Jazz Solos by Jamey Aebersold

Download this Amazing Jazz Soloing Guide by one of the most famous Jazz Authors of all time: Jamey Aebersold


The basic ingredients in music are SCALES, CHORDS, MELODY, RHYTHM, and HARMONY. Jazz education’s purpose is to give you the basics you need in learning to play jazz or to improvise. The jazz musician is an instant composer! The melodies which come from their instruments are conceived in their mind just before they play them. The difference between the improviser and the traditional composer is this: that the “jazzer” has no eraser to instantly correct mistakes. They practice long and hard trying to make their physical body and their mental frame of mind an appropriate vehicle to execute the ideas formulated in their mind.

The GOAL of every jazz musician is to play on their instrument (or vocally sing) what is heard in their mind. Practicing scales, chords (arpeggios), exercises in all keys will help gain facility which will help unlock the ideas that are now being held prisoner in your mind. As soon as possible, try playing what you HEAR mentally in your head! In other words, sing a short melody mentally, or sing with your mouth, and then play those exact pitches and rhythms on your instrument. This is the same procedure the jazz player uses when improvising.

To play requires discipline. It is good to establish a practice routine. Improvisation should be a part of your daily practice. Play whatever you hear in your head. It could be something from TV, radio, or just some melodies that you hum to yourself. This is also a form of EAR TRAINING. You are training your inner ear to direct your fingers to the notes it hears, instantly. Gradually train your ears to really HEAR music and all of the components that make the final product. Listen carefully to anyone playing jazz or improvising. You can learn much from live performances as well as recordings. Start a collection and listen to what has been recorded over the past 80 years.

The old myth that says, “You either have it or you don’t,” is strictly a myth founded on ignorance and the inability (or unwillingness) of those who can play to share what they do verbally with those who think they can’t learn.

The mind is the originator of ALL musical thoughts. The mouth (singing) usually can approximate the pitches, rhythms, and nuances of what the mind hears better than actual instruments (sax, trumpet, etc.) can do. Since the instrument we have chosen is a learned device, it is the least able to reproduce the musical thoughts of our mind. It stands to reason that the person who is better equipped technically will come closer to playing on their instrument the thoughts of their mind.

One of the reasons the jazz greats sound different than you is the fact they have so many sounds (scales, chords, patterns, ideas) at their disposal. The SCALE SYLLABUS can help you uncover new sounds. Practicing, using the exercises found in this booklet or in Vol. 1 “How To Play Jazz And Improvise” will give you a good foundation to play ANY style of music.

“JAZZ IS FREEDOM!” Thelonious Monk said this. Too often we refuse to take advantage of an opportunity which will allow us a measure of growth and freedom in our musical expression. Listening to jazz greats is inspirational and rewarding. Keep this in mind: practicing exercises, patterns, licks, scales, and chords should lead to more expressive creativity, not boredom.

HOW DO YOU BEGIN IMPROVISING? Many people begin by playing by ear (letting their inner musical ear guide their choice of notes and rhythms). This is a hit-or-miss process that most jazz players (before 1965) had to use to learn their trade. However, this method strengthens the player’s ear and is extremely valuable. Everyone should spend time each day playing by ear. The sooner you train your ears to discern, the sooner they can HELP YOU in making music. By using your ear, and knowledge of the needed scales and chords, you will feel much more comfortable with beginning improvisation.

IMPORTANT: Don’t get hung up practicing exercises and more exercises without ever attempting to improvise. Avoid becoming a person who plays great exercises, but delays using their creative energy until tomorrow. DO IT NOW! IMPROVISE. Even if you only use a few notes of the scale, begin there. START! Don’t put it off until tomorrow or until you have the scale under better control. DO IT NOW! The longest journey begins with a single step. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. The longest musical phrase begins with a single note.

Just because you practice scales, chords, patterns, and exercises doesn’t mean you will sound stiff and mechanical, OR that you will become a jazz great! But it’s a means to an end. More than any other ingredient, the JAZZ TRADITION is based on

LISTENING. Listening to jazz records/tapes should be part of every musicians daily routine. Not only is it fun to listen to, but you can absorb many musical ideas and incorporate them into your own solos. Recorded music contains most answers you seek.

