Beginning Improvisation, Learning Scales and Jazz Language

Question by G.B.


I realize that the answers to the questions I’m about to ask are scattered all throughout your site, but it would honestly help me to see every answer altogether to have a better grasp of things, if that makes any sense.

Do you believe that the way a beginning improviser should approach improvisation is to simultaneously practice visualization of chord tones and progressions, the scales that correlate to each chord in the changes of a tune, and newly learned language? Or all of these things separate processes; you do one before the other? Also, when you have the changes memorized, should you first focus on improvising with chord tones, or applying the new language?

Another question I have is about the tunes themselves. After you learn the changes in one key, do you work on visualizing and playing them in a different key immediately, or would you still work on it until you can improvise in the original key you learned them in?

The last question is about scales: when you have all of your scales down, could you incorporate the language you’ve learned with scale patterns?

Thank you,


M-A’s Answer:

Wow. Three very relevant question. (-:

To the best of my knowledge … and from personal experience, here’s what I think :

All of the processes you’ve outlined (chord tones and progressions, scales for each chord and newly learned language) are “good” ways to learn more about improv and become a fluent improviser. Yes they are somewhat separate processes but I don’t think there’s a specific order in which you should learn them. That is, yes, one could be learning all of the above simultaneously. Perfect the weakest and polish the strongest of these skills (that is, if doing them all at once, everyday).

In time, you’ll realize and hear all of the above as being the same same exact same thing (oh yeah!)… those processes are simply very precise perspectives on the music. (and we need precision and to-the-point material in order to learn anything in life. Right?!)

In your question, you’re even more specific asking “if a beginning improviser should” do this and that. I strongly believe that this is player-specific : it depends on your previous experience, on what you can hear, your preferences, etc. I would never generalize a practice regiment and apply it to everyone who’s attempting to learn improv.

Some people may make strides by simply learning one scale in a few fingerings while other feel better learning the whole “shabang” about modes and other crazy stuff. So my answer : go with what works for you. If you can cope with chord-tone stuff faster, use this. If it’s “the language”, by all means, go for it! Once again : this is the “polish your strongest assets” part of it.

Furthermore, in the second part of your -1- question, you asked “when you have the changes memorized, should you first focus on improvising with chord tones, or applying the new language?”

This is also very interesting. If by “new language” you mean stuff you picked up from recording (or other phrases, licks or clichés) then here’s my answer : the chord tones will help you outline the chords best and remember the progression / form while the new language will set specific examples for you. If you picked up nice little “language stuff”, this is like seeing how the theory is “best” applied to a certain situation (tune).

Once again, I have to be the devil’s advocate : both new language and chord tones stuff are the same! If your “new language” is very good, chances are it will be very chord-defining in the same way bland chord-tone exercises can be. Once again, the language is just made of creative expansions of simple melodies and chord progressions.


Definitely work on the original (or most common) key much more before moving on. It has to be rock solid before you can attempt to mess with your own head (if you’ll excuse the expression) and change one BIG variable.

Alternatively, you can start to practice other keys away from the instrument. When you know any tune very well, see if you can recite the chord changes out loud when waiting for the bus or commuting. Then, try another key (still without instrument).

Finally, it’s very important to keep the progressions (and all that “playing in all keys” thing) very relative in your mind. Always see and hear the big picture. You know, “All the Things You Are” is NOT : F minor seventh, B flat minor seventh, E flat seventh, Ab major seventh, Db major seventh …

It’s “just” : vi-ii-V-I-IV in Ab major. Right?!

I’m not exactly sure what you mean here but here’s my “best shot” :

Of course, your newly learned “language” pieces will fit very well on the patterns (visual) that you’ve learned on your instrument. In fact, when learning from transcription or other “language” stuff, it is wise to seek the best / easiest / simplest way to learn that phrase on the fretboard.

If you learn the neck thoroughly, you will have at your command very many ways to come up with the same sounds. Your final decision should be a based on a number of musical factors : tone, phrasing, nuances, etc.

… so YES, please use the scales “boxes” (and other fingering idioms) when you get new bits of “language”!

If this is not what you were talking about, please leave a comment below. (-:

Thank you!

Marc-Andre Seguin


Old Comments for Beginning Improvisation, Learning Scales and Jazz Language

Mar 01, 2012
by: Anonymous

hola, ojala me puedan mandar libro de guitar jaz. gracias, saludos.

2 thoughts on “Beginning Improvisation, Learning Scales and Jazz Language

  1. This is a great lesson. It seems that I need to improve my playing with a real teacher 🙂
    Thank you ! And thanks for all of the free lessons.

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