~ improv Americana ~

~ ... folks just love to hear a good story ~

~ composing a solo / style ~

~ soloing over chords ~

~ soloing through chords ~

~ soloing over one chord ~

'using music to connecting our heart, head and hands together in spontaneous creativity with music...'

Folks just love a good story ... We all do really. And in the re-telling of a tale there's room for some improv depending on the setting, audience and style of music. We get to tell a story with words and with our improvs; in melodies or chords, rhythms etc. And does a story ever get told the same way twice? Maybe in theatre, where lines are rehearsed and knit together among the actors. But even in listening to actors talk after a performance about 'how it went', we can hear of the necessary 'adjustments' they made together to bring off the story to its full potential.

'Necessary adjustments' = improvisations ... ?

composing stories

While never the exact same way twice, we practice our tales and present them as art to those who love a good story. And sometimes the success we achieve is energized 'in the moment', when we capture the right timing for the flow of the tale. Surely a challeging craft to hone with the universe as our stage, for we all love a good story n'est-ce pas?

n'est-ce pas

In presenting our Americana musics we get to tell the tale of our songs, and then once the 'theme' of a story is established, we then get to improvise on that theme, allowing each of us our version of the tale being told. And in the telling, our improv allows us each to 'bring it' and add our own unique take on the theme. And when the telling is not going well for a particular story, the improv is a way to 'save the day :)'

bring it
through the changes
rhythm guitar
lead guitar
chord and melody

In a nutshell. The word 'improvisation' in our Americana music styles is just like our improvisations in everyday life; we're presented with tasks, challenges and even puzzles, that we have to complete and solve. And that's mostly the same for our music. Improvisation in our music is the art we create in musical sounds that we are making up as we move along. And as in our day to day taskings, our preparations and life experiences skills that we bring to the process have a great bearing on our degrees of success. And same with our music, we prepare our various components created with the pitches that allow us to meet challenges and solve the musical puzzles that we choose to play.

So in the following discussions we'll look at the basics of musical improvisation from two perspectives. First, the various ways we use our musical components to solve our puzzles. And second, what sort of improvisations we find within the main of our categories of our Americana musical styles.

Americana musical styles

By necessity. When we go back into our early Americana history we realize the new folks coming to the Americas had to figure out ways to get things done with what they had at hand; they improvised. This inventiveness becomes a solid part of our musics; for it creates a quality of what each of the players involved might bring on any given day and they must by necessity negotiate all of it to bring the music forth. That "necessity is the mother of invention" works for art too.

'they had to improvise ... ' / Ken Burns' "Jazz"
wiki ~ 'by necessity Mother ...'

A bit of improv history. In the jazz styles, which at one time America's popular or 'pop' music, the role of improvisation is quite varied. Evolving from the fully written out 'ragtime' works of the 1880's, which we have scores and piano rolls for today, emerges the collective group improv of the dixieland styles. From within this group format, that features a lead player sounding out the melody of the arrangement, we evolve to the featured soloist backed up by a rhythm section. We see this around the turn to the 20th century and on into the 1920's or so.

wiki ~ dixieland jazz
theme and variations
form in music
harmonic structure

Once here, we then begin see the rise of the individual 'star of the show', headlining the bill. Louis Armstrong is among the first of these stars, and leading by example set the standard for fronting a band, very often as a singer / interpreter of the words of a song followed by an improvised solo based closely on the melody. Backed by various rhythm section combinations, this format helps found our improvisatory Americana version of stating a theme (melody of the song) and then creating variations of it. What starts out as working over a melody will gradually become working out ideas from the overall form and harmonic structure of the chosen song.

wiki ~ dixieland jazz
theme and variations
form in music
harmonic structure

So once crossed, and we're into the 1930's now, the theme and variations basis for the improvising jazz artist is now augmented by creating improvised melodic lines based upon what is provided by the written chord changes of a song, i.e., exploring the harmonic structure of a song. So from this point forward really, the prowess of the improvisor to find new coolness a bit beyond the written changes finds its own spotlight in show biz. The result? The gradual ramping up of the challenge of the written changes and an accelerated evolution of the theory surrounding chord substitution. In a word? The eventual evolution of bebop in the 1940's, often thought to be our most challenging of musics to participate in.