Having “good ears” means having the ability to hear the roots to the various chords or scales that are being played; having the ability to hear the quality of the chord or scale–major, minor (what kind of minor?), pentatonic, dim.whole tone, etc.); it means having the ability to tell what tone of the scale or chord is being played at any point in the solo–”ah, that note was a #4 resolving to the 6th and then resolving to the 5th!”; it means hearing the piano, bass, soloist, drums, etc. individually as well as collectively.

There are many levels of hearing. Some people hear. Other people can really HEAR! And some can seem to hear and identify almost anything that is being played. They can seem to sing or play back portions of solos right after the performer has played. How can they HEAR, and we can’t seem to find the roots, scale, qualities, or what time signature the piece is in? They have worked hard at identifying all the various sounds they hear daily. Since they want to improvise, they take the time to apply on their instrument the things they are hearing. They also use their mind and their free time to figure out things harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically. Using a small chromatic pitch pipe is real helpful in identifying pitches when you are not at a piano or don’t have your instrument. You can carry it with you and train your ear “on the go.” No one knows or could truly imagine the amount of thought each jazzer has put into their art/craft.


  • 1. Play with good sound/tone. Wind players — support your sound. Don’t play staccato.
  • 2. Make phrases flow naturally; even when playing scales and exercises.
  • 3. Mentally sing the exercises, scales, patterns as you play them.
  • 4. If an exercise is hard, slow it down. Then gradually increase the tempo.
  • 5. Listen to every note you play. Match your mind’s ideas.
  • 6. Be patient. You’re not the first to make mistakes.
  • 7. Use jazz articulations on exercises and scale/chord practice.
  • 8. Improvise some every day. That’s the REAL YOU. Play what you hear in your head.
  • 9. Make a habit of practicing in all twelve keys. Volumes 21 and 24 are excellent.
  • 10. Learn the Blues in Bb & F concert keys.
  • 11. Memorize everything you can. Know what it is you are trying to play. If we all waited until we were perfect musicians before we played an instrument, there would be no music in the world. Play on the best instrument you can afford and study with the finest teachers available who will give you guidance in jazz and traditional music. Use your imagination. Experiment- take chances! You deserve to be creative! Treat yourself.


SOLOING by Jamey Aebersold

1. Keep your place – don’t get lost. If you do get lost LISTEN to the rhythm section. The drummer will often give a little crash at the beginning of new sections. If you hit a note that is not what you intended, move it up or down a half-step and you’ll probably be back in the scale (or chord). Remember, jazz music usually moves in two, four and eight bar phrases. You’re never far from a new phrase beginning.

2. Play right notes. This really means play the notes you hear in your head … the notes you would sing with your mouth. Having the scales and chords in front of you on a piece of paper is merely a guide. They don’t provide the actual music that’s going to be played. THAT comes from YOUR imagination. If you’ve got the scales, chords, and chord/scale progression MEMORIZED it provides courage to your imagination and allows you to operate from a more creative natural basis. It allows you to take some chances. It helps remove FEAR.

3. Using REPETITION and SEQUENCE is natural in music. It’s found in all types and styles of music. The novice improvisor often feels that if they repeat an idea, everyone knows they are going to repeat it, so why do it; plus it’s not original enough for your EGO so you don’t play it. WRONG! The listener needs to hear some repetition and sequence or else they can’t remember anything you play. Repetition and Sequence are the glue that holds solos together. The usual number of times something is repeated depends on you but the average is 2 or 3 and then your mind will tell you when to repeat and/or when to use sequence. It’s a part of the way we hear music played by others.

4. CHORD TONES (the 1, 3, 5, & 7 of a scale) are great notes to begin and end a phrase with. Just sing a phrase and see if you don’t follow this simple rule. Our ears HEAR chord tones first so it’s natural to begin and end there. Plus, it gives us and the listener what we’re listening for – harmonic stability.

