I've been playing guitar for some time, and often when i do improvisation exercises, I hit notes which sound too tense to finish a run/lick/riff on. Kind of like having a sentence which no full stop.

The note is not out of key but its either tense, or not complimentary to the backing chords... I then often lose my timing because I have to quickly find another note that sounds right to finish a given riff on, or start again.

So my question is, what is the best method (other than using your ears) to work out which notes safely resolve and which notes will not given any key you are in so that i can then visually in my mind see where i can start/end licks and sound more melodic to the backing tracks.

I want to be able to understand which will and will not work solely from looking at keys/chords on paper. It would help me see in advance where i want to take my improvisations.

  • 3
    Learn about the concept of cadences. A cadence is a resolution of a musical phrase (in the harmonies or chord progression), analogous to the punctuation at the end of a sentence.
    – user1044
    May 19, 2013 at 12:02
  • 1
    You should also look up the concept of the "turnaround", a term used in jazz and pop music to describe a major cadence at the end of a whole section of music.
    – user1044
    May 19, 2013 at 12:46

5 Answers 5


You should focus on chord tones and half-step resolutions.

Let's assume the key of C.

The 7th chords in this key:

Cmaj7: C E G B

Dmin7: D F A C

Emin7: E G B D

Fmaj7: F A C E

G7: G B D F

Amin7: A C E G

Bmin7b5: B D F A

Let's use a classic jazz example, the iimin7 | V7 | Imaj7.

In C, this would be Dmin7 | G7 | Cmaj7.

To start with, you could play/end on any of the chord tones in these chords.

D F A C | G B D F | C E G B

To make it more interesting, try to tailor the line to have as many half-step resolutions from chord to chord:

D F A C | B D G F | E

Note the 3rds and 7ths of the chords resolving to one another (the C in Dmin7 to the B in G7, then the F in G7 to the E in Cmaj7). This is a cornerstone of jazz improvisation.

Outside of chord tones and half-step resolutions, you can also use upper extensions for more unique sounds, but use care, as some of these tones tend to sound a bit less resolved than chord tones.

For maj7 chords: 9 #11 13

For min7 chords: 9 11 13

For 7th chords: b9 9 #9 11 #11 b13 13

For our Dmin7 | G7 | Cmaj7 example, that would give us:

Dmin7: D F A C E G B

G7: G B D F (Ab A A# C C# Eb E)

Cmaj7: D F# A

These can help to add some additional color to your lines, and give you some things to experiment with. Again, use care, some upper extensions (also known as tensions) can be awkward, but give them a shot.

So, to sum up: chord tones, resolutions, try some extensions.

After that, read up on modes and try to incorporate some of those sounds as well.

When you practice, your head should hurt more than your hands.

  • "When you practice, your head should hurt more than your hands." Fantastic!
    – Gauthier
    Aug 27, 2013 at 7:19

Some simple guidelines (inspired by David Baker's books on ' How to Play BeBop'):

Playing tones of the current chord on the down beats will make you sound "in" (the harmony). On the up beats you may use any tones; in or out of the scale or harmony.

Ending your phrase on a chord tone of the current chord, especially ending on a chord tone on a (possibly temporary) tonic chord, will make you sound like you know what you are doing.

Establishing the two rules above in your playing and then occationally and intentionally breaking them -- such as temporarily playing notes of unrelated chords or scales, or ending on non-chord/-scale tones -- while still radiating confidence will make you sound like you are really cool...

A suggestion for an exercise:

  1. Select some bars with a short chord sequence of 2-4 chords from some song you want to improvise on. Preferably these chords constitute a common cadence ending on some form of tonic.

  2. Select a note to end on from the last chord of your selected chord sequence.

  3. Select a beat to end on from (one of) the bar(s) of the last chord.

  4. Loop the bars, each time improvising a phrase that ends on your selected note and beat. (You can skip the beat part if it seems too hard.)

Start by ending on the root of the last chord. When you can do that consistently try the third, and then the fifth. Also start by ending on the first beat of the last chord, then try other beats and up beats of the last chord including the one directly before the last chord. Analyze what you think works in terms of playing and in terms of the exercise, and adjust and expand the exercise according to that.


To try to avoid too much theory, start and finish your run of notes on those being played in the chord at that time. Watch the rhythm player, and use one of his notes played as a springboard for your phrase, and do the same for your last note. Bear in mind he may or may not be on the same chord that you both started on. Obviously, using the pentatonic notes will avoid the possibility of hitting bum notes, as none should clash, and when you're happy with this scenario, move on to more complex note arrangements, as above. Bear in mind that a tense note at the end will only be either one or two frets from the note that sounds good instead. Get used to sliding from the bad into the good !! Good luck !

  • 1
    I like the idea of mastering pentatonic notes first.
    – setzamora
    May 31, 2013 at 6:30

Semi-longish answer

Under most normal circumstances, resolve from the dominant to the tonic. This known as an authentic cadence (V to I). This is the most common and sounds the most complete.

There are other types of cadences, such as the phyrgian cadence (iv6 to V) and the interrupted cadence (V to anything besides I, usually ii, vi, or VI). These aren't as common for finishing a song or a movement. Because they don't sound finished, they usually lead into another section rather than completing the piece/movement.

Authentic cadences sound complete because they resolve from the dominant to the tonic. Other cadences, such as the back-door progression (iv7 to ♭VII7 to I) or the ii-V-I turnaround (ii to V to I) also sound complete because they resolve to the tonic. However, they are different from the authentic cadence in that they don't resolve from the dominant. They are still commonly used (though not as much as the authentic cadence).

Short answer

Know what key you're in and finish with the dominant and then the tonic. For example, in C, this would be G to C.

See this page and this page for further information.

  • In Britain cadence V-I is called the perfect cadence, opposite to the imperfect cadence -which 'unresolves' I-V.
    – Tim
    May 19, 2013 at 5:40
  • Yes, it has various names, also including "standard cadence".
    – Luke_0
    May 19, 2013 at 12:13
  • The next most common cadence is the plagal, moving IV-I,but it's probably called something different in U.S.
    – Tim
    May 20, 2013 at 9:53
  • Phrygian cadence - final chord IIImaj., as in tune in Cmaj., finishing on E G# B - nice !!!
    – Tim
    May 20, 2013 at 11:00
  • @Tim I would have included that in the answer, but I don't think that's the type of cadence the OP is looking for.
    – Luke_0
    May 20, 2013 at 13:14

The i, iv, and vii of the key are the tones that you're going to want to pay attention to. The ii, iii, v, and vi tones are "harmonically neutral" (they work for all the chords in the key), while the remaining three (singly or in some combination) produce different motions of harmony. So, for example, when you are creating a Imaj harmony, you would avoid the "iv" tone because this tone clashes with that harmony. If you are playing a IIIm7, you would avoid the "i" tone in your improvisation. And so on, for each chord there is a certain tone or tones that would clash with that chord, and so you would avoid those while improvising. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avoid_note for starters.


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