wiki ~ bebop

For the listener? A sort of 'wow ... how did they make that idea work' coupled with a deeper appreciation for a new unrestricted artistic potential of technical prowess, all driven by an artist's own self discipline of study to better oneself among their peers. Thus a new 'no limits' opening for a group of artists that depending on geography, lived in a tightly restricted society under the threat of psychological and physical harm including death, as their day to day artistic American life. This continues on today unfortuneately and we as musicians can use our musics to provide an art that helps bring folks within communities together for entertainment they can all enjoy together.

music creates community

Those so inclined to dig more of our improvisational history should consider viewing the the PBS series "Jazz." Created by master storyteller Ken Burns, this 10 part film series gives the viewer a perspective of our evolutions in musics, improvisations and the struggles of a society that is dealing with bringing its core principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all of the peoples who inhabit this great country.

Composing a solo. In composing an improvised solo, all of our skills come together to showcase our ideas in creating art in music. For beginning artists reading here, once you get started there's a chance that a new sort of search begins for you, one that can easily span a career's worth of exploration and challenge. For all of the basics for performing music will probably come into play. Then we need to merge all of this into a group collective. Not sure of the right words here to describe this process but suffice to say that those that develop these skills to whatever level, enter into a creative realm that knows no bounds of personal joy and range of expression, joy and energies that we can pass along to those who will listen.

artistic signature
the dancers
the listeners

In the improv discussions included within Essentials, we simply begin to look at the various nuts and bolts of improv, what we might need to consider as improvising artists. We build up a personal understanding and strengthen our chops to then get with like minded artists and create. For many of us, it's the coolest of the cool :)

nuts and bolts

Working out a solo 'story' for performance. Another approach for our composing / improvisations with the theme and variations basis is to follow a more classical model, whereby in the writing and arrangement of a song, the 'variations' section our improvs, are fully composed also, 'written out' is a common slang term for this approach. In this method we get to create the best possible solo / variations we can imagine. And whether actually notated or not we then rote memorize the part and play it the same way every time. Depending on your style, recordings, audiences, gigs and your touring for performance and promotion of your work, this has been shown to be a super sure way to the top. While this sounds like some serious work, and it is, deep rewards can await those who follow this disciplined pathway.

Remember that in preparing this way we get to create the best possible 'variations' on a theme we can devise, then simply rote learn it for performance. And since it is ours, these worked out solos can easily and naturally evolve over the years as we as artists evolve. We can work out all the tricky spots of fingerings, create any number of surprises etc. And in this creative process, real good chance that ideas for new works will also appear. So really just a slight twist to the improv process that allows us to create and express. These 'worked out' solos can evolve, be improved upon or even 'corrected' by the composer as time goes by.

Another approach along these lines is to learn the solos of the master players we dig the most. Historically this is the way we pass along the language from generation to generation with its evolutions. Players often get their first 'break' in the business by this rote learning of solos. We 'borrow' ideas from really any source and make them our own over time, gradually building up our improv vocabularies. Reading the biographies of our recognized monsters will almost always reveal the shedding done to achieve their excellence. Explore :)

Style / a quick improv assessment. So, what if the style of music you love to listen to, perform and improvise on only grants you a 'four or eight bar break' every once in a while? And yet maybe you want to really 'crush' those eight bars when they come along? For they are an exciting and consistent feature of the songs in your folk, bluegrass or country styled show. Looking to step on a pedal and shred till the sweat pours out of the dancers?

'bring it'

A blues artist? Is your goal now to strengthen up your skills to improvise two solid, consecutive choruses of 12 bar blues, with a solid storyline and build for a solid climax each time you solo? A jazzer? Is your goal to extend the length of your solos to three, four, five or more choruses of rhythms changes? Go strong through a full chorus of a 32 bar jazz standard, chock full of sequenced changes and possible chord substitutions? Or do you dig jamming along on a vamp that is structured to go on and on and never really end? Or find or create progressions that encourage us to gradually evolve and journey to wherever our collective Muse reveals?

a chorus of blues
jazz up
rhythm changes
32 bar form
four bar jam loops

Muse on this a bit about what your goals and artistic needs are now and where you want to go. For even though 'all roads lead to Rome', some of them might get us there quicker than others :) A bit of true artistic, inner personal search, then focus and create a path to success.

wiki ~ ... all roads

Intermediate and beyond. For those theorists along in their improv studies there's a couple of sections yonder that skip the basics here. These are; blues chord chart substitutions and the chord substitution, modulatory properties and modernizations associated with the properties of V7b9. If these ring a bell or raise curiosity, click on over to explore or hang hear for more options.

