I have been playing the alto saxophone for a while now. I have also improvised from time to time and have some theoretical and practical background on the instrument, harmony, scales, etc.

I have played several pieces from the Real Book in many ways with different bands and ensembles.

But after all, I feel that I'm failing at the basics of improvisation, and sometimes feel that I'm just throwing out notes without much sense or that I get into a dead end.

Which are the basics for improvisation? Where should I start both in theory and practice?


  • I think you will get answers targeted to your ability level if you specify how long you've been playing the saxophone, how long you've been playing jazz and how in depth your theoretical knowledge is (grade school level knowledge vs taking a college level theory course, you've research this on your own vs you have a private teacher who knows a lot about jazz etc) Just food for thought.
    – SRiss
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 18:29

4 Answers 4


Great Question, Edgar!

I'm guessing if you've played some of the Real Book and such that you've heard of Jamey Aebersold. If not, you definitely need to check him out and volumes 1, 2, 3, and 54 are very common for beginners.

However, if you've exhausted the Jamey Aebersold path and are still unsure of where to go, my best advice is to listen to Jazz Greats, listen to them again, and then listen some more. The best jazz musicians constantly listened to recordings and played along with them and/or transcribed (analyzing, if you have the theoretical background to) the solos. While you're listening you should be targeting your favorite licks. For me this is one. You need to find what saxophonists inspire you the most and learn their licks (such as Charlie Parker). After you learn their licks, learn them in every key. This is a common right of passage for all aspiring jazz musicians. As far as the legality of the issue, I cannot make a fully informed comment, but I can tell you it'd probably be bad news to steal another players lick and use it in a recorded commercially released CD. However, the culture of jazz is such that some players might do that and it'd be regarded as a "tip of the hat" to who ever you were quoting. If you can't afford to buy an entire jazz library, YouTube has some great videos and you can ask your teachers about the best jazz saxophonists for you to listen to right now or explore the world wide web yourself.

While the above is the most important thing you should be doing, you have other things you can do to develop raw material. The Vol 3 of the Aebersold has a variety of exercises over the ii-V-I progression (which is one of the most commom ones, you'll see in jazz. The entirety of "Autumn Leaves" is a collection of ii-V-I progressions) that you should learn in every key.

Additionally, take all the jazz scales you know and play them in thirds. For instance (in eighth notes): Bb-D-C-Eb-D-F-Eb-G-F-A-G-Bb-A-C-Bb. Bb-G-A-F-G-Eb-F-D-Eb-C-D-Bb-C-A-Bb. You can do this same pattern with any of the scales that Jamey Aebersold includes in his books (though I think it sounds awkward used on the blues scale).

Lastly, using all of your new found knowledge of what is idiomatic to jazz, write your own licks, learn them in all keys. While you are unlikely to ever hear someone call out "Autumn Leaves in Gb minor!" at a jam session, your hard work will allow you to take all of the fantastic ideas you have, and put them out on the horn.

What all of these activities have in common is they drill patterns into your fingers so that playing this lick or that scale become as automatic and easy to you as when you play a concert Bb scale. I can't count the number of times I've found myself quoting another jazz head while improvising because I've played it so many times. People quoting "If I Only Had a Brain" became an inside joke in my jazz band.

I will add one more thing, and that's imitation work. If you can find a cooperative friend who wants to play material with you, challenge the other person by playing something and having them imitate you without looking or reading music. Stat simple and get more complicated as you progress during the session. However, the goal is to learn, so if the person didn't get the lick right, play it again, emphasizing what they missed. Keep going (and simplifying if necessary) until they get it. Use your best judgment when you're challenging your partner too much.

So in order of importance:

  • Listen to jazz! (transcribe and analyze as you are able)
  • Learn the licks (in all keys!)
  • Learn the scales (and what chords they go with)
  • Learn the songs; I highly recommend memorizing them)
  • Play with friends; it's a great way to get new material and it's much more fun than doing it by yourself.

For theory, this was recommended to me. I honestly haven't read it, and can't vouch for it personally but it has been widely recommended to me and often referred to as "The Bible." Jazz theory can get insanely complicated. I'll leave pursuing it to your discretion. Keep in mind that jazz music start from and aural tradition, and very many jazz musicians haven't read music. Buddy Rich being among one of the more recent ones I know of. Learning by ear is something I fully endorse and is how I learned. Music theory came from analyzing the works of those such as J.S. Bach and figuring out what they did where and why they did it. Jazz theory has a history, and many players just toyed around with what they heard until they liked it (Notably, John Coltrane).

