I'm enjoying improvising melodies over simple chord progressions. I record a simple strumming pattern and bass line with my loop station and just play. However, no matter how creative I find my notes, I'm finding it really hard not to play along with the rhythm of the bass line or the strumming.

What can I think about or change about my perspective to "free" my rhythm and be able to improvise the rhythm as well, play notes on the off-beats etc?

I have no problem playing "unrelated" rhythms if I practice them beforehand, but as soon as I'm improvising I fall back to hit the notes along with the bass or strum.

4 Answers 4


Go back to playing basic notes - the pentatonic scale will do. Se t the metronome for around 80-90 bpm. Play notes on each beat. So far, so simple! Then play on beats 1,2 3, not 4. Then try beats 1,2 not 3 but 4, all for several bars. There are several different combinations to try, using similar ideas. Then try 1,2,3,4, 1-3- in two bar sequences. The idea is keep it simple, but change timing. Play only on 2,3 and 4 - nod your heard where 1 is.

Then re-set metronome to 60-70 bpm, and play quavers - all 8 in a bar. The tune doesn't matter, yet, but keep moving. Then miss out on maybe notes nos. 3 and 6, or 2 and 7. There are many, many different combinations, and writing down their rhythms in some way will stop you repeating! If it's easier, keep to only 3 or 4 different notes.

None of this will sound too musical, that's not the point.

Then imagine the metronome is not playing what most people imagine, beats 1,2,3 and 4, but the off beats - the & in between. Play against that. Go back to the 8s, and make beat 1 a root note, every two bars - all the time playing to one chord/set of pent. notes. After that, you can come up with more complex stuff, playing the changes too. That's because you'll know where you are in the bar, and then will only use the backing track as a guide.

There's enough variety in rhythms there to play without repeating a pattern for months!


Good question. I've thought about ways to make my own solos rhythmically more varied for a long time, and so far I've come up with the following tricks:

  • Sing the solo at the same time, singing and playing in unison. Rhythmically, but why not the pitches as well. At least for me, tying my playing with the "speaking part" of my brains makes me play different things, and makes me switch away from rhythm/accompaniment mode.
  • A bonus feature for singing or at least exhaling along with your solo is, your phrases become more lyrical and human, like lines of a poem.
  • Pick an existing line of text and sing or "sing" its rhythm with your instrument. Or maybe even try to mimic your natural way of speaking. Any line of text is ok. Try "Hello audience! This is my way of soloing. Would you like fries with that?"
  • "Sing" in another language! Different languages have different emphasis in rhythmic emphasis, dynamics and intonation (pitch variations). "Smörgåsbord med fisk, sauerkraut och bra musik."
  • Think that you're playing another instrument's line from a different genre, like some latin percussion rhythms.
  • Practice and play polyrhythms that repeat like every 7/8ths. They will help you break the rhythm pattern for sure. :)
  • Imagine that you're playing a drum solo. Listen to drum solos and pick up rhythmic ideas.
  • Syncopate deliberately, mute or play a "tied note" over every beat.
  • Pick an existing song melody you like and just change the pitches.
  • Listen to and learn to play existing solos, mimic whatever you can remember from them.
  • I've used similar tactics with students, like having a conversation, first speaking the words, then repeating with the same timing in a certain key. Then it's my turn, and so on. Takes a bit of getting in to, but leads nicely into sharing solos, trading fours, etc.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 17:02

I think this may be a common issue. When we Improv we are drawing on what we know, what is muscle memory. I would guess that your strumming patterns are some of the most ingrained patterns. I don't know how many years you've been practicing or playing but if you're like most people you started playing songs you like, drilled them over and over until they were memorized, and maybe embellished them a little.

That last part IS IMPROV. For most people improvisation = variation on a theme. Although that is not the only school of thought. You may have taken lessons are worked though a standard method book, some recital pieces etc.

One common misconception is that you cannot improvise if you are playing rehearsed lines. This is far from true and in fact (in my experience) one need to go through a period of time where you (1) play trough other people's solos, (2) transcribe solos you like, (3) write your own solos and licks, all before you can really improvise freely without a preconceived rehearsed idea of what you'll play. Through this process you can explore new melodic ideas as well as new rhythmic ideas, phrasing, etc. In time you will begin to develop your own unique style that isn't rehearsed. The irony, imo, is that the key to being unrehearsed is years of rehearsing.


Much could be said in this regard, but let me mention a couple of simple things that you can do immediately to improve your improvisation.

1. Practice playing continuous 8th notes throughout

I got this tip from a guitarist who in turn got it from Jim Hall during a private guitar lesson.

Practice improvising throughout the tune using only 8th notes (i.e. two notes on every beat) and without any rest.

This will force you to become fluent with the whole piece, because you cannot take a break from playing when you run out of ideas, and you cannot mechanically fall into some habitual lick.

Once you're able to play continuous 8th notes throughout, go back to improvise in any way you like, and you'll find that you can do it a lot better than before.

2. Think rhythm first, notes later

Decide in advance the rhythmic structure of the next phrase, and once that's decided, improvise the notes that will fill it.

You can also write in advance a few rhythmic structures on a piece of paper, and then, while you improvise, follow one or the other.

After you do this for a while, and become good at filling up with notes some pre-decided rhythmic patterns, go back to improvise freely, and again you'll find that your improvisation quality has improved.

(The latter tip was mentioned by Dizzy Gillespie as one of his own strategies during practicing and live improvisation)

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