How to Improvise Jazz

How to Improvise Jazz Piano – Bebop Piano Lesson


The Struggle of Jazz Improvisation.

As jazz piano students, the road to jazz improvisation seems like an unending path of failure and frustration. No matter how much we study or how many scales and arpeggios we practice, our solos end up sounding scaly and disconnected. For some reason, we don’t seem to find a solution to make our improvisation sound like real jazz.

The issue arises from our over reliance on the ‘Chord-Scale’ relationship that we obtain from the Harmonic Analysis we learn in our Modern Harmony lessons. When we employ this approach to create our improvisation, our solos end up sounding stiff and disconnected. They sound more like exercises rather than actual solos.

In this article we are going to take a different approach, we are going to go beyond the scales and dive into the heart of the bebop language to find that elusive solution we are looking for to be able to make our solos sound with that authentic ‘Bebop Jazz Flavor’ we’d like to have in our improvisation.

Trap in Scales.

The traditional approach relies on using the scales we get from the harmonic analysis. Sure, on a II-V-I progression, we can use the Dorian scale over the Dm7, the Mixolydian over the G7, and the Ionian over the Cmaj7.

Harmonic Analysis

But that doesn’t truly capture the soul of jazz, in fact, it often leads to disjointed phrases lacking that ‘signature flair’ of the Bebop Language.

The Scales Rhythmic Issue.

The main problem with these traditional 7-note scales is that they have an “odd” number of notes, and therefore they do not divide well in our 4/4 beat. As a result, our solos get out of context throwing off our melodic balance. In the example below, notice how as the scale goes ascending the tonal centers get out of beat by falling in the weak parts of the measure.

Major Scale

(The green notes are the tonal centers that fall on the downbeat, and the red notes are the tonal centers that go offbeat)

Bebop Scales. The Rhythmic Fix.

The solution proposed in jazz is adding an extra note to the scales turning them into rhythmically even 8-note scales, in which all of our tonal centers fall on the downbeats, thus eliminating that “off-beat” feeling.

From Scales to Target Notes. The Bebop Lexicon.

Instead of memorizing endless scale patterns. The real key to improvising bebop lies in the use of ‘Target Notes,’ which are the notes of the chord, also known as our ‘Tonal Centers’. Think of them as stepping stones in our melodic journey. The bebop language revolves around these tonal centers, moving through them using ‘melodic devices’ such as ‘approach notes’ and ‘enclosures’ to create that melodic motion characteristic of the bebop sound.

Approach Notes.

Approach notes are when we approach our ‘target note’ using the adjacent notes above or below. We have two different types of approach notes, ‘chromatic’ and ‘diatonic.’

Approach Notes


An enclosure is when we surround our ‘target notes’ with the adjacent notes. Just like with the approach notes, we also have chromatic and diatonic enclosures.


Using Target Notes.

If we use our ‘target notes’, over CMaj7 our tonal centers are going to be the notes of the chord, (C, E, G, B).

Target Notes

Now, we create an outline placing our target notes in the strong parts of the measure. In this example, we are going to go through our target notes in a downward motion from C, to G, to E, to B, then from C, to G, and end on E.

Last, we are going to create our melodic line using our melodic devices, alternating between Enclosures and Approach notes.

Bebop Phrase

Watch the video to follow the construction of this bebop phrase step by step, and how can we use it over a typical Jazz Chord Progression. After that, we can compare the difference of using the ‘Chord/Scale’ relationship vs. using the ‘Target Notes’ technique – the difference is like going from black and white to technicolor!

A Shift in Paradigm.

Moving through our ‘Target Notes’ using approach notes and enclosures, will unlock the door to an improvisation that breathes, evolves, and shines with that bebop sound we always wanted.

Of course, to become master improvisers we need to learn all of our musical materials by heart, all of our intervals, our chords, arpeggios, and scales, in every key and every inversion, only then we will be able to achieve fluency but at least now, we know what to aim for.

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