5. SOUND: Be sure that you are getting a good, full sound on your instrument (or voice). Don’t let the scales and chords or the progression or tempo intimidate you. Sound is foremost and is the FIRST thing a person latches onto when you sing or play. It leaves a lasting impression. So, be yourself and let your voice or instrument ring out. It’s the main ingredient of your musical personality.

6. LISTENING: There’s no way anyone is going to play jazz or improvise well without listening to those musicians who have come before. Through listening alone you can find ALL the answers. Each musician is a result of what they have listened to. It’s easy to determine who people have listened to by listening to them play. We all tend to use imitation and it’s good to do this. Some feel that if they listen to others they’ll just sound like them. This is not true but your ego will try to convince you it’s true. The ego hates competition or what it perceives to be competition. Don’t let it fool you. If no one listened to anyone else, why play music? Music is for everyone and truly is a Universal Language.

7. Everyone has the ability to improvise – from the youngest child to the senior citizen. You have to have desire and set aside time to work at it until moving your fingers becomes automatic and the distance between your mind and fingers grows smaller and smaller to where you think an idea and your fingers are already playing it. It’s not magic. If it is, then magic equals hard work and perseverance. When asked, “What is the greatest obstacle to enlightenment?” the Buddha replied, “Laziness.” I agree!


JAZZ: THE NATURAL MUSIC Improvising, playing jazz, is the most natural way to make music. Long before the printing press was invented people played music on various instruments and all were thought to be creative musicians. Through the ages the art of improvising on a musical instrument gradually lost favor to the printed page.

In the twentieth century the art of improvising has been kept alive by the jazz musician. Today’s jazzer is not the same as the musician of the thirties, forties or fifties. The influence of jazz education, sound recordings, videos and jazz festivals has allowed the music to reach many more people and to be experienced by almost anyone who is willing to give it a try. For years the myth “you either have it or you don’t” was prevalent in music circles around the world. If you wanted to play jazz you had better get adopted into a musical family or by the “luck of the draw” find the right environment for your early years so by osmosis you could pick up on the hot licks and at the same time develop a great jazz ear so that when you played your instrument, you would sound like a jazzer. Time has proven that these ideas which were very popular are not true. They never were true but many musicians thought they were and that’s what gives an idea it’s longevity. Once people from non-musical backgrounds in non-jazzy environments began playing the music and playing it well, everyone had to take another look at what goes on when someone stands up and improvises a good solo over a standard chord progression such as Green Dolphin Street, Confirmation, or the blues.

Here are several ingredients that go into making a good jazz soloist/improvisor:

  • 1. Desire to improvise
  • 2. Serious listening to jazz via recordings and live performances
  • 3. A method of practice – what and how to practice!
  • 4. A rhythm section with which to practice and improvise (via live group or play-a-long recordings)
  • 5. Self-esteem, discipline, and determination. When I was a teenager, I wondered if I’d ever be able to play on my instrument the melodies I was hearing in my head. I didn’t have a jazz teacher so I would listen to the radio or records and try to take off the ideas of the jazz greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and many others.

If I were to start again here’s how I would do it: I would begin by playing on my instrument simple little melodies such as Happy Birthday, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. I would pick a note in my middle register say, G, and begin playing one of these songs. When I finally played it correctly ONE time, I would pick a new starting note say, Eb and play the same song beginning on that note. Do this over and over beginning on different tones until you can play the song starting on different notes without mistakes. Then try a different song and get so you can play it starting on any of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This is an excellent way of conditioning your fingers and mind to work together to produce the sounds you are hearing in your head. It shortens the distance from mind to fingers. Jazz musicians have always played the music of their mind—what they hear in their head. They aren’t special, gifted people who were born with more talent than others. They just had more desire and discipline than others. Their ability to mentally hear an idea and then play it comes from practice. When you run out of ideas to practice you listen to other musicians.

The joy of listening to others, coupled with your imagination, will lead to fresh musical ideas. The answer to every musical question may be found on recordings. That is why listening is so important for the beginning improvisor.

