Checklist for jazz piano solos
Here is your checklist of jazz piano solos with 12 essential tips.
(This is an extract from my fourth eBook: Learn jazz Piano: How To Solo.)
1) Chords belong to families.
A chord rarely exists in its own right and is far more likely to have a relationship within a family. It has usually come into being as a result of the chord that precedes it and then exerts a powerful influence over the chord that follows it. This is cause and effect. Chords are very often grouped into key centres. In other words a group of chords belong to the same key.
So, rather than treating each chord individually, try to see the whole picture.
- Chords form into sequences that often belong to one key centre.
- If you can identify a group of chords you can then play a line through that sequence.
Once you begin to recognize these sequences and start stringing them together you will grasp the map of a tune.
2) Threes and sevens
This is the second important point in your checklist for jazz piano solos. Your lines should be largely defined by the 3’s and 7’s within each chord. This is particularly relevant for dominant 7 chords but also applicable when a minor chord functions as II or VI. By identifying these notes ‘on the fly’ your solos will make far more sense harmonically.
3) Barlines don’t exist
Barlines are not signposts ordering you to stop and start. If you have a secure inner pulse and can feel where beat 1 is, you can then drive through barlines rather letting them dictate.
4) Your left hand isn’t a marker
If your chords are still mainly coming down on beat 1, then it’s likely that your left hand is serving little musical purpose. Both hands should be contributing creatively.
5) Know your ‘ands’.
Where do your phrases begin and end? Rather than always starting on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4, launch your phrase from the ands of these beats
6) Swing 8s.
There needs to be a constant feel of swing 8s, whether ore not you are actually playing them. They are always there ‘in the ether.’
7) Play from tension into release.
A dominant 7 chord contains tension, which is released on arrival at the tonic. Therefore your phrase peaks and then falls. Once you’ve plateaued at the tonic you could take a breath, as there may be less or nothing to say.
8) Invention, not regurgitation
Improvisation is about creation and exploration, not the reuse of ready-made phrases and licks. Play with a fresh and open mind as though you are discovering and exploring the piece for the first time. The more your mind is racing with scales, modes and altered chords the less room there will be for spontaneous creativity.
There should be some feeling of risk, as though walking a tightrope. Your safety net is the work that you’ve already put it. Now it’s time to let go. When you are in the zone, you are doing something very special: you are composing in the moment and this should be exciting and exhilarating. Your solo should feel like newly discovered terrain rather than a well-trodden path.
9) Develop your ideas
Study the structure of a good song. It will begin with a strong idea and then repeat and develop this idea melodically and rhythmically. The same applies to soloing. Sometimes simplicity can be more effective than a flurry of ideas. Avoid the temptation to start your solo with all guns blazing.
10) Employ dynamics
As in any composition, there are many types of musical expression that can be applied to your solo.
- Employ a variety of accents on both notes and chords.
- Vary your volume.
- Move between legato and staccato.
11) No sheet music
Sheet music is just information and the sooner you discard it, the better. Looking at a sheet of paper is yet another distraction from the job in hand. Music is an aural, not visual activity.
12) Play with others
Yes, I’ve said it before, but books, videos and backing tracks will only get you so far. The majority of improvised music is played with other musicians. Do whatever it takes to meet like-minded players, whatever their experience or instrument. It is by listening and interacting with others that moves your playing forward.
If you don’t have books 1 – 4 of Learn Jazz Piano you can buy them by following