Jazz Improvisation: Not Sounding Like Scales

How not to sound like a textbook when you’re soloing

You can get started creating your own melodies with simple scales and arpeggios immediately. It is so often understood in jazz improvisation that we are to play the “right” notes over various chords. And while we talk about and teach these “right” notes, we often forget to talk about how to use them!

This is a vast subject, but here are a few simple ideas to get you thinking about and developing your own language for jazz improvisation. Ready? Go!


The Two Approaches

The first approach concerns the use of arpeggios: an arpeggio is when we play each note of the chord individually (in succession) instead of simultaneously. A straightforward example of an arpeggio is the note sequence Root, 3rd, 5th, 7th. Using arpeggios to create your musical lines is generally referred to as a vertical approach to improvising.

For example:

Jazz Improvisation: Arpeggios

See this article on jazz improvisation using arpeggios

The second approach is horizontal (the opposite of vertical). The horizontal approach uses the scales (modes) associated with each chord to develop melodic ideas in your music.

For example:

Jazz Improvisation: Scales

See this article on improvisation using scales

Of course, during a typical jazz solo, vertical (arpeggios) and horizontal (scales) concepts are blended together at will. Here a few examples to get you started in thinking about your playing using these two approaches without sounding like a textbook!


Exercises : The Reference PDF

Here’s the PDF with all jazz improvisation examples on this page:

jazz improvisation - pdf with ideas

Jazz Improvisation: Download the PDF Reference here…


1 – Arpeggios

Using just notes from the arpeggios play simple musical phrases in two directions: ascending and descending. An arpeggio being made of 4 notes you can start on any note you like.

Start on the root, third, fifth or sevent but keep the notes in the same order. Here are the four possibilities :


The rhythm will be just eight notes, for now. Here are two good starting points on Dm7 and G7 :

jazz improvisation: ideas

Ascending – EXAMPLE 1A

jazz improvisation: ideas

Descending – EXAMPLE 1B


Of course you can combine the ideas of ascending and descending and get something like this (on C major 7th chord):

jazz improvisation: ideas

Ascending and Descending – EXAMPLE 1C


2 – Scales

Starting with any note in the scale, play a group of three consecutive notes. Once again, use eighth notes as your primary rhythmic material.

Ascending – EXAMPLE 2A
Descending – EXAMPLE 2B
Ascending and descending – EXAMPLE 2C

jazz improvisation: ideas

Once you “get” the concept, create your own lines ASAP !


3 – Mixed Approaches

Of course, mixing horizontal and vertical (scales and arpeggios), it will start to sound more “real” and probably like some lines your hear on jazz recordings.

jazz improvisation: ideas

Mix the two approaches together!


Real Jazz Improvisation:

Creativity using Basic Musical Building Blocks

Notice how all three of these approaches use only notes form the major scale! You can use de D dorian mode for Dm7, G mixolydian mode for G7 and the C major scale for C chord… but only the notes C D E F G A B are present! See this article about jazz scales…

By exploiting the shapes and structures available to us we create ideas that our ear (and hopefully the ear of the listener) enjoys. Through simple devices such as repetition we create instantaneously structures that our ears to can understand for jazz improvisation.

If you consider the goal of music, be it improvised or composed, to be to communicate ideas in the form of language (the language is called music), then it makes sense to need some sort of structure in order to communicate in a way others, as well as we, may understand.


Think of making musical statements.

Some of these structures are more complicated than others, but they are building blocks nevertheless. For example, the repeated structure of descending arpeggios can give enough continuity to your line to have it sound like a statement. Or, a repeated cell of three notes can be structure you decide to use.

These are simple ways to get you started creating your own melodies for jazz improvisation. As you are exploring each approach, take the time to listen to closely to what you are playing. Ask yourself, what sounds good to your ears?

Of course, this is only the beginning. Create some other options for yourself (there are so many!) and discover your sound!

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