improvising 101
September 27, 2010 8:34 AM   Subscribe

I've finally managed to attend a jazz class. Our first homework is to search for the available melodic options over the chord changes of an F blues (ie over each chord). Could you provide me with an annotated roadmap ?
posted by nicolin to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
I find this a little confusing because as someone who plays jazz my answer would be... nearly everything.

If it's the first class, though, I guess maybe the answer they're looking for is the minor pentatonic scale? See here for details:
(well, among other places. This is probably one of the most thoroughly documented pieces of musical theory because it's of interest to pretty much every beginning guitar student)
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:43 AM on September 27, 2010

I'd use any notes in a standard F "blues" scale (minor pentatonic, as RustyBrooks mentioned -- also the flatted fifth) + the F Mixolydian scale. One exception: avoid A (the 3rd of the Mixolydian scale) over the Bb (IV) chord.
posted by John Cohen at 12:30 PM on September 27, 2010

I have a strong suspicion your teacher just wants you to think about the (nearly endless) possibilities. I'd be really surprised — and a bit disappointed — if a teacher gave me an assignment like this with a particular list of correct answers in mind. Because, yeah, like RustyBrooks says, there is very little that you can't do over blues changes.

So assuming that this is a think-about-the-possibilities-type assignment, here are some places to start:
  • Think about the notes in each chord. What notes are shared between two chords? (e.g. what do the F7 and C7 chords have in common?) What notes only show up in a single chord? What would happen if you started mixing stuff up — adding notes from the C7 chord to the F7 chord, or to the Bb7 chord, or vice versa?
  • Think about different scales that you might play over a dominant seventh chord. (If you play piano, or can spend some quality time with someone else's piano, then there's a real easy way to explore this: just play an F7 with one hand, and try out different scales with your other hand. What sounds good? What sounds crappy? Does any of it sound crappy in maybe a potentially badass kind of way?)
  • Think about dissonance. Try this: play the four notes of an F-dominant chord, F-A-C-Eb. And then play some totally random crazy-ass note. And ask yourself, "Which direction is this note pulling? Where does it want to resolve to? How could I bring it back to fit in with the other four notes I just played?"

posted by nebulawindphone at 3:12 PM on September 27, 2010

Thanks for the invitation to comment on this thread nicolin and for your kind words. I think your teacher is, as we say over here in the UK, "having a laugh". In other words, nebulawindphone has it right in saying the possibilites are endless.

Problem I have in imparting knowledge is that I play by ear and am musically illiterate. Once things get beyond major or minor chords I have no idea, technically, what I'm playing. I obviously know what a dominant seventh chord sounds like, but I don't know when I play one that that is a dominant seventh chord (if that makes sense...). Same with scales etc.

This is going to sound pretty crazy to those who have been formally trained I'm sure, but..........whistle. That's right - whistle. Put on a record and improvise by just whistling (or humming). Don't get hung up on technicalities - people listening to an improvised solo don't give a shit whether "rules" are being adhered to or broken - just go for it. Doing this frees you up from any technical limitations you might have on your instrument and is a way of unlocking and harnessing any innate improvisational ability you might have. If you do have that, you just need to find a way to channel it into the guitar.

To me, improvisation is not a conscious thing at all (and I don't think, either, that loads of technical knowledge equates with improvisational ability). In fact, the more I think about a solo the worse it generally gets. First takes are always the best takes. And if you're having to think too much you're actually not improvising at all, you're writing. The nearest thing I can liken it to is being semi-hypnotised or in a kind of trance. I suppose some would call that being "in the zone". I really don't know, in the end, how I do it. And, of course, one sometimes can't get into "the zone" at all for whatever reason. Anyway, the whistling idea is an off-the-wall method for you to try and find your "zone".
posted by MajorDundee at 11:56 AM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whistling or singing are a really good idea. Another thing that is pretty good is to play on only one string, and sing or whistle while you play, the idea being, play what you're whistling/singing/humming, whatever. This is really hard to describe and I suppose you might call it a chicken or egg problem because which is coming first, what you're playing or what you're singing? The idea is though that you can pick out better melodic elements singing that playing, usually, until you get pretty used to it.

When I first started trying to solo, the problem was that I knew what notes to play where, sort of, and I knew where they were on the guitar, but I didn't know what things would sound like before I played them, and I didn't know how to play what I heard in my head. There was no mesh between what I thought and what I did, so, it sounded pretty terrible.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:58 PM on September 28, 2010

sing or whistle while you play, the idea being, play what you're whistling/singing/humming, whatever. This is really hard to describe

Description's fine Rusty - spot on. I've been told that when I'm "zoning" I grunt and hum and move my mouth around. I'm not aware of doing it. But I've noticed that a lot of jazzers do it too (Monk's a good example - you can hear him doing it on a lot of his recordings). I don't have the technical knowledge to call myself a jazz musician (those guys are the real musicians in my book), but I guess improvisation is the same deal whatever genre you're working in.
posted by MajorDundee at 2:21 AM on September 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks. I've been interested in improvisation for such a long time that I'm aware of the diversity of approaches when it comes to learning how to actually doing it. But it's nice to hear that some of these approaches do work for some people. I think I definitely need to practice the exercises you are depicting here, Majordundee, because it would allow me to tighten the connection between what I (pre-) hear and what I do. But I also think that I need to expand what I hear. Thus, I need to experiment different sets of notes, different chords, different sequences - I mean, new ones, at least for me. Although it wouldn't seem to be very difficult, since I am stuck with only one kind of sound, it is actually very hard to escape from it, the groove has gotten deeper.

Btw, next jazz class focuses on Birk's works. Any ideas ?
posted by nicolin at 4:31 AM on September 30, 2010

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