Easiest way to begin. For brand new cats, lots of ways into this improv theory business really; a lot depends on the styles you dig and aspire to play as there's a wide variance to the degree of improve through our spectrum of Americana styles. Easiest way into all this? Old as the hills; sing and play. Got something to say? Sing, hum or mumble along and pitch it out on your gitfiddle.

spectrum of styles
sing and play
sing and play
sing and play
sing and play

Just rough out the pitches one by one, then the rhythms or vice versa depending. First to get the melody and its 'true nature' going along and then go deeper

... and find the nuance of your vocal ideas on your git, get your guitar to sing right along with ya.

Stop and read that last bit a gain please. That for some reading here this might be all the improv theory ever needed, for it's how it all usually begins anyway.


Formal music school. While attending formal music school there was a weekly class called jazz improv with Dr. Miller. Jazz improv was set up as a jamm session in the band room run by the good Doctor. Mostly horns, there was a rhythm section with Doc on guitar for backing the soloists. We'd read the melody down, then each in turn took a chorus improvising over the form of the chosen song.

Dr. Miller

Calling jazz standards, Doc had the 'radar', his term for hearing the theory in real time, to hear the relationship of any pitch to any chord. Judiciously facilitating the academics of a jamm, Doc would if necessary stop a soloist to make sure they knew the pitch / chord theory at that point in the tune. Sounding the wrong 3rd of the triad / chord was the most common, the 7th too.

spelling chords

Once the letter names of the chord were spelled out, inevitably Doc would strum the chord and have the soloist sound out its arpeggio pitches, checking each with the chord. Once everything was straightened out, he'd count it off and back to it we'd all go. This process was repeated for each of us in class.

count it off

Hear the changes in the line. What this adds up to is to hear the chord changes reflected in the improvised melody line of the solo. We called it playing 'inside the changes.' This basis, along with a few other improv essentials, create the topics for discussions that follow.

inside / outside
count it off

The majority of the theory centers on the diatonic relationships of parent scale / arpeggio / chord. In this pursuit of the art of improv, we initially approach soloing 'over' chords with scales, or 'through' chords with arpeggios and then begin to mix them together. Motored by rhythms, these three musical elements constitute the basics of the theory for improv in this book.


So with this in mind, select and explore directed by your own interests and curiosities or continue reading for more improv ideas. Pick and click and off ya go :)

trading fours / ideas

Overview. So while music improv includes a lot of coolness to consider, here now as music theory scientists we'll focus our initial investigations on the measurable elements involved with this general premise; that there's always melody pitches to be found tucked into a chord, there's always a chord or two to back a melody line and chords can be melodies also. This is the basis of the roughly 300 year old style of compositional we know as the homophonic style.

the homophonic style
chord melodies

We'll measure numerically by intervals, measure and label passing tones by scale and chord degrees and color tones all back and forth between these three groups of scales and chords. Thus, we get two 'sets' of pitches to create improv theory perspectives with; pitches arranged as scales or arranged as chords. Examine these 'sets' of pitches for making melody and chords. In A major. Example 1.

music and math

'Farm livin' is the life for me' :) ... Easy and fun linear melody idea followed by stacked pitches as a chord. Melody style chord tones? An arpeggio? Yep. Simply sounding the pitches of the chord from bottom to top and back. Hear the chord's quality in the arpeggiated line? Thus, the basis for improv through chord changes.

Old MacDonald
arpeggios become chords
chord quality

That we improv together. In a traditional styled performance of Americana musics, there are parts in the songs where we each get to bust out and jam to our own muse while the rest of the group provides a background for us to solo over. Mostly called 'improv' or soloing, even though one steps up to becomes a soloist, everyone else in the group is also still part of creating this improvised dialogue; through listening, supporting the soloist in musical and spriritual ways.

provide background

Thus in our collaborative thought process of soloing and support we all get to improvise together. Is this part of the magic that has enthralled folks since it all began? It sure is. That a part of the music they are hearing is being made up brand new right then and there just for them makes it special. And for the dancers in attendence? Probably, for through their aural process they too can enter into this collective improv dynamic to improvise their own vision of the musical story being told through their body movement to the pulse of time.

the dancers

Advanced improv. So, there may be some who read here now who already know their pitches, notes, intervals, scales arpeggios, chords and color tones through a couple, if not all 12 paired key centers. Thus impowered and searching for more, these chops become the resource we roll into this next discussion; an 'advanced improv' journey.

