Barney Kessel Jazz guitar quote

Jazz Improvisation #3

Jazz Improvisation Using Guide-Tones (with AUDIO mp3)

Jazz improvisation is the art of creating melodic lines spontaneously. It is traditionally inspired by a piece’s rhythms, melody and harmony.The goal of the jazz improviser is to invent lyrical, inspired melodic content within the boundaries of harmony. In fact, great jazz solos are often outlining the chord changes effectively!

It’s also good to know that jazz musicians sometimes play *OUT* on purpose. They can try to avoid the pre-determined key centers. It’s seems that artistic expression cannot be boiled down to formulas after all! Since this is an instructional website, I will focus on how to play effectively “IN” the changes… I would like to share three of my favorite jazz improvisation “tools” with you.

The tools are explained in three pages + audio examples and should help you outline chords clearly while improvising on the guitar.

Here’s the audio introduction (click to download mp3)

Jump to a page:
Jazz improvisation #1: Scales
Jazz improvisation #2: Arpeggios
Jazz improvisation #3: Guide-Tone Lines [You are here]

Audio Content

Please listen to this audio (streaming mp3) while you check out this lesson. I’ll be walking you through the steps and explaining things a bit further than what’s written out. Feel free to pause the audio as you “puzzle things out” on your own instrument! (-:

Here’s the AUDIO LESSON for Jazz Improv #3: Using Guide-Tones


Guide-Tone Lines are Slooooow

Using guide-tones to outline chord changes is very common. Those slow-moving melodies are made of chord-defining tones played in long durations. They will guide your ears so to speak. The chosen “strong” notes that constitute guide-tone lines are most likely to be the ones that naturally resolve. For example, on a G7 to C (V-I) progression, the strongest resolution is B to C.

So, every chord progression has specific guide-tones. Why is that important? Because jazz improvisation is based on guide-tones most of the time! Just listen to your favorite players for an actual proof. Experienced jazz improvisers naturally ornament, develop, displace or simply leave out the inherent guide-tone line while soloing. It may sound technical but it is, first and foremost, happening in the ears… in *your* ears!

Here’s an example demonstrating the use of thirds and sevenths as “anchors” for a II-V-I progression in C major:

Jazz Improvisation: Guide-Tones

The thirds and sevenths could have been interpreted in many other ways. The above improvisation could have been sparser, denser, trickier,bluesier, etc. all the while remaining anchored in the selected guide-tones.

Applying the Guide-Tone Lines

Thirds and seventh are any chord’s most defining tones. As a starting point, we’ll use them exclusively. I suggest you play the root of each chord at the same time as the 3rds/7ths. It will help your ears.

The basic steps in guide-tones application are as follow :

  • Pick a tune and identify the third and seventh of each chord.
  • Play 3rds/7ths through the tune “rubato”; play the roots simultaneously.
  • Compose a whole-notes line made of 3rd/7ths on the tune.

For example:

The basic idea is to hear through the tune’s progression using only two tones. Stick to the line you composed and play it many times until you really hear it in your mind before you play (A.K.A pre-hearing.)

Beginner Jazz Guitar Guide-Tones

Once you are familiar with the process, I recommend you pick a new tune and compose a guide-tone line comprised of 3rds and 7ths in whole-notes.

Do NOT pick “Lady Bird” again! I recommend a jazz standard with an 32-bar form.

Carefully select a tune and work on it for a while. Once you can play and hear your own 3rds/7ths guide-tone line try the following :

  • Ornament the whole-notes with faster lines (scales and arpeggios)
  • Use interesting rhythms but keep the guide-tones mostly on beat 1.
  • Anticipation on the “and” of beat 4 is also o.k.

For example:

Remember, create a specific guide-tone line and stick to it. The more you work on the same specific guide-tone line, the better you will hear it’s respective chord progression internally in the future.

Intermediate Jazz Guitar Guide-Tones

Now you can play the thirds/sevenths and some ornamentation on a jazz tune. That is quite specific and you should begin to hear the chord changes clearly in your head. (If you don’t well…scroll up a little!)

The next step is to incorporate all of the basic chord tones (1,3,5 and 7) as well as using whole-notes and half-notes to build guide-tone lines.

Try the following :

  • Compose a guide-tone line made of thirds, sevenths, fifths and roots.
    (This new guide-tone line should be in whole and half-note durations.)

For example:

When you have solid guide-tones deeply in your ears and fingers try to ornament them in the following ways :

  • Ornament with faster lines (mostly scales and arpeggios).
  • Use interesting rhythms, freely displacing guide-tones.

For example:

It becomes clear that the possibilities are endless. Guide-tones can be infinitely developed when the right technical tools are mastered.

As you can see, knowing how to start scales and arpeggios on different chord tones (and different beats) comes in handy… If you’re having trouble with this, review the previous articles. (improv #1 with scales and improv #2 with arpeggios)

Advanced Jazz Guitar Guide-Tones

Finally, the process of creating and developing long and simple melodies can be applied in a myriad of other ways.

Try the following:

  • Create guide-tone lines using any scale notes. (1-3-5-7-9-11-13)
  • Create guide-tone lines strictly made of extensions. (7-9-11-13)
  • Learn guide-tone lines from recordings (by simplifying fast lines).

…with the above suggestions…

  • Ornament developing strictly on the rhythms you’re using.
  • Ornament developing strictly on melodic motifs you’re creating.
  • Ornament using anything rhythmically or melodically.

Note: As long as the guide-tones are clearly defined, your lines will make sense! In fact it is a good idea to try and play all the “wrong notes” (ornaments) while still putting emphasis on the “right” guide-tones. You’ll be amazed!

And finally, my favorite guide-tone exercise :

  • Create a guide-tone line in whole-notes that strictly ascend/descend to the next available scale note. Develop creatively.

For example:

Moving On

Once more…

Please keep in mind that guide-tone lines, scales and arpeggios are simply tools to develop genuine jazz improvisation. They will not make music for you… but they will help you hear through chord progressions.When you are really “blowing”, be in the moment and focus on the feel. Guide-tones are just part of jazz vocabulary, not your whole speech. They emotions you want to convey are above any rules!

Have Fun! Please make sure to look at the other (scales + arpeggios) pages!

Jump to a page :
Jazz improvisation #1: Scales
Jazz improvisation #2: Arpeggios
Jazz improvisation #3: Guide-Tone Lines [You are here]

5 thoughts on “Jazz Improvisation #3

  1. I like this lesson Marc. I have been having trouble improvising. I get hitting the guide tones. My problem is coming up with something that doesn’t like I’m running scales and arpeggios.

    Unfortunately that’s the one thing you can’t teach.

    Thanks for your time and effort making up this lesson for us.

Leave a Reply