Improve Your Improvising – October 2013

Improvisation 4 – October 2013

A number of different elements go towards creating an effect on the listener whilst improvising including:

– choice of notes

– rhythm / timing

– sound / timbre

– articulation and phrasing

– textures

– use of patterns

– overall shape and form

– support from accompanying musicians (if any)

Over the last three months, I have been focusing primarily on note choice (August and September) and phrasing (July). So, this month I am going to talk about rhythmic variety and timing.

In a limited context, it is quite easy to begin choosing which notes to use. So, over a static harmony groove (i.e. using only one chord or riff) one scale can provide a dictionary of notes which will very largely sound ok in any order. However, the questions of when to play these notes, which rhythms to use and when not to play can be more difficult to get started with. Some people when given a selection of notes to improvise with can quite naturally begin putting them together into musical phrases but for others there is a strong feeling of not knowing where to start. Whichever category you belong in, I hope you find something of interest here.

We’re going to find a number of sources for rhythms which can be taken and transplanted directly into your solos and then adapted and expanded upon. Throughout these exercises you can use any context for improvisation that you wish to try out e.g. Blues scale over a 12-bar blues, playing changes over a standard, single scale over a vamp etc. If you are not sure where to start with this please refer to the previous articles which have specific examples of chords and accompanying scales.

Rhythmic patterns suggested by words or sentences.

Here are some sentences I found by opening the nearest magazine to me and pointing blindly at random pages:-

‘In other words, maybe the pleasure he gains…’

‘…good and evil are synonymous with pleasure and pain.’

These sentences can suggest rhythmic patterns based on how they can be spoken to a beat. These rhythms can then be used in conjunction with whatever selection of notes you are drawing from to create melodic phrases.

In the video below you will hear the above sentences interpreted as rhythms, first with a single note and then as improvised phrases using a variety of notes.

Rhythms lifted directly from other melodies

Here are some tunes I’ve chosen because everyone knows them:-

  • Twinkle, twinkle little star
  • Kum Ba Yah
  • YMCA (the Village People)

You can, of course, choose any song or piece you like. In just the same manner as the sentences above, the rhythms of these melodies can be used to inspire improvised phrases. The important thing to remember is that it is only the rhythm you need to extract from these tunes – the notes of the melody are irrelevant.

The following video gives examples of improvisation using rhythms from the tunes above.

Rhythms derived from systematic variations

This idea can be as complex as you are able to make it given your current level of knowledge and skill. A simple example to demonstrate the principle:-

a) 1 2 3 4 &

Image of guitar rhythm pattern

b) 1 2 3 & 4

Image of guitar rhythm pattern




c) 1 2 & 3 4

Image of guitar rhythm pattern

d) 1 & 2 3 4

Image of guitar rhythm pattern

In this example we take a rhythm a) and then transform it by moving the quaver pair (the faster ‘4 &’ notes which are beamed together) back by a beat each time. This gives us a series of permutations which is the essence of this technique. Here’s a more involved example (requires the ability to read notated rhythms):-

Image of complex guitar rhythm

Here, each bar shows a displacement of the first rhythm by a quaver (half beat) thus creating seven further rhythmic variations. These variations can then all be used to produce improvised phrases.

This video shows first the simple examples and then the more complex ones to create improvised melodic phrases.

Lastly, here is an exercise to develop the placement of phrases within an improvisation and encourage you to think more about the spaces between the phrases.

All we are going to do is play for a given number of beats and then rest for a given number. The simplest example would be to play for a bar (4 beats) and rest for a bar:-

Image of guitar rhythm pattern

But, this exercise can be made more interesting e.g. play for 7 beats, rest for 4:-

Image of uneven guitar rhythm

This has the effect of creating counter-intuitive, uneven phrases which go across bar lines and it can help to break you out of the habit of playing obvious, predictably placed melodies.

This video demonstrates both versions of this exercise.

That’s all for this month. Come back at the beginning of November when I’m going to discuss superimposition in improvisation.

Jamie Howell has been performing and teaching for over 20 years. He studied jazz at Leeds College of Music and has been running his own jazz, funk and rock bands ever since. He has taught privately and in various institutions and has a special interest in improvisation.

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