Eight Steps to Jazz Improvisation for Absolute Beginners

Hi, I’m Willie Myette, creator of Jazz Edge Academy. I’m thrilled to share this lesson with you: the eight steps to jazz improvisation for absolute beginners to jazz piano. I’ve been looking forward to teaching this for a while, and by the end of this lesson, you will not only be able to play an entire improvisation but also understand what you’re doing, why it works, and how to reproduce it if you want to move forward or revisit previous steps. Remember, you can use speed controls to adjust the pace if needed. Now, let’s dive into the first step.

Jazz Improvisation Step 1: Learn a Song

Jazz musicians use lead sheets and jazz standards as the foundation for their improvisations. In this lesson, we’ll be using “Autumn Leaves.” Here’s a taste of what it sounds like: [play snippet]. Our goal is to start with a simple structure, so we’ll only focus on the first eight measures. It’s easier to stay focused and generate good improvisation over a shorter form. In your left hand, you’ll play chord shells. You can find a detailed explanation of chord shells in the free Jazz Piano Beginner Academy Blueprint, which covers root-sevens, root-threes, and more.

Jazz Improvisation Step 2: Know Your Chords

Understanding chords is crucial for improvisation. Some teachers suggest starting with scales, but I recommend focusing on chord tones first. Chord tones always sound good and help you avoid “avoid notes” that may not sound great. For instance, the chords for the first eight measures of “Autumn Leaves” are A minor 7, D7, G major 7, and C major 7. You should be able to identify and play the notes of each chord. For example, an A minor 7 chord consists of A, C, E, and G. Knowing these chord tones allows you to improvise confidently without hitting any unpleasant notes.

Step 3: Master Rhythm

Rhythm is key to good improvisation. Simply playing notes won’t create an engaging solo. In Jazz Edge Academy, there’s a whole course on mastering rhythm, but I’ll share four basic rhythms to get you started. These rhythms use a vocalization approach with nonsense syllables to create a swing feel. Here are the rhythms:

  1. Dee by dee by da (rest)
  2. Dee by dee by dee by da
  3. Oh by triplet dee by da
  4. Da dee by dee by da

Practice these rhythms until you can play them steadily, either by clapping or on a single note.

Step 4: Create a Roadmap

Now, we’ll create an outline for our improvisation, which I call a “roadmap.” We’ll use chord tones, or “boulders,” to start our improvisation. For instance, in the first four measures of “Autumn Leaves,” we’ll target the third of each chord: C for A minor 7, F# for D7, B for G major 7, and E for C major 7. These target notes help define the chord and create a solid foundation for your improvisation.

Step 5: Fill in the Roadmap

With our roadmap in place, we’ll fill it in using chord tone ingredients from Step 2 and the rhythms we learned in Step 3. For example, if our roadmap targets the thirds, we can fill in with other chord tones around these target notes using one of our rhythms. The goal is to create smooth lines that connect the target notes, making your improvisation sound cohesive and interesting.

Step 6: Vary the Rhythms

To keep your improvisation engaging, vary the rhythms. Using the same rhythm repeatedly can sound monotonous. For example, you can incorporate triplets, syncopations, and other rhythmic variations to add interest. This step involves experimenting with different rhythms and applying them to your chord tones, creating a more dynamic and expressive solo.

Step 7: Add Comping

Comping refers to the chords you play with your left hand while improvising with your right hand. Start by playing simple, light rhythms with your left hand to accompany your right-hand improvisation. Make sure your comping doesn’t overpower your improvisation. Look for rhythmic “holes” in your right hand where you can add left-hand chords without cluttering the sound.

Step 8: Introduce Approach Notes and Enclosures

For a more advanced touch, add approach notes and enclosures to your improvisation. Approach notes are notes that lead into a target note, often by a half-step above or below. Enclosures surround the target note with notes above and below it. These techniques add a jazzy flavor to your lines and make your improvisation sound more sophisticated.

Review and Practice

Let’s review the steps:

  1. Learn the song: Focus on the first eight measures of “Autumn Leaves.”
  2. Know your chords: Understand and be able to play the chord tones.
  3. Master rhythm: Practice the four basic rhythms until you can play them steadily.
  4. Create a roadmap: Target key chord tones (e.g., the third of each chord) to outline your improvisation.
  5. Fill in the roadmap: Use chord tones and rhythms to create smooth lines connecting your target notes.
  6. Vary the rhythms: Experiment with different rhythmic patterns to add interest to your solo.
  7. Add comping: Play light, supportive rhythms with your left hand to complement your right-hand improvisation.
  8. Introduce approach notes and enclosures: Use these advanced techniques to add a jazzy flavor to your lines.

Remember, you don’t need to master everything perfectly. Aim for 80% mastery, meaning you can play it well most of the time. Don’t get discouraged by mistakes; improvisation is an imperfect craft that involves reacting in real-time to the music. Practice regularly, review the material, and most importantly, have fun with your improvisation.

For additional practice, make sure to download the free materials from Jazz Edge Academy, including sheet music, chord charts, and backing tracks. These resources will help you practice and apply the steps we’ve covered.

Finally, if you found this lesson helpful, please like the video and subscribe to the YouTube channel. I’ll be sharing more mini-lessons to help you learn jazz piano step by step. Thank you for joining me, and I’ll see you in the next lesson.

Additional Tips for Effective Practice

  • Daily Practice: Set aside time each day to practice. Consistency is key to improvement.
  • Slow Practice: Start slowly to ensure accuracy, then gradually increase the tempo.
  • Record Yourself: Recording your practice sessions allows you to listen back and identify areas for improvement.
  • Play with Backing Tracks: Practicing with backing tracks helps you develop a sense of timing and feel for playing with other musicians.
  • Stay Patient: Progress in improvisation can be slow. Celebrate small victories and stay patient with your learning process.

By following these eight steps and incorporating these practice tips, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a confident jazz improviser. Enjoy the journey and keep exploring the wonderful world of jazz piano.

author avatar
Willie President
Willie Myette is a pianist, serial entrepreneur and author of over a dozen books on piano and music education. He received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and graduated in under 4 years. Willie is the creator and president of online piano instruction sites Jazzedge® Academy, Jazz Piano Lessons and HomeSchool Piano.

2 thoughts on “Eight Steps to Jazz Improvisation for Absolute Beginners”

  1. Thanks a lot Willie for your very helpful article on learning to improvise for beginners. You broke all the elements down very clearly which clarified for me how to think mentally about improvising and what to be on the lookout for.I still have a very long road ahead of me…and so I greatly appreciate your tips here in this article! Also I like the new format for the newletter. Gives us more time to digest all the material.Weekly was too much. Thanks for changing the frequency. See ya soon Willie. Be well!

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