Usually, we begin improvising on songs like blues in Bb or F, Satin Doll, Maiden Voyage, or Summertime. Songs like these don’t contain tricky rhythms or difficult harmony (scales and chords). This makes it easier to make sense of the song and feel relatively good about improvising over the harmony. These songs (and many more) are on the Vol. 54 “Maiden Voyage” play-a-long. Here are several exercises every professional jazz musician has probably played at one time or another. Play these over the harmony (changes, chord/scales) to whatever song you are working on.

Do this before you try to improvise.

  • 1. Play the first five notes to each chord/scale.
  • 2. Play the triad (notes 1,3, and 5 of the scale).
  • 3. Play the entire scale from the root (first note) to the 9th and back down.
  • 4. Play the 7th chord up and down (1,3,5,7,5,3,1).
  • 5. Play the 9th chord up and down (1,3,5,7,9,7,5,3,1).
  • 6. Play the scale up to the 9th and then come back down the chord.
  • 7. Play the chord up to the 9th and then come back down the scale.
  • 8. Play the scale in thirds up and down.
  • 9. If you were to take numbers 1, 2, and 3 from above and apply them to the first four bars of an F blues, it would look like this: I once heard trumpeter Woody Shaw warming up before a concert in the above manner. It impressed me because I thought only beginners used this type warm-up. After thinking about it, I realized it was the most practical way to approach any new song. When you do this you are conditioning your mind and fingers to the scales and chords which you will in turn improvise over. It makes good sense! You should be able to do this to the chord/scale progression to any song you are going to improvise over. This is standard practice and has been for some time …know your scales and chords before you play. Memorize them, too!
  • Memorizing melodies, scales and chords gives courage to your imagination. Now, some will feel that to play jazz, you don’t study or practice scales and exercises just play.” I ask, what does that mean? Who can “just play” over Giant Steps, Tune Up, Confirmation, Star Eyes, the blues or a thousand other tunes with interesting chord progressions?

The famous alto saxophonist Charlie Parker in his own words said there was a period of 3 to 4 years where he practiced 11 to 15 hours a day. If Charlie Parker was, as many say, a genius, he got that way by practicing. I have a recording of him saying this in an interview with Paul Desmond. I also have a recording of him saying at age 16 (after having gotten laughed off the bandstand for not knowing you’re suppose to play the same song the band is playing!), “I never stopped to think about there being other keys or nothin’ like that.” So, he began like most of us but eventually discovered that HE was master of his own ship. He took the bull by the horns and dove into the marvelous world of jazz—the world of improvisation, harmony, rhythm, melody, creativity, imagination and life. If you’ve ever wondered why teachers begin students with fingerings, tone production (wind instruments) and scales, I feel it’s to form a strong foundation for the students’ creativity. Your instrument reflects your musical personality. Transcribing solos or portions of solos off recordings is one of the best ways to find out what the professional is doing to make things sound so good.

By analyzing a solo you can find important facts:

1. What note of the scale do they begin phrases with?

2. What note of the scale do they end their phrases with?

3. Do they use a wide or narrow range, (tessitura)?

4. Do they use chord tones in their phrases?

5. Do they use scales or bits and pieces of scales?

6. Do they have favorite licks that pop up over and over?

7. Do they use chromatics (notes outside the basic chord/scale)?

8. Do they use passing tones?

9. Repetition: do they use it and how …rhythmically, melodically, harmonically?

10.Do they use space, rests, silence? How often? Is there a pattern?

11.Do they build their solo? Does the solo seem to tell a story or go somewhere?

12.Do they tend to place chord tones (1,3,5) on beats 1 and 3 (in 4/4 time).

13.Do they incorporate substitute scales over the basic chord/scales?

14.Do they double-time any phrases (this usually means playing in 16th notes)?

15.Do they use the blues scale? How often?

16.Do they use sequences in their playing? Having spent over 50 years working with musicians of all levels, I find that one of the fundamental needs is to express themselves in an improvisatory manner on their instrument. Playing jazz has been the route those musicians have taken.

Creativity and use of imagination is essential to our well-being as humans on the planet Earth. We are creative beings. With a little guidance everyone can learn to improvise and enjoy the fruits of self-expression in music. There’s really nothing to be afraid of. Life is exactly what you make it to be.