Building Blocks of Better Solos

November 20, 2012



ONE OF THE THINGS I’VE NOTICED AS A JAZZ EDUCATOR is that many of my students lack a fluent jazz vocabulary. When they improvise, their solos are essentially attempts at improvising with the hopes that they will somehow be inspired “by the moment.” This is akin to planning a trip to Japan, not studying any Japanese, and then hoping that when you arrive you’ll somehow become magically conversant in the language. To be a good improviser, you need to get fluent in the language. It’s important to understand the small building blocks of jazz lines and phrases, and will help you invent your own. One thing that helped me develop my own improvisational fluency was practicing the following licks in all 12 keys. To do this, one analyzes the theory behind them as one goes.


CLICK HERE for audio examples of the lessons below, and click each sheet music thumbnail to enlarge.

.1. Triad Licks
Ex. 1a is a typical triad-based lick. The first thing I do when analyzing a lick is to figure out what the chord for that lick is (here it’s Bbmaj7) and then assign scale degrees to each note in relationship to the corresponding “chord-scale,” as in Ex. 1b. Then I can easily transpose the lick to other keys using these numerical reference points, as in Ex. 1c. You can see the lick fully transposed and notated in new keys in Ex. 1d. The more you do this, the faster you’ll be able to transpose ideas into all keys. Many young improvisers are able to play a blues in the key of F or Bb, but when “I Got Rhythm” or tunes with many chord changes come up, they stumble in unfamiliar keys and chords.

.2. Bebop Seventh Licks
The same process applies to more complex, bebop-tinged seventh licks as well. In Ex. 2a, I figure out the correct chord for the lick at hand (C7) and once again assign scale degrees to each note in relationship to the proper “chord-scale,” as in Ex. 2b. Then I can once again easily transpose the lick to other keys using these numeric reference points, as in Ex. 2c. This bebop lick is fully transposed and notated in its new keys in Ex. 2d.


.3. ii-V7-I Progression Licks
We can utilize this same process of analysis and transposition when learning more progression-oriented licks, like over the venerable ii-V7-I progression. Once again, we need to decipher the correct chord for the lick at hand (Ex. 3a), assign corresponding scale degrees to each note (Ex. 3b), trans- pose it to other keys using numerical reference points (Ex. 3c), and finally notate it fully in its new keys (Ex. 3d).



.4. Putting It All Together
Ex. 4 demonstrates possible applications for triad, bebop seventh, and ii-V7-I licks. A great way to develop your own material is to try different rhythmic approaches. If your lick is in eighth-notes, try it in triplets. If it starts on the downbeat, try starting it on the upbeat, and so on. Also try transposing your licks up and down in whole steps, thirds, fourths, and other intervals. The goal is to be able to insert licks and patterns into your solos at will.

George Colligan.Baby Steps Before “Giant Steps”
“Like learning a language, you need to have a good enough reservoir of words and understanding of grammar and syntax to be fluent in jazz improvisation,” says pianist, composer, and educator George Colligan, who has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Bust- er Williams, Ravi Coltrane, and many others. “So start small—even a two-note pattern can yield great results.” Colligan is also Assistant Professor in Jazz Studies at Portland State University. Find out more at

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