Solo Development for the Modern Jazz Keyboardist

A masterclass from the August 2014 issue of KEYBOARD.
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Growing up, I listened to a lot of contemporary keyboard players . What I eventually learned was that everyone had a distinctive style that made their playing instantly recognizable. I realized that this was one of the secrets to becoming a successful solo artist. Your own sound will be informed by everyone that you listen to and try to emulate. One of the hallmarks of my own playing is my use of melodic phrasing in my solo development. In these examples, I try to break down some of the ideas I often use to help add new ideas to your own solo adventures.

1. Setting the Tone

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Ex. 1 sets the tone for the solos that follow, stating the song’s chord changes. Note that my playing starts simply at first and grows more complex rhythmically as the song develops.

2. Rhythmic and Harmonic Development

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In Ex. 2 I use the same chords as above, but I experiment with rhythms, adding in triplets and short notes. I also change the altered notes on the dominant chord to add extra flavor as the passage develops. On the major and minor chords, I sometimes add in many of the notes in the corresponding scale to create “clusters” which further add harmonic interest to the solo. On the dominant chord near the beginning of this example, I play triads in the right hand descending down the scale. It’s a simple technique that adds a great deal of variety to the mix. I use this technique at the end of my solo on my song “Horizon” from my new album Another Long Night Out.

3. Arpeggios and Syncopations

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Ex. 3 is a great way to start a solo when you just want to start off blazing! Here, I’m starting on the 11th of the D minor chord and arpeggiating down the chord in a syncopated rhythm. (It’s simpler than it sounds.) On my latest album, I play something similar in the beginning of my solo on the song “Heroes of the Dawn.”

4. Repeated Motifs

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Ex. 4 examines repeating motifs, which are a great way to make a section of a solo stand out. Try playing one lick over a particular chord, and then playing it again outlining the next chord. The great improvisers have all used this technique from time to time.

5. Common Tones

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Playing a common tone throughout a set of chord changes is a great tool to have in your soloing arsenal. The late, great George Duke was a master at playing a single note in a solo and still making it captivating. In Ex. 5, I simply change the top note to coincide with the chord changes, keeping the bottom tone common.

“What makes an artist recognizable has to do with things like phrasing, harmonic complexity, the way they groove (funky, “on top,” or “laid back”), their solo licks, and how much space they leave in their playing,” says acclaimed contemporary jazz keyboardist, producer, and songwriter Brian Culbertson. His latest album "Another Long Night Out" is his sixth to debut at Number One on the Billboard charts. Visit him at