Improvising – A simple Guide Part I

Fear of improvising

Many people are often afraid of improvising and the fear of having no music in front of you can be just too much for some classically trained musicians.

Well if you have always wanted to just let go of the need to have music in front of you but didn’t know where to start, here is a series of simple steps that will have you improvising in absolutley no time.

The first thing to remember is that it may well feel like you just have to make everything up on the spot and just play.  This really is not the case – improvisation is just about listening to the chord changes, working out what notes are available for you to use and then putting together some riffs or ideas that you may well have worked out in advance.

Now you may think that what I have just suggested is like cheating, but it really isn’t.  The only way to understand it is to work with a few simple ideas and then develop and embellish as your confidence grows.

Try not to play all of the notes and work on trying to produce elaborate rhythmic and melodic ideas straight away.  This will come with lots of practice and even more listening.


Improvisation is a skill and can be learned, developed and honed with time and practice.  Here is a step by step process that will get you started and help to develop a few ideas.  (Please remember that this is only Part I and the skills I am discussing take time to develop).

  1. We are going to work in the key of C to provide note names and chord names.
  2. We will use the 12 bar blues chord progression.
  3. We will use the blues scale starting on C.
  4. After a little work we will add the blues scale starting on F and G as well.

The 12 bar blues chord progression consists of just the three chords C, F and G.  In the audio example you will be using, you might hear that these don’t quite sound like ordinary chords.  There is a reason for this!  I have added in the 7th to create a dissonance.  If you are not quite sure what that means, please don’t worry at the moment, we will discuss this in Part II.

Here is the 12 bar blues chord progression:

what-brass-players-want-improvising-a-guideThe blues scale on C uses the following notes:

C, D, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb and C

Try playing these notes on your instrument a few times and see what it sounds like.  You may well notice it sounds a bit like C major and C minor all kind of jumbled up.  This is because of the third (Eb) and seventh (Bb) note of the scale.  These are known as the blues notes.

Using the Backing Track

To start off with, it is perfectly acceptable for you to try playing the first note of the scale with a repeated rhythm.  So the note C can be repeated with varying rhythms.  In jazz music it is usual to swing the quaver rhythms that you play. So where you would normally play quavers (think the word Cof-fee), think of the word jum-per and make the first syllable slightly longer than the second.

Click here for the backing track in the key of C.

When you get more familiar with the rhythm and style, try adding more notes, for example use C and Eb.  Then add a third note (C, Eb and G), a fourth (C, Eb, F, and G) a fifth (C, Eb, F, G and Bb) and then just go for it!  For now, just use the notes of the blues scale on C for the whole of the 12 bar blues.

Aim to develop little riffs or melodic ideas that you can repeat over and over again as the chord changes.

Extending your Ideas

When you are feeling more confident with that, try using the blues scale on F and on G corresponding with when the chords change.

Here are the notes for the three blues scales that you can use:


I hope this provides you with a good starting point to begin to develop your confidence to have a go.  It really is good fun, and please do remember that it is not (usually) possible to just be brilliant at this right from the outset.  Give yourself a break, celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes and you will find that things will start to fall into place.

If you play a Bb instrument (such as a clarinet, trumpet, cornet, euphonium, trombone, or Bb Bass), an Eb instrument (such as a tenor horn or an Eb Bass) or a French horn please note that this backing track will not work for your instrument!  You will either need to transpose the blues scales into the correct key, or transpose the backing track so that it works with your instrument.  Because of file size I am not able to upload all files here, so if you would like a complimentary copy of the backing track and/or transposed scales for your instrument, please do email ( me directly and I will send them over to you.

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