~ Improv Americana ~

'the boundless joy of the spontaneous creative, to sound whatever comes to heart or mind, a creative search that begins anew each and every day ... '

~ advanced ~

~ a beginning ~

~ phrase to 1 ~

~ trading fours ~

~ the turnaround ~

~ Two / Five cell ~

~ call and response ~

~ additional improv topics ~

~ how scales become melodies ~

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

Folks just love a good story ... and some of us folks like to tell them :) We all do really and in the re-telling of a tale from memory, there's always room for some new remembering spontaneity depending on the setting, the audience, style of music, and just the way the whole thing feels.

And does a story ever get told the same way twice? Maybe yes, maybe no. Regardless, we can always strive to make it memorable by trying to get it all just right, for that moment in time and for that audience.

Adjust is improvisation. In the performance arts, there's always necessary 'adjustments' made by the group together to bring off the story to its full potential. As Americans our day to day lives are filled with this doing to get along and as musicians, we know how true these adjustments can be, to make art by combining the energies of the players.

'make necessary adjustments' = improvisation :)

And in music? We can practice our tales and present them as art to those who love a good story. And sometimes the success we achieve is truly energized by the 'in the moment', when we capture just the right timing for the flow of the tale.

So we must be ready to improvise, we must prepare our musical vocabulary for instant recall, or even a measure or two or further further ahead :) So when the time comes when we need to 'adjust', to improvise our way along in the music by rote memory, its fun but can also be a serious challenge. And surely we all of us who love the performance and its sharing know for certain that 'when the band has fun, everyone has fun ... :)

In wide swaths of our Americana musics we get to tell the tale, and then once told, we then improvise on that theme, allowing each to present their version of the tale being told. We support one another, each getting their chance to 'bring it', now capturing the spotlight to voice our own ideas supported by our bandmates. And as can happen in any field of endeavor, when the doing is not going all to well, we make immediate adjustments and improv a way to 'bring it' and save the day. So we prepare, and strengthen our own ability to bring it when necessary, striving to bring the house down too.

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

wiki ~ Thomas Edison

Preparation / some of what it takes. So when we hear a person speak eloquently, knowledgeably and coherently on a topic, we often admire their ideas and skill in their presentation. They've a vocabulary to express their thoughts and put their ideas together to have an impact. The deeper the speaking into a topic, oftentimes the deeper the thought process, the researching and soul searching, the academia and sharing of personal experience, life.

wiki ~ Grammy soloists
wiki ~ Maya Angelou

Mucho the same with our music improvisations. When we hear a soloist, we lean in and want to hear 'what they got to say.' And when hearing those we admire, we know there's been some thought, effort and work put into their presentation that we respect, admire and often emulate in our own art, by borrowing from the greats we each carry on thier greatness in our own work. 'Tis the way of it and this has always been the way of it.'

"The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work."

wiki ~ Emile Zola

In a nutshell. 'Improvisation' in our Americana music styles is often just like our improvisations in everyday life; we're presented with tasks, challenges and even puzzles, that we have to solve to complete. And that's mostly the same for our music. Improvisation in music is art we create in musical sounds, that we are re-creating anew from memory or making it 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. Same with music, we prepare various components with pitches that we use to solve the musical puzzles we choose to play.

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; so they improvised with what they had at hand. This inventiveness carries over to 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 together to bring the music forth. That 'necessity is the mother of invention' works for art too :) How true that ...

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

A bit of improv history. In the jazz styles, which at one time was America's popular or 'pop' music, the historical role of improvisation is quite varied. Initially evolving from the often fully written out 'ragtime' works of the 1880's, of which we have scores and piano rolls for today, we see the emergence of the collective group improv of the dixieland styles of 1900. As things evolved over the next decade or so, from within this group format, we evolve to the featured soloist backed up by a rhythm section. We see this on into the 1920's or so and forward from there, as new 'stars' emerge and the recording business and making records takes off.

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 come to include working out ideas from the overall form and harmonic structure of the chosen song. And from the one soloist format to multiple soloists from within the group; horns, bass drums etc.

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 and now into the 1940's, 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. 1940's Americana jazz ? Bebop. The eventual evolution of bebop in the 1940's, often thought to be our most challenging of musics to participate in.

A new way forward. In October 1939, jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded "Body and Soul", a pop song of that era. And in his version, once the melody is stated in the first 8 bar 'A' section, Mr. Hawkins improvs the rest of the three minute track by improvising with arpeggios through the written chords of the song. Two full choruses complete the take.

Once this recording hit the shops and airwaves, players further considered the 'storyline' aspect of the composition and realized that the chord changes of the songs they were performing could provide a new framework for their improvised melodies. Things as they say ... 'haven't been the same since.' Within a few short years the 'race through the changes' was on and Bebop, among America's most advancing and difficult of the jazz arts, becomes the 'new thing' over the 1940's airwaves.