The source. Presented to me through the work of pianist Hal Garper, Mr. Garper works with this idea as presented to him from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, a true American master maestro, who I believed revolutionized the whole world's musics at least twice; first in his younger days through his NYC collaborations in bringing forth what we know as the Bebop jazz stylings, which along with ragtime, swing and later rock and roll, are among America's foremost exports of indigenous musical styles with global reach. American bebop, as exhilirating to perform and joyous to behold, is probably the most technically complex and difficult to sound out from a chops standpoint, and to improvise together as any ever might imagined really.

Some historical background. Mr. Gillespie's changed the musical world as some might know it a second time by his total embrace of the Latin rhythms and through his playing, grafting this rhythm root stock to America's existing blues and jazz rhythm roots; the big 4, 12 / 8 blues and the 2 and 4 of swing, (just my opinion). With hand drummer Chano Pozo, who got to NYC from Havana, Cuba in 1947, we find an origin of Latin jazz. And while Mr. Pozo left us too early, we had Mr. Gillespie for the next four decades or so working this magic; Latin flavored rhythms and lines woven into the Americana blues and jazz, quite possibly at the highest technical levels ever brought to a trumpet.

Any concept can shape. Concept coolness prevails yet again in this advancement in that for some, they will be able to intellectualize this idea without yet having worked through this shedding sequence to internalize our musical language. So depending on the styles you dig and the improvisations you want to create; single note lines, chord vamps, full songs etc., we can use this idea and really apply to any style.

The gist of it. The core of the idea here is to simply think rhythmically while creating improvised melodic lines. To create a 'rhythm line' of whatever note values feel right while we're improvising. Once grooving along, that the 'right' notes and their sequencing will fall into place simply by what we 'hear' generated, while we improvise through our various musical forms in our chosen musical styles.

In energizing this process, what we each 'hear' is probably a wee bit different ( or a lot :), thus seek to we discover an intuitive, organic basis to generate our own unique and one of a kind 'artistic signature.'

When first getting hip to this I was playing a lot of 12 bar blues bass with a metronome, mostly searching to find ways to incorporate the open strings into my walking bass lines. For somehow these 'open' pitches into mostly fretted note lines add a nice dollop of mojo to the magic. It took a couple of tries but within a few choruses I began to faintly hear where I wanted the line to go and the pitches to fill it in. Floored? I sure was. For the pitches and the line clearly 'bubbled up' from within the well of my musical consciousness. It 'flipped a bit' for me that near never fails to help me find 'something' fresh when needed.

Part two. A second part of this Garper / Gillespie concept is to think of the first beats of a measure as the end points of the improvised melodic lines and not the beginning. While a bit more complex in concept, once the music is set into motion, it falls into place. For in most of our music we have cadential points that pause or even stop the flow of the music we be laying down. Most times these cadences happen, you guessed it, the first beat of the bar :) Thus, the idea of the 'endpoint of the melodic line' is potentially the first beat of a measure. Beyond crazy how this simple idea can change the 'lay of the line' for the improvising artist.

For a full, and totally fascinating explanation of these ideas, Mr. Garper's book Forward Motion is a source.


“You fear the least what you know the most about.”

wiki ~ John Glenn

~ improv ~

~ composing a solo ~

~ soloing over one chord ~

'using music to connecting our heart, head and hands together in spontaneous creativity with music...'

~ Americana Improvisations ~

'just using our creative intuititions and memories to synch up our heart, mind and hands and create in the gift of the present '

~ ~ ~

guide tone lines
Lydian b7 / melodic minor
melodic minor substitutions
chord type
the shedding
composing a solo
creating a solo / Saints
modal improv
spelling chords

~ five note pentatonic modes ~

~ soloing over chord changes ~

~ soloing through chord changes ~

~ parent scales ~

~ soloing over one chord / 4 bar phrase ~

~ the turnaround ~

~ one idea per chorus ~

~ composing a solo ~

~ the shedding ~

~ advanced ~

~ anything from anywhere ~

'using music to synch up our heart, minds and hands together to spontaneously create musical art ...'