I mainly learned the major scale and minor pentatonic. I have a fairly good grasp of music theory, but I guess my harmony area is lacking when it comes to chord naming etc. I understand most intervals like a dominant 7th chord is simply the chord constructed from the 5th mode of the major scale or Mixolydian and includes the 7th.

So I try noodling around and at first it just sounds like major scale. So then I practice some arpeggios and basically hitting through 3,5,7 intervals through the modes. It helps a little, specially with a little sliding and I think the 4th and 5th and 7th sound somewhat interesting.

I also just tried playing all over the place like minor pentatonic up then slide up 4 frets and go down in new key with minor pentatonic with passing notes and this sounds a little better or more like jazz.

So I'm wondering if maybe I need to frequently change keys? Learn chords better and change like every measure? More passing tones into the major scales? Basically if anyone has felt they had thos kinda of issue and solved it, maybe they can give me suggestions.

  • 2
    Have you started with blues before moving into jazz? With the more static harmony, it is easier to come up with pleasing improvisations in a blues setting. There you can start developing motifs, which in my mind is what makes improvisations coherent. If you want to get the most out of pentatonic scales the book Pentatonic Khancepts by Steve Khan is recommended. It shows how to apply pentatonics in about all kinds of harmonic settings, for common jazz progressions etc. Commented May 4, 2017 at 21:42

4 Answers 4


Though your question is vague, I think I get the problem by reading between the lines. You know some scales and theory but when you try to play over changes it sounds like you're still doing exercises rather than "playing jazz"? If so, that's a common problem and just another hump to get over.

You're definitely on to something with arpeggios. Scales are good to know in general and they're helpful to have under your fingers at times when playing lines. But if you simply play scales your lines won't sound very melodic; they'll sound like scales.

It's usually better to think about the chord tones. Make sure you know your diatonic 7th arpeggios really well. Practice the song for a bit by playing only the arpeggios over the given chords.

Then practice patterns using the 3, 5, 7, and 9 of the chord. Another way to look at this is superimposing the diatonic arpeggio that's a 3rd above the given chord (ex. Dm7 -> Fmaj7). By shifting up a diatonic 3rd like that you're adding the 9 while omitting the root. Get used to playing those notes in various patterns (up, down, pivoting up and down octaves, etc).

Or another simple approach is to combine triad pairs. For instance if you take any 2 adjacent diatonic triad pairs in a given key (ex. F, G in the key of C) you'll get a 6 note scale that contains that entire key minus a note. So then by alternating back and forth between playing an F triad arpeggio and then a G triad arpeggio in various inversions you'll be covering a lot of ground and playing most of the notes in the key of C. But the triads will sound more melodic than simple scale steps.

Those will get you sounding more melodic within a single chord, but then you need to sound like you're playing over changes as opposed to single chords. Look into using target notes (hitting essential chord tones on the down beat when changing to a new chord) and more specifically into guide tones (using the 3rd and 7th degrees to connect chords via a half step).

For instance, given a ii-V-I in C you have Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7. The 7th of the Dm7 (C) at end of one measure can move a half step down to the 3rd of the G7 (B) on the first beat of the chord change. Then you can do the same thing with the G7 by moving from the 7th (F) down to the 3rd (E) of the Cmaj7. Using these guide tones will get you those lines that flow through chords and sound never-ending instead of sounding like you're playing individual phrases over each chord.

And of course, there are plenty of other things to think about like quoting and altering the original melody, stealing idiomatic licks from records (if want it to you it to sound like "jazz", then steal and analyze some licks from jazz records that you like), etc. But thinking in chord tones and how they connect between changes will get you a good part of the way there.


Forget scales and chords for now. The algorithm you want:

  1. Find some jazz you like. Pick a tune with a solo you love that isn't too complicated. Ideally something you know so well that it's almost memorized.
  2. Try to sing the solo (or just part of it, to start).
  3. Try to play the solo on your instrument, or part of it.
  4. Try singing your own solo along with the song. (Or if you have some sort of play-along version of the same tune, that could be ideal. Band-in-a-box or iReal Pro or Aebersold play-alongs.)
  5. Try to play something like the solo you just sang.
  6. Go back to step 1.

In fact, if you get stuck at any point along the way, you can always go back to step 1, it's an important step.

The idea is to get the basic language drilled into your brain, and to develop your listening and playing-by-ear skills along the way.

OK, and actually don't really forget scales and chords. You'll find they give you some framework that helps you identify what you're hearing. But it's probably best if you learn to sing them and how to recognize them when you hear them, and not just how to play them.

Disclaimer: I play terrible attempts at jazz solos. But to the extent they sound like attempts at jazz solos, and not just random noodling, I credit some listening and transcribing.


