5 Things to Practice to Become a Better Improviser

by John Thomas


When a college or adult student comes into my studio, they usually have a good start on how to play the saxophone well, but when it comes to improvisation, they are often at a loss as to what to practice. While we can use classical repertoire and technical studies to learn our instrument, there is not much there to help us become improvisers. Acquiring technique is a very linear process, but becoming a better improviser is a much more holistic and multi-faceted pursuit. Here are 5 things to work on to become a better improviser. Each one of these elements could be an article (or a book) unto themselves, so we’ll take a broad overview of each one

1. Scales

Great jazz players have a vast variety of scales at their fingertips in all twelve keys at any tempo. Let’s assume you already know major, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales in 12 keys. Here’s a few more to work on- dominant bebop, mixolydian, lydian, octatonic, pentatonic (major and minor). As with major and minor scales, learn them in all twelve keys, and in different patterns- 3rds, 4ths, etc. I generally advise students to begin around quarter note at 50 and work a scale over time up to sixteenth notes at 120.

Pro tip- Don’t practice scales from a written sheet.  If the material isn’t internalized, its not useful in an improvising situation.        

2. Licks

Great jazz players have a library of patterns or “licks” that they can apply to various harmonic progressions. It’s a good idea to start building your own lick library by transcribing licks from your favorite players’ solos. By building a library of phrases and ideas to draw on, one can expand their own harmonic and melodic vocabulary. The first benefit of learning licks is that you immediately have material that really sounds like the output of a professional jazz musician. If you have enough material in reserve, then every time you play, you sound like a pro. Over time, that library of licks and patterns rearranges and re-combinates within your mind, and new material begins to emerge. Starting with the ii-V-I progression, here is a basic goal: Learn 5 strong ii-V licks in all four varieties: 2 bar major, 2 bar minor, 1 bar major, 1 bar minor. If you have 5 patterns for each of those situations in 12 keys, you can play jazz standards for hours. Once you’ve achieved this baseline of proficiency, you just keep adding. You can expand by working on other common chord progressions or expanding your library of ii-Vs. 

Pro tip- Bars 9 through 10 of a 12-bar blues is a great place to find a 2 bar ii-V, and bars 4, 8, and 12 are great places to rip a short ii-V.  

3. Learning Tunes 

Part of each practice session should be spent adding repertoire. By increasing your internal library of jazz tunes, you give yourself not only more vehicles for improvisation, but more material for your lick library. Start by memorizing the melody, and then work through the changes, first memorizing the roots of each chord, then arpeggiating in time through each change. Jazz standards have many harmonic conventions in common, and as you learn more and more you will find that you can hear the progressions without having to look up the tune in a fake book or app. For example, the B section of many tunes is a major ii-V-I-IV, and then another ii-V-I a whole step down, with a short ii-V in the 8th bar of the bridge taking you back to the I chord of the A section. Becoming familiar with these patterns makes it much easier to memorize the changes of the tune, and it also makes it easier to transpose on the fly. Conversely, when a tune deviates from these conventions, that deviation also makes it memorable. 

Pro tip- Always use a recording as reference when learning tunes. While fakebook and play-along apps can facilitate learning a tune and its harmony, ultimately learning the tune from a great recording of a jazz master will achieve a stronger result. 

4. Limited play 

Improvising over a tune while giving yourself specific limitations is a great way to build ideas. For example, playing over a blues while limiting your note choices to just the 3rd and 7th of each chord, or making no limitations to note choice, but playing only running eighth notes. You can play around with this by adding or subtracting variables based on what you are trying to achieve.  When I’m working on a new tune, I often make severe limitations, gradually adding layers of sophistication. Conversely, I often do the same when revisiting a tune, I’ve played for years, forcing myself out of well-trodden paths. By playing through a tune with different sets of limitations, you open yourself to new possibilities at each level of limitation

Pro tip- Keep a record of the tunes you are working on, and the limitations you are setting, so that session to session you can vary and build upon your limitations.

5. Free play

As important as it is to develop a library of pre-loaded licks and scales, it is also important to spend some time in free improvisation.  I don’t necessarily mean completely free of time or harmonic framework (although that can be useful at times), but free as in exploratory.  While great improvisers have an internal library of material to draw on, they also have a creative spirit that is constantly remixing that material in new and different ways. Spending a little time every day just exploring is a great way to build ideas and confidence.

Pro tip- Record your free play- great ideas for tunes and licks can often come out of these exploratory sessions!

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are many pathways to becoming a better improviser, but these are some that have helped me and my students in that pursuit. If you take nothing else from this list, I hope you can walk away with the idea that improvisation is at least as much about preparation as it is inspiration. Practicing each of these elements diligently and methodically will improve your playing, but it is a process that happens over time. While there are mountains of books written about these concepts, ultimately it all comes down to you, your horn, some recordings, and the practice room. If you find this list helpful and want to let me know, or have more detailed questions, feel free to contact me at my website, jtsax.net.

Vra Summit 2017 Photoshoot 2

John Thomas is an experienced and effective educator, having previously held teaching positions at East Carolina University, the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado Christian University. Before relocating to Baltimore, he was the Director of Jazz Studies at Casper College, and is currently the Director of Jazz Ensembles at the Baltimore School of the Arts while maintaining an active private saxophone studio.

He holds a double Masters of Music in Jazz Studies and Saxophone Performance from East Carolina University. Currently, Mr. Thomas is pursuing a doctoral degree in classical saxophone performance at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

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