Improvisation Practice Tips – Part 1 of 2

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Improvisation practice goes hand-in-hand with the study of jazz music. Think of it this way – when Beethoven wrote music for his orchestra to play, he wrote down every note, every rhythm, every dynamic fluctuation, every detail for his musicians to play. But when Duke Ellington or Count Basie wrote music for their bands, they left many of the details to the individual players. Whole sections were improvised collectively by the band or left open for soloists. And this sort of improvisation became synonymous with the jazz language. Now improvisation practice is something that is taught at almost every music university. And in this article, we’re going to show you some improvisation practice tips which are meant to help you get started with improvisation. These exercises are meant for beginner improvisers, but they are also great practice for all jazz players.

Improvisation Practice Tip #1: Learn the Chord Tones

In a nutshell, improvisation is all about playing notes that correspond to a given chord. So when jazz players look at a piece of music and are asked to improvise, they are really looking at the chord symbols and thinking of the notes which correspond to that chord. And there are certain notes that are very important to know for a given chord – the chord tones. The chord tones are the individual notes which spell the chord. For example:

Improvisation Practice Tips

In order to improvise you need to be able to quickly identify the chord tones, and practice tip #1 will have you memorizing the chord tones quickly. Let’s take the chords to the first 4 measures of “Fly Me to the Moon.” At a slow tempo, play the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th of each chord. (Your left hand can play the roots of the chords or the actual chords).

Improvisation Practice Tips 1

Practice doing this through the entire song until you’re able to play from beginning to end, in time, through all of the chords with no mistakes.

Improvisation Practice Tip #2: Advanced Chord Tone Practice

Now that you’ve worked through a song playing root, 3rd, 5th, 7th through all of the chords, practice changing the order of the chord tones. For example, try playing 3rd, 7th, 5th, root.

Improvisation Practice Tips 2

Next, practice playing through the following inversions:

  1. 7th, 5th, 3rd, root;
  2. root, 7th, 3rd, 5th;
  3. 5th, root, 3rd, 7th;
  4. 3rd, 5th, root, 7th;
  5. 3rd, root, 7th, 5th.

Remember that the goal is to be able to play through an entire tune in time, correctly identifying the chord tones in the proper order.

Improvisation Practice Tip #3: Four-Note Patterns

For this practice tip we’re going to use four notes – the root (or 1st), 2nd, 3rd, and 5th of each chord. For major and dominant chords this will be the root, major 2nd, major 3rd, and perfect 5th. For minor chords this will be the root, major 2nd, minor 3rd, and perfect 5th.

Improvisation Practice Tips 3

Once you’ve played through the above exercise, practice various permutations of 1, 2, 3, 5 over each chord. For example, try playing:

  1. 1, 3, 2, 5;
  2. 1, 5, 3, 2;
  3. 5, 3, 2, 1;
  4. 3, 2, 5, 1;
  5. 2, 3, 5, 1.

Once you’ve mastered these exercises, check out Part 2 of this article which presents more advanced practice exercises.




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Welcome Paul Buono

Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit

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  1. This presentation was so simple to comprehend. If you continue to teach us like this, we would have been replicated with so much of u in us. Kindly provide these articles in pdf for download. Pleaseeee…. Am on bended knees…
    You are blessed

    1. Wale, why don’t you just copy and paste the article into Word (or equivalent) and save as pdf?

  2. Hi Willie,

    Thank you very much for the improvisation information.
    I will practice this exercise.

  3. Dear Willie,
    I admire your perseverance at teaching; you always seem to come up with new ways to help us out.
    I do appreciate it very much.
    This has got to be the passion of your life!
    Thank you, Dominique

  4. This is just the kind of stuff that I will incorporate into my practice. I know Willie preaches that you have to have this knowledge in both hands left for baselines and right for improvisation. I can really start to see the importance of all of this theory knowledge to be able to call on it at the right moment because in the time you think about what you need to do the moment is passed. Guess I better get back to practicing.

  5. HI Willie

    I have been practising the Day1&2 improvisation, and have just takena look at this – unfortunately I am clueless as to what the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th means. I would also like to know what the numbers on teh improvisation sheet means e.g. 3,5,7 etc….please can you help.

    Other than that, enjoying the lessons

    1. If you are a student of Willie’s you can look up the lesson on diatonic chords. That answers the question that you raise. If you take a C major key the root is C, the 2nd is D, the third is E, the fourth is F, the fifth is G, the sixth is A, the seventh is B and then back to the root. If you know scale degrees then you can refer to (or transpose to) any of the 12 keys. Knowing that shorthand will greatly increase your understanding of keys.

  6. Good to hear from you again with these simple but useful tips. You like to share your musical knowledge and do it well. I must confess that I also like to share my musical knowledge – innovations that as an advanced player I have discovered over a lifetime of musical explorations. Things like how to exercise without a keyboard; aerobic and anaerobic training sessions; different practice techniques for increasing (a) one’s fingers strength and (b) working on speed; and others; use of Pranayama exercises to stimulate bone growth of the weaker fingers, etc.

    I’d be glad to share my experiences with you if you don’t find it presumptuous of a student to provide inputs to his teacher and if, from the little I said, you’d be interested in reading about some of the topics I mentioned.

    Alway a pleasure to learn more with your courses.



  7. Thanks for all the free stuff, it’s great that you give such valuable information for free. I really enjoy all the Hang with Willie lessons. I would like to become a full member of your site, but unfortunately, due to my personal financial situation, I can’t afford it . However I do buy courses and lessons from time to time when I can. I have enjoyed them all, and thanks to you, my playing is improving all the time.

  8. Hi, Willie, Great information. Well laid out for easy practice. Sometimes I think these smaller pieces of info are easier to work with: less clutter and distraction. eg. This is the piece I have to learn today, nothing else to time waste. You really are a master musician and teacher. Well done.

  9. excellent, thank you for sharing all of your secrets with us, I just love the piano lessons, you’re the Greatest.

  10. Hi Willie and everyone!

    Willie, how would you play “Amazing Grace” using polychords?

  11. Hi willie, thanks for shearing all your experince with us, this is a nice stuff for me as I love jazz and cocktail music. I’m going to practice to make progress. I foloow as posible all the Hang with willie and other webinars you do these are exelent lessons, I appreciate them so much. I also read your articles and get the tips. Good bless you willie.

  12. I like your improvisation tips and find it helpful.
    However Would like to know which of the 5 alternatives you list under tip 2 and tip 3 are you favorite so I could concentrate on those first

  13. Hi Willie always a pleasure to learn more with you. Thanks for all the free stuff.

  14. Many thanks for your generosity in sharing your skills and knowledge Willie.
    I love your stuff and your style of teaching. I am a 72 year old living in Vietnam and just starting out on piano. I get so much enjoyment from your lessons.

  15. Thanks for the great lesson, I have seen this type of info before but you present it in an organized, easy to follow format. This is why I am a loyal follower of your lessons.

  16. Thanks for the basics. The foundation is so important to build on. We newbies thank you.

  17. thanks for the info. The melody of Fly me to the Moon is based almost entirely on the 3rd of the underlying chord