Learning to improvise over chord changes part

Learning to improvise over chord changes part 1.

Mastering The Circle of Fourths.

Take a look at the chord progressions of most tunes you find in the Real Book.

(for example Autumn Leaves, All the things you are, Cherokee, Have You Met Miss Jones and countless others)

About 80 % of the root movements are steps of fourths. These steps are the backbone of the harmony of many tunes. So being able to hear and play them helps a LOT when improvising your melodies over these changes. If you keep going up a fourth you will eventually end at the same place you started, it’s a cycle.  You’ll find these steps of fourths  if you go counter clockwise in this picture.








Start by committing these steps of fourths to memory.

Learn it like you have learned your ABC.  In fact the alphabet contains a lot more letters so this should be fairly easy. The point is that you need to learn this cycle in time. When you play your saxophone you don’t  have the time to think about the next step. Practice this sequence until you can name the next key without hesitation. You can practice this without playing your saxophone; for instance while walking. If you are able to name the next root every other step you are well on your way.

Now start playing these notes  in time on your saxophone. Set your metronome on 60 and play each note on every other beat. Speed it up until you can play it on every beat at 60.

By practicing these steps on your saxophone you train yourself to hear the roots moving through the cycle of fourths. After a while you will be able to recognize these steps a lot easier when they occur in songs.

The next step is to build chords on every root. Start by adding the third and fifth note of the scale.  Now you’re playing major triads on every root. This is three times harder then just playing the root so take your time. We’ll worry about the other chords (minor, dominant, half diminished etc) later, this is a good starting point to learn your chords.

So your basic exercise should sound like this:










Let me give you some tips to master this.

Study tip #1:

Most people run in to trouble on the middle section (bars 5 to 8).

So start there, divide and conquer ! Play the triads of Ab and Db (which could also be called C# by the way) while reading them from the sheet. Then turn around and play them without looking at the sheet.  Repeat the same process for the triads on F# and B.

Once you have mastered these separate groups it’s time to combine them and play all four in a row. Practice this until you can do it effortlessly, without thinking about the notes. If you can do this you have completed the most difficult part, congrats !

Expanding this to bars 1 to 4 and 9 to 12 is what you need to do next. Use the same method if it works well for you.

Study tip #2:

Practice the triads slow and slurred. Start with even eights before you move on to swing.

Start with the metronome on 60 (quarter note). Playing the notes slurred will expose your flaws in finger movement.  Practice until you can play all the triads cleanly.

Study tip #3:

Be careful not to rush. Every fourth beat is a rest. You can hear the metronome loud and clear on this beat since you’re not playing a note here. Make sure the click of the metronome is exactly where you expect it to be, especially on this fourth beat.  On every triad. If the click seems a little late you’re rushing. 

Study tip #4:

Reverse the pattern so you can play the triads descending as well as ascending. Like this:









In the next post I will talk some more about how to improvise with these triads, but this is what you need to master first.  It takes time. Be patient.

Good luck !

Saxophone Improvisation tips

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