Harmonic Improvisation


To solo harmonically is to make melodic decisions based on chords changes.

The experience of soloing in this way is similar to the experience of strumming through a chord progression. Both skills require that you know a song’s changes.

This blog post will map out the concept so you can get started with this kind of improvising.

I like to describe harmonic improvisation as chasing the chords. It seems to me that playing chord specific licks and phrases that go right along with a song’s changes is like a never-ending game of cat and mouse. As a bonus, chasing the chords is also fun.

Here’s how it works:

If the band is playing a D chord, for example, then you must play D-chord-specific melodic figures.

Play this chord:

D7 Chord

Then play this phrase:

D7 Phrase

This phrase corresponds with the D7 chord for two reasons: (1) the lick and the chord are made up of the same notes—D, F#, A, and C; (2) the chord and the phrase exist in the same region (position) of the fretboard.

Notice how nicely they work together. It’s as if D7 and that lick were made for each other. Next, let’s map this idea onto a three-chord-progression that you might encounter in a song.

Play these three chords to give yourself a road map:

D7 Chord G7 Chord A7 Chord

Then play this etude to drive home the idea (click to enlarge):

Etude 1

Here I am playing the etude:

In the video, I looped the chords, played the exercise as written, then improvised using the etude as fodder. This, in a nutshell, is the concept: develop some chord-specific vocabulary, then use that vocabulary to inform your soloing decisions.

Now you’re a chord chaser, too!

Okay, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed this post. Keep chasing them chords.

4 thoughts on “Harmonic Improvisation

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  1. Brian, this begins to shed some light on a perplexing matter. Maybe you can help further?
    A young friend recently invited me to a local jazz club – an experience I haven’t said yes to in a long time (…but when she made those eyes) not since my own youth in late 1950’s through 60’s Chicago. At that time I was listening to Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Wes Montgomery, Lee Konitz, Monk, MJQ, etc. When these men took solos what I heard had undeniable individuality and logic. Even Monk’s sharply angled harmonies and phrasings had a “consistent structure” that, for lack of a better subjective description, “made sense” to me. In the music I heard at the jazz club the other night it seemed that all sense of harmonic structure had been abandoned. Rather than melodic lines such as I remember – and what you describe above – the musicians seemed to be playing in a style we used to call “noodling”. I found the experience chaotic, bewildering, and wondered what had happened to jazz in the fifty years or so since I first discovered it. Moreover, after awhile, it all sounded the same: i.e., just a lot of notes, played at breakneck speed and “the faster, the better.” Please explain.
    Many thanks.

    1. Thanks for the long comment, wkrh. I’m glad somebody else can hear the useless “noodling” that goes on. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of experience and plenty of good taste. I agree that the jazz of fifty years ago is much more listenable.

  2. Just getting back here after awhile… I’m wondering what the technical descriptive terms are for these different approaches and styles. If you know of any good articles that explain how we’ve come to this new style of playing, I’d be grateful to hear of them. Thanks again.

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