Jeff Lorber on Theme and Variation in Soloing

Image placeholder title

The concept of theme and variation is essential to composition and solo construction. Since a melody can be looked at as sort of a “crystallized improvisation,” a good solo can and should contain melodic nuggets or “hooks” that can be developed. Sometimes phrases that occur in a song’s solo can be as memorable as the melody of the song itself. Theme and variation can be approached on either the “micro” or “macro” level. The micro approach would be to take a little piece of a scale or arpeggio and move it around, starting it on different pitches or even displacing it time-wise. A more macro approach might be something like the transcribed solo that forms the whole of this lesson, where first part of a blues theme is stated and then repeated with variations. Let’s look closer at this solo and examine how theme and variation is used in real time performance. Make sure to listen to the recorded example online because reading the notes alone won’t fully impart what the true feeling of the music is about.

CLICK HEREto download the transcription. It will download quickly, as it's only 70k in size.


The phrase that begins on the second bar is repeated in bars 6 and 10, with slightly different resolutionsto the phrases and also timing.

Theme and Variation in Use

Instead of numbered sheet music snippets as per usual, we're offering a PDF download of an extended transcription of an improvised blues solo in F. My notes on it are below, then a SoundCloud player for the accompanying audio.

Bar 15 starts the second section of the blues. Here, the theme and variation occurs in a one-bar pattern instead of a two-bar pattern. The resolution on bar 13 ends on F above middle C. In bar 15 it resolves an octave higher. Bar 17 resolves to F in the lower register, but this time the phrase extends and then resolves on middle C. You’ll notice that this time around, the blues has a different turnaround that goes from Bbmin9 to Cmin9, then Dbmin9 and Ebmin9 before resolving back again to F7 at the beginning of the next phrase. This harmonic variation makes the blues a little more interesting and less predictable.

The phrases starting on bar 25 return to a two-bar pattern. They are played in a block chord style, where the left hand doubles the rhythm of the right hand. This is an effective way to solo and one which helps accentuate the melody. The renowned pianist Red Garland was a great proponent of using block chords in his solos. Check him out, especially on the recordings he made with trumpeter Miles Davis in the early 1960s.

The phrases starting on bar 37 are built on pentatonic scales, played with some freedom. The phrases on bar 45 are repeated intervals that follow the alternate turnaround changes mentioned earlier. The section of the blues that follows goes back to a simpler thematic approach and then resolves the phrase with a fast bebop lick. All of these devices illustrate how theme and variation can be used to make an improvised solo more effective and exciting.