"If it sounds good, it is good"- Duke Ellington

  • The Jazz Theory Book is great. You should get around to reading it. Commented May 9, 2011 at 16:02

Other ideas that might help:

For all of the different types of chords that you know how to play, try out each of the twelve possible harmonic intervals that you can play above the root of that chord type, and understand the kind of sensations and emotions that each sound evokes.

Once you discover that you love the sounds of particular harmonic intervals played above a particular chord type, these have to become part of your vocabulary. These are the pitches that you will want to be able to grab and hold as you invent melodies. For myself, I especially love the sound of perfect 4ths held above minor chords and the sound of augmented 4ths above major chords.

You should practice how to approach and how to oscillate around these pitches melodically using both chromatic and diatonic motions.

For a chromatic approach, start a phrase a certain distance above or below a goal pitch and move by a sequence of half steps until the goal is reached and then hold the goal pitch for longer. For a chromatic oscillation, start on a chord or scale pitch and move a half step away up or down, move back to the start, then move by half step in the opposite direction and move back to home. You can also leave out the middle visit to the home pitch and jump from one side of home to the other before returning.

For a diatonic approach, move towards a goal pitch playing all of the scale tones from a starting point above or below until the goal is reached. For a diatonic oscillation move from a chord or scale tone to its nearest scale neighbors before returning to your starting pitch.

You should try to categorize for yourself if a particular interval played above a chord creates a tense or relaxing sensation. If an interval releases tension, it will be natural to use it as a resting or stopping place in your lines. If it increases tension, you'll feel as though it's dangerous to hold that pitch and you'll want to move quickly to another interval.

Thinking in these terms, you'll notice that certain pitches in the context of a particular chord type are seemingly magnetically attracted to other intervals. If you hear one type of interval, it will really satisfying to hear it followed by another particular interval. You'll also notice that pitches in one chord will be attracted to entirely different pitches as chords change in the accompaniment.

You should build a vocabulary of move sequences between two, three and four harmonic intervals that sound good within the span of a particular chord and then other sequences that sound good as you move across chord boundaries.

For any harmonic interval you choose to create, you'll want to know several other intervals that you can move to leave that sound.

When you move from one pitch to another, a characteristic melodic interval will be formed. You should know the sensations and emotional connotations of each of the different melodic intervals that you can produce. It's the combination of change of harmonic interval and simultaneous change of melodic interval that determines the meaning of each note that you play in a melody.

When you find a pitch that works over a particular chord in a chord progression, it helps to know what the lifetime of that pitch is as the progression is followed. If you hold a pitch as the accompanying chords change, each chord change will create a different harmonic interval between the chord root and the held pitch.

Your ear will tell you that once a particular successor chord arrives, it's not tenable to hold a particular pitch any longer. Any pitch that you hold will nearly always run into a musical wall if you hold it long enough, and you will need to know which pitches will sound good in the new chord change and move to one of those as you continue your line.

Rhythmically, you should eventually know what it feels like to start your line at any subdivision of a measure. You should know what it feels like to start a phrase on any of the beats within a measure. You should know what it feels like to subdivide each beat by 2,3,4,5,6,7 and 8, and to start playing at any of those beat subdivisions. Being able to vary the starting points of the phrases that you invent adds interest to a performance.

Melodic phrases in music typically move quickly at the start, hold a steady speed and then slow down or pause for longer duration to mark their end. You should study different ways to put a line in motion and different ways to stop or pause within it.

It's interesting to experiment with successions of different sized phrases. Accomplished improvisors know how to balance long phrases with shorter phrases. Many times the phrase successions of good improvisor will sound conversational because of the variety and balance of phrase lengths that they use.

It's interesting to experiment with the amount of space that you leave between phrases. Great improvisors have their own suprising ways to stop or pause as they play.


Improvisation begins with embellishment. Enhance a memorized tune by reworking the notes according to your own preference. Save the full out jazz solo for after you can personalize a tune.


As a complement to the other answers, have a look at Hal Crook's book "How To Improvise".

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