How do I learn to improvise?

What a question, huh? With all of the different approaches, mixed in with plenty of misinformation, bad advice, and washed up frustrated musicians out there who seem bent on making sure young players never exceed their level, learning to improvise is a daunting task.

It shouldn’t have to be, really. The rudiments of jazz improvisation are pretty simple…it’s the application that can take a lifetime to master. The sooner a student comes to grips with that fact—that it takes a lifetime—and embraces it, the sooner they can get playing. So here’s a few thoughts on improvisation.

“Forget all that (stuff) and play”

Boy, people love that comment, don’t they? Often attributed to Bird --or whomever we’re elevating to larger than life status at the moment. Of course we like to forget the first part, which is either as specific as “Learn your scales and theory etc.” or vague like “First ‘master’ your instrument,” but the key is in the first part—you gotta work hard! There’s no shortcut. You can’t “forget” something you don’t know. And breaking the rules is so much more fun when you know the “rules” you’re breaking.

I think if a player embraces the fact that they can never know it all, they can finally let go and play. We spend too much time worrying about what we don’t know—we try to cram in knowledge when the stuff we have learned is still just information…KNOW what you know…you can improvise in a ton of situations just knowing a few things, but really knowing them well. It’s only when you move past that “knowledge” phase and really get into understanding that we can “forget” or “let go” of it and really play.

Playing Fast is okay!

If you’re coming to jazz from a rock or blues background, you’ve probably heard the comment along the lines of “Man, all that weedly-weedly stuff, I’d rather hear (insert name of guitar player we’re elevating to god-like status) play ONE note.”

First of all, would you, really?

Second of all, I’d venture a guess that 9 out of 10 people who don’t like fast playing can’t play fast. Technique is important in jazz….you have to be on top of your game—and speed is fine, as long as it’s one color in your palette and not the ONLY color in your palette. Balance is key, and a slower, more melodic passage before will make your higher speed playing sound that much better.

Playing Slow is okay!

Paul Desmond, the master of self-deprecating humor, once remarked that he had won an award for “World’s slowest saxophone player.” Joking aside, there’s also a time and place for slow playing, and it’s not just on ballads. Listen to how Miles would play long tones over a fast churning background during his fusion days. Balance, again, is key.

Jazz has to be the music that plays in your head 24 hours a day

Listening -- no-- immersion is so important if you want to play jazz…I’ve met very few people in my life who say that they play “a little jazz” and can actually play a little jazz. I don’t want to be accused of being one of the “jazz police” (remind me to rant on them, or their non-existence, in the future) who believes jazz is better than all other music, but the truth is this: Playing jazz is a commitment. Playing jazz takes hard work and dedication. You have to surround yourself with it—music, players, whatever. It has to be the music that automatically plays on that radio station inside your head…you have to hear it. Hal Galper, pianist and educator says “If you can’t play it, it’s because you can’t hear it.” Hal knows what he’s talking about. Don’t dabble. Don’t “get your feet wet.” Dive in.


There’s a million and one approaches to improvisation. Start easy. There’s a few things every player needs to try…the amount of each is personal.

Transcribe. Even if you don’t write things down…steal from everybody and make what you steal your own. Learn it every which way and upside down. Learn it until you can have it subconsciously bubble up in your playing “on the fly.”

Look at chord tones: They’re the harmonic keys to the kingdom. Chord scale theory is important, but it’s not beginner stuff. Look at the information the chords give you right there on paper. All of the important notes for taking off and landing are included in the chords.

Train your ear. There’s a bunch of ways to do it…however you do it, do it. Pick out simple melodies…happy birthday, Auld Lang Syne…sing a phrase to yourself and then try to play it back. Your ear, at the end of the day, is your most important tool. It’s going to get you out of trouble when your fingers fail.

Learn songs—don’t practice things in a bubble. Pay attention to the way a song is structured, it’ll get you out of a lot of jams.

Simplify. Learn a few things and learn them well. Then you can move on.

Any “all or nothing” approach is usually garbage

Often they’re get rich quick schemes. Snake oil. The internet’s loaded with ‘em. Avoid them. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to learning to improvise.  Don’t fall for people who tell you “you only need this” or “you don’t need this.” There’s practical places to start, but don’t rule out any knowledge until you evaluate it yourself. Just be careful. Use primary sources if you can—the internet’s a dangerous place, filled with enough misinformation to write a 12 volume set of books.

Heck, don’t listen to me either :)

Listen to the music in your head. Hopefully it swings.



Navdeep Singh
03/15/2012 11:34

It's not a "All or Nothing" approach. This is jazz, damn it. It's a "All or Nothing at All" approach. :)

One thing I have learned the hard way, the thing I struggle with to overcome is the "Jazz as Yellow Pages" approach--i.e., let your fingers do the walking.

I try to sing everything I can, as pitiful as it seems. Even if I can't hite the note, at least I have a rhythmic contour to work with. I spent my entire life never singing, being afraid to sing. Since I've started studying jazz, this following piece of instruction is totally instrumental (pun?) to everything: "if you play the way yo sing, you can never go wrong".

Anyway, nice read. I agree with a lot of your points.

03/15/2012 12:14

Hey Jeff. Good stuff. I just wanted to let you know that I am listening and enjoy what you have to say. I've been playing jazz for almost 3 years now. I agree with you that chord tones are a great place to start. I consider my arpeggios my basic road map (or foundation) to my music and add color tones to taste as my ear tells me. When beginning, I found licks didn't do much for me, because I found that I really didn't understand what I was playing, which wasn't helpful in playing/improvising. Now that I have my foundation, those phrases/licks that I hear make much more sense and I'm feeling the need to start transcribing more to spice up my playing.
Keep up the good work.

Richard vandyne
03/15/2012 14:35

hey jeff-Really enjoyed your take on learning jazz.Didn,t realize you were so verbose.On the forum your not too your site keep up the good work. will be listeneing!!!!!!

richard vandyne
03/15/2012 16:53

great article. glad it wasn,t pussy-footing around, IT IS WHAT WE NEED TO HEAR. i liked not hearing about learning 500 scales and never playing a song. will be following this blog for a long time. Thanks Jeff

leon grizzard
03/16/2012 08:19

Jeff - As I have to expect from you - thoughful, non-doctrinal, and expressed very well.

Jeff Matz
03/16/2012 09:18

Thanks everybody...enough encouragement to keep going, for sure.

Jim Williamson
03/16/2012 10:25

I dig. I've always enjoyed reading your posts over on the tele forum. I'm glad to see that you may do some regular posting over here. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

richard vandyne
03/16/2012 15:13

jeff- trhanks for the nice words. on your lesson that gave us the major,minor ,seventh and b seventh- we can use the same fingering up and down the fretboard.? nice way to learn a bunch of chords with little effort. thanks again

Jeff Matz
03/19/2012 10:11

Right, Rich, all of those chord and arpeggio patterns are moveable--so he name changes depending on the root note, but the "quality" (major 7, m7, etc.) doesn't.

ken lasaine
03/16/2012 15:25

Great words and none truer!

10/18/2012 03:57

Very inspiring stuff, two of my favs are these:

"Don’t, get your feet wet. Dive in."

"you can improvise in a ton of situations just knowing a few things, but really knowing them well."


03/04/2014 07:44

Really enjoyed your YouTube vids...(what was that first song on the 3 arch top comparison video?). Your playing is very inspiring..
Enjoy your new addition to the family... that is the real deal and they do grow up so quickly...
thanks again,


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