The following is a collection of thoughts on improvisation taken from a variety or sources (links found below). Improvisation is one of the most challenging, fun, rewarding and difficult things you can do with music. You are in a sense, composing new music in front of an audience.

Below are some interesting sites with views on how to get started with improvisation. Remember there really isn’t a Right way and a Wrong way to go about this but scales, riffs and of course your ears have a large part to play in music and especially with improvisation.

Helpful Hint: When learning scales make sure you think of them as a sequence of intervals.  That interval is what tells you how far away the pitch is from the one you are on.  Example a Major 3rd or Perfect 5th.

To get better at interval recognition many musicians us a trick called INTERVALS THROUGH SONG ASSOCIATION which is when you associate the interval with a well known song you already are familiar with.  LEARN MORE about this technique. 



Putting riffs together and then experimenting with them is a great way to start improvising. Using one of the scales, come up with a few short phrases or riffs and then repeat them while manipulating the rhythm of each.

Example: using the minor pentatonic scale I created a 4 note riff using four 1/4 notes and three of the notes found in the E minor pentatonic scale. Then I repeated it the riff but instead of playing four 1/4 notes I changed the rhythm (but keeping the same pitches) to include eight 1/16 notes instead by doubling up on each note.

Now that you’ve fully explored one riff, it’s your turn to come up with another short phrase and repeat the process. Fully explore these phrases until you feel you can do anything with them.

The next step is to connect them. Learn to move from one to the other while sounding musical. Add riffs in between or just use a single note, or just go from one to another directly. Master the transition.

At this point you need to continue coming up with riffs. At this stage, the riffs are smaller subsets of the scale that are helping you explore it bit by bit. Connect them, explore them on their own, and eventually you’ll become totally familiar with the scale as a whole and can start to move beyond reliance on the riffs.

Remember not to use the same pattern too much, and try to deliberately shake things up. If you find yourself only including adjacent strings in your riff, start skipping, and if you notice you’ve barely used certain notes in the shape, add them into your existing riffs or your next one.

Examples of Riffs or Motifs for a Blues in B Flat




Play Jazz Now – When you improvise you are creating short melodies. These melodies can be taken from the song you are performing or made up on your own.  Let’s work on creating melodies in 3 stages:

  1. Re-stating and embellishing the original melody.
  2. Using fragments of scales and chords.
  3. Creating, repeating and transforming riffs and motifs using #1 and #2.

1. Embellish the melody:

After you’ve internalized the melody, use it as a starting point for your improvisation. Since the melody is based on a scale, you can use bits & pieces of that scale played up, down and sideways. Elongate the notes; shorten the notes; do whatever your EAR tells you to do. Do you hear a note or two that’s OUTSIDE of the original scale? Use it!  Do you feel some different rhythms? Use them, as long as they swing!

Remember that YOU get to control such things as note lengths, articulation, dynamics, density and use of space.  There’s a lot of freedom, but also a lot of decisions that need to be made – and not much time to make them. That’s why we’re using just one melodic building block at a time. Listen carefully to how Sonny Rollins does exactly these kinds of things throughout his solo – brilliantly, of course.

2. Scales and chords:

I strongly urge you to next work on constructing melodic lines using only Chord Tones. By doing this, you will accomplish a number of things simultaneously.

Using Only Chord Tones will teach you:

  1. To be very specific and precise. Chord tones are the 4 most relevant tones in each bar, so knowing what they are is a very strong place to start.
  2. The form of the blues. One of the most common and important musical forms in jazz.
  3. Voice leading. The ways in which one chord leads smoothly into the next to form a coherent line.
  4. Where the notes are. How each of these chords feels and sounds on your particular instrument.

Now let’s talk briefly about Scale Tones. Do you need to know your scales? Absolutely. But they’re not going to help you much at this point, except when you apply them to the motif technique we’ll discuss in a minute. Without going into a lot of detail, the reason that scales are NOT that helpful is that each one contains MOSTLY the same notes as the others in the context of the blues. Unless you have some fairly advanced skills, using scales can easily make you sound like you’re rambling or lost in the form of the song. Until you really know what you’re doing, the full scales contain too many choices and not enough specificity. Here’s what I mean:



JAZZ Improvisation, Soloing and Scales by A Passion for Jazz – A great chart listing which scales work with each chord

Jazz Advice – Scales are a big part of it but not the only answer to improvisation – a Great online resource for looking up every scale, chord, mode and more

Using the Pentatonic Scale – this is an introduction to soloing using the Major and minor pentatonic scales.

Jazz Scales for Improvising – How to get started improvising.  Scales are a good start but not the only part.  Some good points noted in this article and although it is written to help saxophone students of the author the knowledge discussed is transferable to all instruments.




Pentatonic Scales – Major and minor

A great starting point for improvisation.  Having only 5 notes in each and only two types: Major and minor.  They can be used over a wide variety of chords. One of the key things to remember is that the chords are made up of scale tones and the Pentatonic scales fit over a wide variety of chords.

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Blues Scale

Next learn to play the blues scale which is very similar to a Pentatonic scale but has a chromatic middle point which moves in half steps which allows for the ‘bluesy’ sound.

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Click for the Blues scales using Tabs






A Mode is a type of scale created by establishing a new tonic within a preexisting scale.

There are 7 modes which you should learn and get very acquainted with in order to improvise a solo.  To help visualize each of the 7 modes think of the white keys on a piano. Each type of mode starts on a degree of the C Major scale (all white keys) .  In fact the Major scale is one of the modes called “Ionian” and the “Aeolian” mode is also the same as the “Natural minor” scale.

They all have 8 pitches if you include the octave and are created using a series of half and whole steps (semitones and tone).

To explain how they are all related to one another lets look at a C Major scale and then add the remaining modes found in the key centre.

  • The C Major scale has these notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B ,C.
  • The Tonic in the C Major scale is C.
  • If we establish a new tonic on one of the notes other than C, for instance D, we now have a Mode.
  • The new mode on D has these notes: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D.
  • This is the Dorian mode.
  • New modes may be created the same way on the other notes of the Major scale.

The Modes of the C Major scale:

  • Ionian/Major Scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  • Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  • Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  • Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  • Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  • Aeolian/Natural minor scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  • Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B



Here is a chart which shows the modes in all keys.




STEP FOUR – start adding more scales to your repertoire as you get more comfortable.  There are many scales to choose from but here are a few to get you started. 



10 Scales Everyone Should Know – see first 5 below

1. Dominant Bebop Scale

BeBop Scale

The scale is built by taking the Mixolydian scale, the 5th mode of the major scale, and adding in a passing note between the b7 and R to produce an eight-note scale.

When applying this scale or licks derived from this scale, you can use it to improvise over a dominant 7th chord, such as any 7th chord in a Blues progression.

Or even the V7 chord in a iim7-V7-Imaj7 progression.

2. Minor Bebop Scale


In this case, we are taking a Dorian mode, the second mode of the major scale, and adding in a passing note between the b7 and R to produce an eight-note scale.

The m7 chords in a minor blues progression, or the iim7 chord in a iim7-V7-Imaj7 progression will work great with it!

3. Major Bebop Scale


This scale can be used to improvise over any Maj7 chord, using your ears and tastes as yourguide as to when and where you want to apply this sound.

It does sound particularly good over the Imaj7 chord in a iim7-V7-Imaj7 progression though.

4. Harmonic Minor Bebop Scale


5. Lydian Dominant Scale


The Lydian Dominant Scale is used to improvise over a 7th chord, or more specifically, a 7#11 chord.