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Introduction To Jazz Guitar Improvisation

A jazz guitar lesson by Matthew Hart

In this series of guitar articles, we explore some jazz guitar improvisation concepts: consonance,dissonance & resolution and note enclosure. These concepts give improvisation a tension and colour that many other genre's of music overlook. You will require good knowledge of the modes, and the structure of jazz chords to fully benefit from this article. So if you are unsure of these, I'd advise you take a look at those articles first!

In this first section we'll look at improvisation over a simple progression, focusing on notes that stay within the key signature. The second article (next week) demonstrates the use of Dissonance & Resolution over the same progression. In the third section we'll look at the Note Enclosure concept.


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Improvising Over II V I: Staying Inside

The ii V I is the most common chord progression in jazz, so we'll use it as our base. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the following progression.

ii V I I
Am7 D9 Gmaj7 Gmaj7


Here's a backing track for this chord progression, it is looped multiple times for you to improvise over:

You can download an mp3 of this backing track here.


These three chords are all within the scale tone set of G Ionian, indicating that G Ionian is our home scale:

G A B C D E F#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7


Any phrase in G Ionian will sound consonant over the progression. The term II V I (said 2 5 1) refers to the roots of the chords:

  • Am7, with a root note of A, is the second (2) note of the G Ionian mode.
  • D9 is built on the fifth (5) note.
  • Gmaj7 is built on the first (1) note.


Lets have a look at a few G Ionian phrases that suit this progression.


Phrase 1:

Listen & Play

Guitar Improvisation 1


This phrase makes use of the chordal tones in each bar. In bar one, we start on the root of the Am7 chord (A) then follow some notes of the G Ionian mode. In bar two we hit the root of the D9 chord (D) then follow the G Ionian mode once again, landing on the major seventh of Gmaj7 (F#) in bar 3. Notice there are no accidentals in the phrase, every note is part of the G Ionian mode.

By playing the chordal tones on beat one of each bar, the phrase strongly suggests the chords behind it. The phrase could be played without any backing chords at all, and we'd still be able to determine the underlying chords. This is a very useful and common concept to use while improvising. Especially in solo pieces of music, when you do not have any accompaniment.

This next phrase makes use of other chordal tones.


Phrase 2:

Listen & Play

Guitar Improvisation 2


In bar one, we start on the b7 of the Am7 chord (g). In bar two we reach the b7 of the D9 chord (c) and then we end on the 7 of Gmaj7 (f#) in bar three.

Tip: When soloing over the Gmaj7, you"ll notice that the fourth note of the G Ionian mode (c) clashes badly. So try to avoid ending a phrase on that note.

G Ionian and A Dorian are the same set of notes. The guitar tabs of phrase 1 for example are played at the Dorian position, but could quite easily be played at any position.

Both Phrase 1 and Phrase 2 are said to be Consonant, and quite frankly, dull. Of course that is subject to opinion! However, without consonance there can be no dissonance, and in turn, no flavor. So credit where credit is due, we do need consonance in our improvisations.

Try constructing a few phrases yourself, taking care to land on a chordal tone on beat one of each bar. You can also use chordal tones on beat three of each bar to greater imply the chords beneath.


Consonance Exercise:

Practice taking different paths between two chordal tones, using only the notes within the key signature. Each riff should be five 8th notes, starting on a chord tone, and ending on another (or the same tone, perhaps in another octave).

So for Am7 you can move between any of the chordal tones A C E G. Also practice this with other chords, and at different areas of the fretboard. Don't forget to practice moving between two chords in the progression. Such as a chordal tone from Am7 (A C E G) to a chordal tone of D9 (D E F# A C), and so on.

This exercise will get you comfortable with consonant phrasing, eventually to the degree that you no longer have to pre-plan your riffs, but can construct them in real-time. As you invent/discover more and more small sequences, you will eventually tie them together with ease. This gives you the ability to create a constant stream of notes that always imply the underlying chords.

Here are a few examples over Am7 to get you started:


Consonance Exercise Example G Ionian Chordal Tones


Bar one moves from the flattened seventh of Am7 (G) to the root of Am7 (A). Bar two moves from the root to the minor third (C), and bar three from the minor third to the perfect fifth (E). There are many ways to move from one chord tone to another, using just the notes of the key signature. The more you experiment, the greater your improvisational vocabulary will become!




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