A Useful Framework for Soloing on Jazz Standards

There are many ways to approach improvisation, from the use of Key Scales to Chord Notes/Chord Scales and all manner of Chromatics.  Option anxiety, in fact, may be one of the main problems when it comes to putting together a meaningful solo.  Too many possibilities can freeze you in your tracks, and your ‘brain’ isn’t any help at all.   



It’s always good to remember that there are (in our system at least) only twelve notes to play with.  Seven of these (again, in our system) define the Key, leaving only five left for ‘other purposes.’  The odds are in our favour when it comes to soloing on the Key Scale.

Keys tend to be well defined in Jazz Standards.  Along with the key of the overall piece there are most often a couple of new temporary key areas introduced as the tune progresses.  The most straight     forward approach to soloing involves simply playing on the appropriate Key Scale and using your ear to find the notes for your melody.  You will, of course, have to change the Key Scale as various temporary key areas crop up, so it’s important to note where these occur. 

For the Minor Keys you will, of course, be using combinations of the Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic MInors.  Key Scale soloing in the Minor Keys tends to work very well.

This is a great way to solo, as your ear and not your head is the guiding light, and your ear will         ALWAYS be better than your head when it comes to making music.  (See the ‘Something To Say’ workshop)

The first question that comes up in Key Scale soloing, usually is, “So what happens when I run across Secondary Dominants (e.g. A7 in the Key of C), or Modal Variants?  (e.g. Fm6 in the Key of C)” Well, that’s what the other five notes are for, and there are two ways to approach them: 

  • Simply continue to use your ear to find the additional note – a wonderful idea. 
  •  Pay attention to the chord sounding at that moment, identify the altered note, and incorporate it into your solo.  (We are starting to ‘think’ at this point.  Make a note.  This thinking business will be coming up again).

There is, of course one more possibility, and that is to avoid the altered note altogether.  Many Jazz Standards have melodies that stay strictly on the Key Scale regardless of the harmony underneath them – something to keep in mind.

One of the best tools in Key Scale Improvising is the use of passing notes where useful.  They add flow, and can often be used to ‘round out the line’ rhythmically in a passage 

The advantage of Key Scale Improvising is that you are forced to use your ear; you are forced to be musical.  Once we move to focusing on individual chords, the intellect becomes more involved in the transaction …  it’s that apple in the garden business … Pandora’s box and all that.  It opens up all   manner of possibilities, but at a price.   Still, it does allow all kinds of clever substitutions at the chord level, so let’s join Adam and take a bite. 


Learning chord arpeggios up to the ninth has always been the standard suggestion for Jazz musicians.  You can, of course, take arpeggios right up the thirteenth, but they get a tad cumbersome, a tad turgid, unless you have something particular in mind.

The way to use chord notes traditionally has always been to use them in conjunction with the key scale.  They add an automatic lift to the solo and solve the problem of too much horizontal (scalewise)    movement.  The mind is now much more involved in the process, however, and there is that tendency to get ‘clever’ and start ‘running arpeggios,’ … very impressive … for a while … but it quickly becomes tiresome.  Again, let your ear be the guide.

One of the best ways to use arpeggios is to use approach notes from above and below, (usually a scale note above and a chromatic note below).  You can also use both to good effect (delayed melodic     resolution).

One of the advantages of using chord notes is we can now utilize altered notes in our chords, (#5, b9 on dominant sevenths for example), and see exactly how they are working on the chord itself.  We can also as work with chord substitutions such as the tritone or b5 sub. as well as the many possibilities for reharmonization and moving ‘outside.’  


Chord Scales are simply the ‘horizontal’ (scalewise) version of chord arpeggios.  They can be used the same way except that they lack that vertical lift an arpeggio gives you and, in fact, they sound much like horizontal lines produced on the Key Scale (which, of course, is what they are – the Modes – their     Tonics placed on each degree of the Key Scale.)  So why bother with them at all? 

Well, very often it’s a good idea to isolate the scale that represents a given chord so you can work with substitutions more efficiently.  One example might be the use of the Ascending Melodic Minor (Jazz Minor) in place of the Dorian Mode on the IIm.  But that’s only the beginning.

Once we enter the world of substitution (of both chords and scales) the top to Pandora’s box is flung wide open to the altered modes from the Harmonic/Melodic families as well as the   Symmetric scales in the Diminished/ Whole Tone families, all manner of pentatonic and hexatonic subs as well as various manufactured scales … in short … every damn scale imaginable.  Slonimsky, in fact, wrote a book … well … don’t read it unless you have a strong constitution.

On top of that, we have to deal with George Russell’s contention that a chord, as separate little        universe, must have a chord scale that truly represents its vertical character, and in the case of the Major Triad, that scale is NOT the Ionian or Major Scale but the Lydian Mode.  You wanna talk about        Pandora’s box!   Yahoo! … I love this stuff … but I digress … 


Behind all is, of course, is the Chromatic Scale – a place where all notes are available and, if you      adhere to Schoenberg’s philosophy, equal.  For the purposes of the Jazz Standards,   however, we will be raining on Arnold’s parade a little and taking the step of identifying one of those notes as the Tonic, this music being, if nothing else, monumentally tonal.  

Handled well, ANY note in the Chromatic Scale will fit ANY chord.  Between passing notes, approach notes and the like, we use chromatics all the time.  But the Chromatic scale offers us much more than that.  With all 12 notes available, all manner of extravagant excursions can take place, all kinds of     superimpositions can show up, all of it coming under the general heading of ‘playing outside’.


So let’s review all this: 

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ve defined three distinct ways of looking at improvising through the changes of the average Jazz Standard:  Key Scale, Chord Note/Chord Scale, and Chromatically, each with its own level of complexity and set of requirements.

In my opinion, sticking with any one of these frameworks is a fool’s errand.  So how do we combine three levels of focus in a real improvising situation when the changes are coming thick and fast?   Well, how about we construct a framework where all of this stuff can come together with some kind of grace.

First off, let’s picture the Chromatic Scale as the backdrop to the whole business – the ‘canvas’ of the painting so to speak. This is the Chromatic Level.  Picture these notes in gray. 

Because the melody and harmony of the majority of Jazz Standards spring from our  Major/Minor     system, we’ll use the Key Scale of the piece as the basis for the solo.  This is the Key Scale Level.  Picture these in black – e.g.: C D E F G A B C for the Key of C Major.  These will change, of course, with any temporary key areas introduced.

Next, let’s visualize the Four Note Chords as they fly by on the chart.  These should be in colour,    lighting up as the chord sounds – CMaj7 – C E G B,    G7 – G B D F and so on.  This is the  Chord Level.  We can add to these notes if we choose, all the way up to the thirteenth if we care to, or we can use the appropriate Chord Scale.  Any substitute chords or scales can also be used, but the reference structure should remain the four note chord.

What you want to do is ‘dip into’ whatever level tickles your fancy at any given time.  This is, after all, PLAYING.  Each level will give you something, support you in some way.  Apply whatever approach you care to.  Do you want to play Horizontally?  Vertically?  How much tension do you want to use?  How much density?  Clarity?  It’s up to you. There is only one weazel clause in any of this – you must play music.  Dicking around doesn’t count.  That means creating a coherent melody.  That melody can be as simple, complex or outside as you want, as long as it has that coherence.  This, of course, involves the Muse.  (See the ‘Assembling Coherent Solos’ Workshop.   

There are no soloing examples here.  They wouldn’t be yours.  Your best solos will always come out of your own head and heart, and they come through experimentation and playing.