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 their geography, lived in a tightly restricted society under the threat of psychological, physical harm and death, as their day to day artistic life in American. Unfortunately this continues on today. We as musicians can use our musics to create community, for finding common ground in music, art and entertainment we all can enjoy together.

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 work developing our music skills comes together to showcase our ideas in creating aural art moving through real and measurable time. For beginning artists reading here, play 12 bar blues and master the form and basic chord changes, find your mojo lick and organically grow from there. These skills translate into the chops to merge into performance formats with like minded cats.

Not sure of the right words here to describe this process of composing or building a solo 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, a joyous sharing of energies with our fellow musicians and those who love to dance, listen and dream along.

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 :)

Working out a solo 'story' for performance. Another common 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.

Do 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 and their art evolves. For if we compose it then we own it yes?

Another approach along these lines is to learn the solos of the master players we each 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 another's popular solos. That we also 'borrow' ideas from really any source and then make them our own over time, is what we've all done to evolve our thing. Listening is the key here. 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? Best to probably work it out as described above. Looking to step on a pedal and shred for a couple of minutes till the sweat pours out of the dancers? Then in addition to working things out you'll probably want to consider building up a solo too.

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?

Muse on all 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 :) So a bit of true artistic, inner personal search, then focus up and create a path to success. Improv is about being prepared by knowing your music and what role improv takes within it. Then tailor your shedding to max for these moments.

Intermediate and beyond. For those theorists along in their improv studies there are two similar sections to explore that advance the improv challenge through the harmony. These are; 12 bar blues chord substitutions and the chord substitution, modulatory properties and modernizations associated with the properties of V7b9. If these ring a bell or raise some 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. Find the pitches of a melody that you can already sing on your guitar.

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. For chances are once you learn the line solid you'll end up just naturally hearing ideas that go right along. Stop and find these pitches, these are your first improvisations.

Find another melody you dig and repeat the process. Then another etc. Remember that when we get to perform your songs, someone will probably need to play the melody :)

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.

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.

Once the letter names of the chord were spelled out, inevitably Doc would strum the chord and have that 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.

Not too sure if and where these sorts of sessions are these days. Ask around your community and see if there's one about. Create one if needed with help from your school music teacher or area colleges, private teachers or knowledgable friends. Or teach yourself through conscious effort of wanting to get things right. You'll know soon enough when you decide to merge your ideas with other cats. In this way we become self correcting, the part of the magic of who we are. For we often learn more from our failed efforts than we do from our successes. Crazy I know but oh so true :)

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

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 :)

Numerical overview. So while music improv includes a lot of coolness to consider, here now as music theory scientists let's 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 in either block chords or arpeggios. This is the basis of the roughly 300 year old style of compositional we've known all along as the homophonic style of music composition.

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.

'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.

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 spiritual ways.

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 attendance? 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.

EMG advanced improv in a nutshell.

time and phrasing. This next idea is probably the most advanced concept in this entire work. About time? Yea, about time :) There are a few other equally advanced ideas. One or two for each of melody, harmony, form and rhythm, our other main topics in understanding our musics. Advanced topics create long range perspective, knowing what might be ahead work towards can better shape today's tasking.

shifting the barlines around

barlines become boundries for learning, then 'fenceposts' to conquer :)


Improvisation / advanced time and phrasing. This next idea is probably the most advanced concept in this entire work. About time? Yea, about time :) There are a few other equally advanced ideas. One or two for each of melody, harmony, form and rhythm, our other main topics in understanding our musics. Advanced topics create long range perspective, knowing what might be ahead work towards can better shape today's tasking.

shifting the barlines around

barlines become boundries for learning, then 'fenceposts' to conquer :)


This next idea; that reshapes our thinking about the downbeat on 1, could and should be a benefit to all who love to understand their musics. For while we feel the swing in Americana, and create its magic in time, there's this idea of 'forward motion', perhaps the inner kinetic energy of the whole swing deal, that goes beyond and creates a more multi-dimensional time realm. It is brought to our attention thanks to the work of jazz artist Hal Garper, pianist to trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie.


Advanced concepts / improv. Improvisation has all the marbles really; pitches, scales, arpeggios, chords, time, rhythms and collaboration, so it is at the lead of the 'advanced' concepts in understanding our musics. For we all of us improvise throughout each day of our lives, it's a thing we all share in common. In our musics many of us improv with the pitches, scales, arpeggios etc., within a myriad of styles of musics, instruments, motored by the rhythms of the world over. Now we roll all of this skill into time and phrasing.

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 empowered and searching for more, you already have the chops needed, we simply roll it all into a new way of thinking about time and the placements of our phrasing.

The source and some historical background. Presented to me through the work of Seattle, Washington pianist Alex Chadsey, the theories come from the book by pianist Hal Garper. Mr. Garper works with this idea as presented to him from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who I personally 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 today 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 exhilarating 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.


