Beginning Jazz Soloing: A Melody First Approach

Bass player - photo by Valeria Guerrero

Some methods of learning jazz improvisation start out from the beginning by asking us to memorize chords, scales, and to play patterns in every key. For those unaccustomed to improvising, or inexperienced in theory, starting out this way can be a daunting task. It can make the learning curve for improvisation seem insurmountable. Some people take naturally to it, of course, but such a process can cause others to give up the attempt altogether.

Below are a few suggestions for beginning improvisers who want a less intensive beginning. For all these steps, I suggest using a play-a-long recording or app to play the changes behind you.

Learn Some Melodies

One good way to make the transition for “reader” to “improviser” is to learn the melodies to a boatload of tunes and internalize them. Memorize the melodies to twenty, thirty, or more, tunes in the same general style. After a time you will begin to feel comfortable with where melodies tend to go, how they progress, and how they are designed. Before you know it, you will start hearing your own ideas when you hear a set of chord changes.

Once you are feeling comfortable playing a batch of melodies, it’s time for the next step.

Embellish Those Melodies

Play the melodies you just learned, over the changes, but change the melody just a little bit. Alter the rhythm here. Add a chromatic note in that bar. Play a pick-up note to that bar. Anticipate the next bar by playing a short run to the downbeat….You get the idea. Try things out, and discover what sounds good to you.

Stick as close to the original melody as you need, but experiment and keep making small changes. If you don’t like what you added to the melody one time around, do something different the next time. Try something each time you play the tune, until you find some things you like. Repeat each melody multiple times, until you are comfortable embellishing it.

Do this with as many tunes as you know. Stay at this step until you feel relaxed about embellishing the melodies you learned earlier.

Create Your Own Melody

Now it is time to step out even further. While the changes play behind you on a familiar tune (from above), create your own melody using just your ear and your knowledge of the original melody.

Don’t worry too much about any specific chord/scale relationships at this point. Even with the quick-changing chord progressions of many tunes, you can often improvise a melody that works by playing in a single key. At this point, keep it simple and just experiment. If creating a melody on your instrument is paralyzing, try humming or singing instead. Once you are comfortable with this, try playing what you sing on your bass.

When you can improvise a melody over a tune, you are, in fact, improvising. You can always play faster notes, cooler licks, hipper scales, but playing a melody you create on the spot is pretty much the essence of jazz soloing.

Keep Learning

Having an understanding of harmony and the practical application of theory is always helpful, and any jazzer will tell you it’s a lifelong learning experience. However, you don’t have to be a theory genius to get started. Keep it simple. Focus on finding your own melody over tunes you know. If you can do that, you are already on your way.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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Share your thoughts

  1. Great lesson! Tomorrow i will try to do it!

  2. jay Kilbride

    Why oh why is the mantra of electric bass education always “you don’t have to learn theory”… “Take the easy option” etc etc. Bottom line…This haphazard approach results in crap for 9/10 folk who use it…I’ve had to deal with the fallout from folks who “improvise” this way for years. Sure, it appeals to the base level bedroom player guitar-mag mentality that reading and theory “kill your creativity” – seriously, are you really going to be a trustworthy judge of what sounds good when dealing with chord progressions and harmony which is both new to you and beyond your comprehension? Ridiculous. If you want to get into Jazz improv you CANNOT do it without a certain level of harmonic and scalar knowledge. That’s a fact. It’s how the music works. And…you will get results MUCH faster than by noodling around. Always remember, theory simply explains what we hear – learn what you need for the music you play. If you don’t want to learn it, it’s fine – all that’ll happen is that you will restrict what kinds of music you can function within…fine for a lot of folk…NOT fine for Jazz

    • Jay, Dr D never once said “you don’t have to learn theory” or anything remotely close to it. He said this a “less intensive beginning” for those who find jumping straight in too daunting (and want to give up as a result). He also closes with “keep learning”.

      • Guy Halpe

        Absolutely Corey. And to add.. have a look at the Youtube interview with Jaco Pastorius where he says that too FEW bassists think melodies and think in chords and scales all the time, that’s why they all sound technically brilliant, and they all sound the same! I’ve been soloing melodically for years, and the first thing people say is “your solos are so different!”. Of course I can do with more technique, and of course I’m learning scales modes and chords. But that’s secondary to my melodic thinking.

    • Ant

      The piece didn’t say there’s one way to do it, it simply offered a ‘starting point’, designed to encourage, instead of the opposite. The concept may not appeal to your expertise but it might just enough to motivate a beginner. Don’t take something positive and run it off the rails, bass players don’t do that.

  3. Thanks for this column. It encourages me to stay on track. Paul McCartney is absolutely my favorite basses, but here lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Marcus Miller. MM is very creative and his technique is awesome. I think Paul and Marcus are indicative of what you are expressing in your column.

  4. Focus on the melody is SO important. Great article, thanks. I love innovative ways of thinking on bass. :)