How to Improvise on the Saxophone

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Jazz is a music centered around improvisation. If you ever have wondered how some cat can just make up that beautiful music as he/she goes, and want to do it yourself, this article is for you.


Given that you know the basics of saxophone playing, learn your major, minor, and Pentatonic/Blues scales and arpeggios IN ALL 12 KEYS. It is extremely important to be comfortable in all 12 keys(Not every song is in the key of C, G, or F). Although this may seem boring at first, it is the essential building blocks of improvisation(I bet John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were more than comfortable in all 12 keys).
  1. After becoming comfortable in all twelve keys, learn how these scales and arpeggios fit into the twelve bar blues. Being the simplest and most common set of changes, the blues is essential for the beginning improviser. It might be easy to use only the blues scale for improvising on the blues, but do not you want more than one sound? Experiment with your scales over a playalong cd--the most popular of these is the Jamie Aebersold series. After getting comfortable with the blues, start learning jazz standards. These are essential to any jazz musician looking for a job. You can purchase realbooks or fakebooks, or use the Aebersold books that come with the playalong. When learning a tune, start with playing the scale in time along with the recording or a playalong, then play your arpeggios. This should help with memorizing the changes so you can begin making music.
    1. Now that you have got some chord changes in your head, what are you going to do with them? Improvisation is quite literally composing on the spot, and it can be very intimidating in the heat of the moment. Listening to your favorite players improvise is a great way to get ideas--you can even transcribe(figure out for your own use) a cool lick you find in a solo and learn it in all twelve keys, and use it in your own soloing. Eventually, you will want to transcribe as much as you can to obtain a good vocabulary of jazz licks. This is the beginning to finding your own sound. Finding what you like about your favorite musicians will help you find your niche in music.
    1. Alright, now you have the scales, the chord changes, and the vocabulary; you just simply need to put it together. You may find that you are not playing well enough in time when you play passages of eighth notes or sixteenth notes or triplets. Work some time into your practice routine where you just play eighth notes with a metronome at a slow tempo in any given key or perhaps any given set of chord changes. Slowly speeding up your metronome will gradually put you right in the pocket, allowing you to play faster(but remember that the ability to play fast is not the ability to make a good solo, it is one of your tools to HELP your solo. You would not want to through a whole pepper shakers worth of pepper onto your food would you? It would overpower your meal as a whole. Use your fast technical stuff to spice up your solo, not to dominate it).
    2. An extremely important aspect of Jazz is the conversation the soloist has with the rhythm section. You do not need to fill every beat with notes--give your audience some time to take in your last idea, and give your rhythm section some time to respond to you. Jazz is simply another language we use to communicate--and you would not want to talk to someone who just talks and talks and never listens to you, would you? The same goes with jazz.
    3. Finally, be creative. Use different rhythms, syncopate, swing 8th notes to fit the style, build a sequence, repeat motifs, and just get into the music.


    • LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN!!! There are thousands of recordings out there to give you the inspiration for improvisation
    • Shape your solo! Start simple and build to a climax. Try saving your really technical licks for at least the 3rd chorus. Think of it like you are telling a story. Leave the audience wanting more
    • Do not get discouraged. It takes time to learn how to improvise. Do not beat yourself up about a lick you just screwed up--focus on the now. Everyone has bad gigs, and most likely you will too. Just focus on the next gig instead of hanging onto the bad things.


    • Avoid over-using the blues scale, as it can get rather boring.

    Things You Will Need

    • A saxophone
    • Creativity
    • Determination
    • Practice time
    • Possibly some playalong books and realbooks.

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