While noodling has its place, it is not a good strategy for learning jazz guitar. Listen to tons of jazz. Identify phrases that interest you and try to play them; try to figure out what keys the phrases are in, and play them everywhere on the neck, in every key.

I would suggest learning the triads everywhere on the neck of the guitar (major, minor, augmented, diminished). These can be a base for chord-building, but also can be used to construct solos that outline the harmonies of a song. Apply this new knowledge to some Standards, creating solos from only chord-tones; try to work in some of the phrases you have lifted from your favorite tunes. Once you gain some facility with triads, you can add some color with flatted fifths, sixths, ninths, elevenths, etc. Or you can do some chord substitutions with the triads. You can get a lot of mileage out of triads, and then use scales to build on this base.

But, the best thing you could do is find a good teacher to guide you through the beginning of this lifelong process.


Focus on Rhythm, Not Harmony

I would suggest that the root of your issue is not harmonic, but rhythmic. Your post suggests that you're already in very good shape harmonically. It also seems like you probably have good technical control too. You've made good scale choices, you're already emphasizing the 1, 3, 5, and 7 of each chord, and you're using some passing tones (chromatic leading tones go a long way to make lines sound jazz-y). You're using pentatonic scales too, which can sound really nice when played immediately after/before scalars lines with chromatic passing tones.

So you're already doing things right, harmonically speaking. We can probably rule that out as the main problem, which leaves rhythm as a likely area to focus on. In fact, the issue you've described is extremely common among players who are technically proficient but new to jazz.

Rhythmic Phrasing

On guitar and piano, the challenge to play something rhythmically interesting is greater because nothing forces us to break up our phrases. By contrast, horn instruments have to think about phrasing, because they must stop playing every now and then to take a breath. But piano and guitar can play eighth notes ad nauseum with no pauses or rhythmic variations. It doesn't take long for this to stop sounding like jazz. Phrasing is really important in improvisation.

There are a lot of ways to introduce more rhythmic diversity into our playing. David Berkman told me once to choose a player who excels in this (he mentioned Kenny Kirkland) and transcribe & learn to play many their solos. One of the all-time greatest masters of this was Charlie Parker. And in general, you'll find a lot of interesting rhythmic variation in bebop music. The dotted quarter is a cornerstone of those rhythms. Transcribing full lines and phrases is ideal, but you can also try simply adding dotted quarter spacing between two notes. For example, if you play four eighth notes and end the phrase on the upbeat of 2, then you can start your next string of eighth notes on the downbeat of 3. Another technique--which is somewhat similar to the dotted quarter--is the use of a repeating 3-beat cross-rhythmic pattern. For example, here's four bars of bebop-style improvisation in F major:

enter image description here

The very first phrase is played first starting on beat 1, and then a second time starting on beat 4. We could repeat this lick a third time, starting on beat 2 of measure 2. This is a 3-beat lick, and repeating it a few times creates a nice cross rhythm to the 4/4 time. This rhythmic tension catches the ear. At the end of measure 3, we also see the dotted quarter spacing, which interrupts the eighth-note lick. The C on beat 3 is followed by a B♭ on the "and" of 4. This adds rhythmic variety, which makes the line rhythmically interesting and gives it a jazz-y/bebop-y feel.

Eighth Note Groupings & Accentings

As described above, we often hear bebop musicians achieving rhythmic variation through rests and/or variations in note duration. The dotted quarter is a quintessential note spacing. But there are other ways to create this rhythmic grouping, structure, diversity. Even if you're playing a long run of eighth notes, you can still create rhythmic emphasis by grouping notes a specific rhythmic pattern:

enter image description here

This is a Charlie Parker-esque lick, and you can hear something similar on his 1942 version of Cherokee at ~1:41. Every note has the same duration and there are no rests. But despite this, we still see a 3-beat, 3-beat, 2-beat rhythmic pattern. I've highlighted the first note in each grouping. The 3-3-2 pattern appears in the first two bars and again in the last two bars. The 3-beat group contains 6 quarter notes, and it effectively creates the same 3-beat cross rhythm discussed above. The accents contribute to this rhythmic pattern, emphasizing the first note in each group (among other things).


Beyond rhythm, there is one last element to the playing that can make your lines sound like jazz: the feel. We want the lines to swing. This doesn't necessary mean playing swung eighth notes. In a lesson, Gary Smulyan once told me that modern swing means playing straight eighths slightly behind the beat with a small accent on upbeats. Finding a good swing feel can go a long way to improving the sound of lines that are already harmonically interesting.

  • 1
    Thank you for great answer. Its hard to pick one over the others but I think your on to something. I have always enjoyed rush type of abrupt rhythm change to I am at least aware of rhythm, but I probably do every thing in 3/4 time and 3 notes per string due to my neglect for rhythm. Probably needs more of my attention. Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 16:06

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