A second shifting (my opinion). Mr. Gillespie's changed the musical world as some might know it a second time by his total embrace of the Latin rhythms in his playing, grafting this rhythm root stock to Americana's existing DNA of the blues and jazz rhythm tree; the big 4, the 'three over four' of the 12 / 8 shuffle blues and the backbeat and pocket of 2 and 4. With hand drummer Chano Pozo, who got to NYC from Havana, Cuba and joining Gillespie's group in 1947, we find an origin of Latin / Americana jazz. And while Mr. Pozo left us too early, we had Mr. Gillespie for the next four decades or so working this new magic; Latin flavored rhythms and lines woven into the Americana blues and jazz, at quite possibly the highest technical levels ever brought to a trumpet. It is from this combined DNA that this next discussion of 'forward motion' evolves.

That an advanced concept can re-shape our entire existing thought paradigms with a 'flip of a bit ...Coolness prevails yet again in this 'forward motion' advancement in that some readers will be able to intellectualize this idea even without having yet ever done it. For the concepts are as simple as counting to four, four times and finding the downbeat at the top of the phrase. 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 creating music. Once grooving along, this rhythm / time energy nudges our creative muse, the 'right' pitched notes and their sequencing for that moment will begin to fall into place.

Bring on the voodoo. Sound like some magical sort of voodooian mode? It is but try it for yourself. Stay on one pitch and just groove it on along, then listen close to inside your head. As you play your rhythms in a groove, pitches to 'melodicize' your lines begin to surface in our consciousness :) If you're seeking to discover a purely intuitive, organic way to generate music from your 'inner voice' and further develop your own unique artistic signature this exercise just might be the ticket.

A start. 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 placed into formerly fretted note lines add a nice dollop of mojo to the forward motion of my lines.

12 bar blues bass with a metronome

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 in that moment that for evermore near never fails to help me find 'something fresher' to say when needed. I just simplify my line down to one pitch appropriate to the musical setting and listen.

So give it a try, here's a four bar phrase with a tonic, one pitch rhythm over a blues V7 chord. Thinking 'A' blues, so an 'A'7 chord supporting an a 'A' note. Ex. fm~a.

Any thing come to mind pitch wise from this one note samba? How about this new pitch? Example fm~b.

Motion to Four. Just begging to go to Four. Did you hear the pitch 'D' as generated from hearing 'A' repeated, that the repetition nudged the new pitch to come along? Cool, that's the idea here. That the repetition of the one note 'brings to mind' others that might get included. The we just have to find them on our horns, easy. For they are already in there somewhere. Hey, since this is a way to compose melodies ... and melodies become songs ...

Advanced improv part two. As illustrated just above, this first of the Garper / Gillespie concepts gets us right to working with the four bar length of phrase, repeated. Which in Essentials is felt to be the basis of our musics; all styles past and present. We'll use this measure the basis for the second part of this advancement.

The gist of it. Conventional thought often finds us thinking that 'beat 1 of measure 1' of a four bar phrase is the START of the musical line. What we want to consider here is the idea that this point is the End point in the line. Crazy huh ? It goes like this.

So once the groove is grooving, while 'beat 1 of measure 1' becomes the 'click' we initiate from, we also 'forward motion' ahead in time and look to 'land' our idea on the next 'click', which occurs on 'beat 1 of measure 1' of the next four bar phrase. The same click point to launch from and aim for over four bars? Yep. Example fm~c.

Get a sense of the concept? Just looking towards beat 1 of the new four bar phrase, starting anywhere within after the click already knowing an end point. Which of course we can blow right by if the spirit is willing and the chops be strong :) I ask my drummers to consistently click on 1 of each new four bar phrase, while maintaining their independence with 2 and 4 on the high hat etc. Then just work it from there. Maybe there's something here for you two :)

And surely there's a couple of more tons of coolness in Mr. Garper's book beyond these two concepts. Find a copy and explore. These are included here as 'advanced' as they point the pathway forward beyond the norm as pioneered by Mr. Gillespie, that so many have been inspired to follow Find some 'Dizzy' and spin, chances are you'll hear these ideas right off the bat. Throw in the 'half time feel' a la "Cherokee" and then ... ?

Improvisational rhythmic composition with ragas ?

Other pathways;

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

wiki ~ John Glenn
~ forward motion / "Cute" / trade fours / the clicks

Decades ago, while working with monster jazz drummer Peter Kriff, we added in the song "Cute" composed by Neal Hefti, to the wedding section of our gig book.

Peter Kriff
wiki ~ Neal Hefti / "Cute"


~ a parent scale ~

~ building solos ~

~ soloing over chords ~

~ soloing through chords ~

~ soloing over one chord ~

~ guide tone lines ~

~ the turnaround ~

~ anything from anywhere ~

~ 12 bar blues ~

~ intermediate artists ~

~ advanced artists / one ~

~ advanced artists / two ~