Now for the harmonic improvisation. There are really only three things you think about, that have endless combination possibilities.
1. The chord tones. What are they? (see chart below) They make the chord sound the way it does (happy vs. sad). The most important ones are the 3rd and the 7th scale steps. They are mi/me or ti/te if you’re using solfeggio. So for example a Cmaj7 (C Major seventh) chord would involve the root (C), the 3rd (E), the 5th (G) and the 7th (B) scale steps. Basically an arpeggio and the leading tone. You can play the chord tones and alter the rhythm (see above in the rhythmic improvisation) of how you play these chord tones.
2. Scale based improv. All that scales are, are chord tones with passing tones between them. The idea is to play the chord tones on important beats and put passing tones between them as you work your way to the next chord change. There are all sorts of “scales” you can play (see chart below) or create ones that work for the chords you are soloing over. The tricky part is trying to think fast enough to change with each chord while still making a melodic phrase.
PRO-TIP: You don’t have to play over every chord change when soloing. There is other music going on around you, and this will also give the other musicians a chance to respond to what you played. Similar to a conversation. We all hate someone who will just keep talking and talking, and talk over us. Take a breath, leave some space.
3. Chromaticism. This is any type of chromatic playing (playing each note in succession up or down your instrument). Most commonly used to approach or come away from chord tones. Also can be used to extend the scale you are playing. The most basic approach tones are a half step and a whole step. Try approaching a chord tone from a half step below. Or a half step above. Or two half steps below (or above). Approach from a whole step away (above or below). Try a half step below and a whole step above (make sure the whole step is in the scale-diatonically) and vise versa. The combinations are endless.
PRO-TIP: If you play something that sounds “sour” to you (pitch-wise), you are only a half step away from a “right” note in either direction. However, someone once said if you do something more than once, it isn’t a mistake.
I hope this opens new doors for your improvising. Or if you were scared to try improvising in the past, this takes some of the fear away. With anything, the more you do it, the better you will get at it.