Taking the Fear Out of Jazz Improvisation (Jazz Theory Made Simple)

Aspiring musicians are always approaching me, saying, “I wish I could play that jazz stuff, but I just don’t get all that jazz theory and all those scales and modes…” That whole thing about jazz being complicated and mysterious and intellectiual is just a load of crap invented by musicians/academics who can’t play and want to puff up their own egos by confusing and intimidating young musicians. The truth is that jazz, like all music, is fundamentally very simple – you don’t need any fancy theory or any fancy scales – just a little knowledge, a little common sense (all too uncommon these days) and the courage to TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. First of all, forget all that stuff about modes and altered diminished whole-tone depreciated scales. I’ve hung out and played with a lot of the jazz greats and most of them would have a hard time even playing a phrygian mode, let alone using it in their own solos. Jazz is basically about playing melodies over chords. So to play jazz we hav eto know about chords. Once you know how to play chords on the guitar, then improvising becomse simple. Each 7th chord has a root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. That basic arpeggio gives yo ufour notes on which you can improvise with absolute confidence. How many notes in a scale? Seven. So with the arpeggio you’ve already got more than a half. All you need to do is add the 9th, 11th and 13th to your arpeggio and you’ve got all seven notes. Move them down an octave and you’ve got your scale – 9 becomes 2, 11 becomes 4 and 13 becomes 6. So you’ve got 1, 2 (9), 3, 4 (11), 5, 6 (13), 7 and 1 again. If you aren’t sure what notes to play for the 9, 11 and 13 then USE YOUR EAR! Play the chord, then play 1, then play 3, now figure out what note sounds good TO YOU in between 1 and 3 (there may be more than one…). Ttry singing the notes and playing them against the chord. Choose a note that sounds good to you, do the same for 4 and 6 and you’ve got a scale! You may discover more than one scale per chord, but don’t worry, that just gives you more notes to choose from… Now I know this may seem way too simple, but the truth is that this is how most of the great improvisers did it – the played ARPEGGIOS, not scales, and turned their arpeggios into scaes just like we did above. One more thing – don’t practice arpeggios separate from chords. Always link each chord voicing you know to an arpeggio in the same position and build a scale from that arpeggio. Learn to “jam” on each chord voicing that you know so that when you think D9, for example, you can automatically think and see the arpeggio and scale that goes with that chord grip:  Don’t worry if you don’t even know the name of the scale you’re playing over D9 – thinking all that theory stuff takes too much time anyway – See D9, think D9, hear D9, play D9 as a chord or as an arpeggio and you’re done. That’s all the theory you need to start playing jazz. Below, I’ve given you a few examples of chord voicings that I use and the arpeggios that I use with them. Check them out, jam on them and feel free to change them – make them your own….